See It Soon: The Artist is Present

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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 Abramovi?. 

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 Abramovi?. 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 Abramovi?’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 Abramovi? sat in one of two chairs with a table in
between. The public was then invited to sit across from the silent Abramovi?.

Sounds easy enough, but Abramovi? sat in that chair everyday
and every hour the museum was open for three
. 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 Abramovi? 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 Abramovi? 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 Abramovi? 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 Abramovi?’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 Follow him on Twitter: @cwwilliams.

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