The Melbourne Film Festival is on. It’s quite a fashion display. You may be disappointed by the film, but never by the show in the foyer.
Last night, I wasn’t disappointed by the film either. It was a typical film festival film: a documentary about a Serbian, New York-based performance artist, Marina Abramovic called “The Artist is Present.” Although it briefly covered the artist’s career, and afforded a few glimpses into her private life, which also seems to be a continuous piece of performance art, for the most part it was really just about one retrospective exhibition of her work at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. This involved a group of young performance artists recreating some of her ‘historic’ performances, plus one new piece of work. In this she sat almost motionless in a chair every day for three months during the gallery’s opening hours, and members of the public queued to sit opposite her and gaze into her eyes.
So to sum up, it was a film that mainly consisted of shots of a woman sitting still, looking concentrated and fairly impassive while New Yorkers got emotional in front of her. It should have been completely painful. Instead, it was intriguing.
Abramovic’s performance was an impressive piece of ascetic practice. Sitting still for very long is painful, and she was in pain, although the pain eventually gave way to what she described as a state of compassion and beauty, feeling very light, with no boundaries between her body and her environment. This reminded me of my ten-day retreat experience of Goenka’s vipassana meditation practice (aka “bootcamp” for meditators). Goenka’s system similarly involves keeping the body very still, and working through the pain that results (physical, mental and emotional). Such discipline can be rewarded by experiences of blissful feeling, and a sense of the ordinary experience of the body dissolving into something much lighter and clearer.
To this Abramovic added the dimension of public performance and silent interaction with a seemingly endless stream of people eager to take part in the piece. There were some striking shots of people running in when the gallery opened, pushing each other aside to secure a place in the queue to sit in front of the artist, like eager shoppers at a boxing day sale. By the end of the three months, there were people who never left the gallery: they camped on the pavement outside all night. The atmosphere was bordering on the religious. Many approached the performance artist as if she were a saint (or a martyr), who could confer blessings by her silent presence. MoMA was converted into a minimalist-style secular chapel. There was a lot of teariness. 750,000 people came to worship, or wonder.
But unlike in most religions, there was no doctrinal content, no teachings, and only one very simple ritual. Did this make it pure, human contact pared back to the essential of the raw capacity for feeling and consciousness, and the direct recognition of this between two people, without the complexities and deceptions of language? Or did it make it empty, a display of how a charismatic individual can gather a devoted audience of followers whose desperate need for attention connects with her own, generating blind enthusiasm untethered to any content, and consequently able to be easily manipulated? It wasn’t easy to decide.
Abramovic is wealthy, famous and surrounded by a little group of modern-day courtiers, all male, who are clearly not her equals. She is unusual: a performance artist who has managed to move from the margins of cultural production to receive recognition from the centre. Her early work, when she was practically penniless, was more typical performance art – defying conventional values, creating happenings that exposed the more painful and disturbing sides of human nature. Now she could be seen as a high priestess of capitalist culture.
The turning point came when she was betrayed by the love of her life, and discovered that buying outrageously expensive Parisian haute couture was great therapy. She hasn’t looked back since - although there was a poignant shot in the film when she reflected on how long a road she has travelled since the days when she lived for her art, with no money, very simply, making no compromises.
Abramovic was 63 when the documentary was made, but looks much younger. My friend Dorian, who saw the film with me, commented appreciatively on her appearance, and put it down to the fact that she has followed her passion. She’s doing exactly what she wants to be doing. I didn’t disagree, but I said I suspect she also has access to some excellent skincare products, and that her evident capacity for discipline might also be a contributing factor: she clearly takes care of her appearance.
In thinking about it now, it strikes me that in spite of her charisma and beauty, there was a flatness in her emotional range, especially for a Serbian. She also cried a lot during the film. I think she genuinely connected with the pain she saw in many people’s eyes over the course of her three month performance, but not necessarily because she has transcended such suffering in her own life, or has anything to offer that might truly alleviate it.
But this is not to deny her authenticity as an artist, or the dedication of what she did at MoMA. With great will power, Abramovic made herself into a blank slate, or screen, and opened herself to projections from the public. The result was both touching, and revealing, exposing a desperate hunger for emotional connection and some kind of spiritual focus in a wealthy, secular society.