Brow Beat

A Galactical Trip with Marina Abramović

Marina Abramovic

Marina Abramović attends the Marina Abramović: The Artist Is Present  screening at MOMA on May 31 in New York City.

Photo by Andrew H. Walker/Getty Images

Marina Abramović: The Artist Is Present, which debuts on HBO tonight at 9 p.m. ET, is a gratifying documentary portrait of the Serbian performance artist. Filmmakers Matthew Akers and Jeff Dupre captured Abramović preparing and presenting the 2010 MoMA retrospective that minted her as a conceptual superstar with all the 21st-century trimmings—extended critical inquiry, attention on the society page, tributes from pop stars, and even a somewhat coherent James Franco think-piece. She first opens her mouth in the film while being styled for a photograph in advance of the MoMA show. “You know what is interesting? After 40 years of people thinking you’re insane and you should be put in mental hospital, you finally actually get all these acknowledgments,” she says, more imperial than impatient. The film moves to a shot of her forceful head saying, “It’s a long wait.”

A long wait—but stamina is much a part of her work. In 2010, Brow Beat ventured that Abramović knows one big thing very well: faut souffrir pour être belle. The artist suffers for beauty, as in 1975’s Art Must Be Beautiful, a self-portrait executed with memorable brushwork as she tears at her hair over her audience. At the center of the MoMA retrospective was an extended performance piece, also titled The Artist Is Present—a meditative marathon where she silently locked eyes with patrons. For seven hours a day, six days a week, a total of 736 hours, she exchanged emotional energy, or what have you, with museumgoers, face to face one at a time, in a space in the museum’s atrium, and some people had a beautiful time.

The film had its New York debut at the MoMA a few weeks back. The pre-screening cocktail hour gave way to the introductions, and the lights went down, and a compact entourage delivered Abramović to a table at The Modern, the restaurant next door. She wore a tuxedo jacket with military flair, over a black shirt, beneath a sweep of hair glossier than her grosgrain lapels. She ordered a tomato juice with Tabasco.

“Marina seduces everyone she ever meets,” says Klaus Biesenbach, who curated the MoMA show, in the film. “She’s never not performing.” Her particular star quality combines a relaxed athlete’s physical pride, a box-office star’s control of charm, and a high lama’s cultivated focus. She speaks English less than idiomatically, but she compensates by way of punch, firm emphasis, and touching your knee. The Modern dining room was noisy, and she said, “I think Susan Sontag, which I knew last four years of her life, she learned me a very important thing: Conversation has to be one-to-one, or it’s just socializing. This is why I did the silent party.”

Last winter, when the film went on the festival circuit, Ambramović got Veuve Clicquot to throw a couple receptions for her: This was a good light stunt. They were cocktail parties with no cocktail chatter. The guests matched lab coats to headphones, and they mimed and mouthed to mix. “Conversation is a kind of protection,” she said. “When you have nonverbal communication, it’s so much deeper. I always say it’s much better to use telepathy than telephone.”

She said, “Why nobody ask what we are going to eat?”

Oh, here’s…. “My name is Willem,” said Willem Dafoe. “I’ll be your waiter this evening.” Dafoe has gotten some nice reviews for his performance, opposite the artist, in a Robert Wilson theater piece titled The Life and Death of Marina Abramović. Willem just wants to say hi for a sec, because he hadn’t talked to Marina in half an hour, and they were excited to take the piece to Basel.

We got a real waiter. We got the steak tartare.

“And what do you do?” she asked us. The notebook’s spiral-bound brow cocked an eye: We were a writer? “Do you know Kim Stanley Robinson?” Abramović figures in the storyline of 2312, Robinson’s big new SF novel, which delights her, because she is keen on the idea of space travel, having exhausted herself into out-of-body experiences. “These pieces are great for galactical trips.” She was saying, “There is nowhere to escape except ourselves.”

She was continuing, “There is so much noise pollution. No—don’t write. Just close your eyes for one minute and listen.” The Modern din—we were wrapping up, and she was off to the post-screening talk. Before she went, she wondered, in a clinical tone: “So what is your impression of me?”

Marina Abramović’s “The Artist Is Present,” Now in 8-Bit!
Marina Abramović at MoMA