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Abstract Notions

Editor Christian Williams explores the nature of consciousness through art, culture, and spirituality.

See It Soon: The Artist is Present

marina abramovic 

Challenge your opinion of performance art with The Artist is Present – a fascinating film that documents the 2010 Museum of Modern Art performance art piece of the same name by Marina Abramović.   

On the heels of last week’s recommendation, I thought I’d continue working down my list of favorite art documentaries for this week’s pick.

The Artist is Present is a behind-the-scenes look at the impressive performance art piece of the same name by Serbian artist Marina Abramović. I’m recommending it because it’s the film that helped me appreciate the beauty and validity of performance art, and if you have any reservations about that form of expression as I once did, it may improve your opinion of it, too.

In case you weren’t keeping up with the New York media buzz surrounding the exhibit, here’s the background: In the spring of 2010, the Museum of Modern Art opened a retrospective on Abramović’s provocative 40-year-career with five reenactments of her most noteworthy performance pieces. The centerpiece of the show was a very simple concept where Abramović sat in one of two chairs with a table in between. The public was then invited to sit across from the silent Abramović.

Sounds easy enough, but Abramović sat in that chair everyday and every hour the museum was open for three months. By the end of the exhibit, she had sat for 700 hours and gazed into the eyes of more than 750,000 visitors. Not only was it a remarkable physical feat of endurance and stamina, but the artistic message behind the piece was powerful and long lasting for those fortunate enough to experience it.

As I’ve already mentioned, this film totally changed my opinion of performance art. Watching the process that Abramović went through to prepare for the exhibit both physically and mentally gave me a new perspective on the commitment required for such work, and the emotional impact of the exhibit itself surprised me with its poignancy. As Abramović gazes into the eyes of one stranger after another, you see how such a simple act can expose our vulnerability and break down the emotional barriers we use to hide our pain. As she says in the film, “When they’re sitting in front of me, it’s not about me anymore. I’m just a mirror to their own self.”

The question that always comes up with Abramović and her work is, “Is it art?” In my opinion, any form of human expression that helps one connect with their inner spirit is the essence of art. “The Artist is Present”—and the rest of Abramović’s work, for that matter—absolutely meet that criteria for me. Of course, you should watch the film and decide for yourself. The Artist is Present is currently available on DVD and video on demand, or you can watch it on YouTube.


Christian Williams is Editor in Chief of Utne Reader, and he also paints and makes music.View and listen to his work at www.christianwwilliams.com. Follow him on Twitter: @cwwilliams.