For three months in 2010, Serbian-born performance artist Marina Abramovic sat in a chair in a gallery at New York's Museum of Modern Art and directed her full, silent attention toward individual visitors seated across from her, seven hours a day, six days a week, without eating or drinking. Stillness as an endurance event exacts a surprising physical toll, but as a younger woman, Abramovic had performed similar pieces for longer periods, once while fasting. The crowds at MOMA were huge. James Franco attended. The chair had a discrete pee hole.
Matthew Akers's film The Artist Is Present, named for the exhibition, documents the preparation and execution of the show. Abramovic is now in her sixties, and the harder edges of her persona, apparent in old footage, have softened. She's a striking and seductive figure, and the Hard Day's Night stampedes into the exhibit each morning testify to her charisma.
Throughout the 1970s, Abramovic collaborated with her partner, the West German performance artist known as Ulay (Uwe Laysiepen). In their final, most epic work, The Lovers, they walked toward each other from opposite ends of the Great Wall of China over three months. They broke up afterward due to Ulay's infidelity and did not see each other again for 23 years, until shortly before the opening, their reunion filmed by Akers.
Seemingly concerned that he is less successful than Abramovic, Ulay postures and struggles to advance a cool image. He proffers sly innuendos of her past behavior to Akers, despite the manifest love he holds for her. He gapes at the elegant interior of her Hudson Valley house, and later at the scale of the exhibition. At the opening, he is among the first to sit at the table across from Abramovic, and the moment they share, informed by their history, is moving.
Abramovic demonstrates another kind of endurance when sitting in the same room with illusionist David Blaine, whose douchesmithery here includes crunching and swallowing a chunk of his wine glass and proposing a dumb collaborative stunt involving a simulated ax murder.
"Those people," Blaine says—meaning MOMA patrons—"are the perfect people to do it to." His attitude is so antithetical to Abramovic's work that it's surprising when she runs his idea past her gallerist, Sean Kelly. He diplomatically shoots it down, noting that Blaine is an illusionist, and her work is the opposite of illusion.
Across the galleries, MOMA exhibited five of Abramovic's historical works, here reproduced by young performers she trained. Akers captures braver guests shouldering through one of the more notorious pieces, a challenge to personal space consisting of a tight threshold flanked by a nude man and woman. Its inclusion particularly inflamed Fox News outrage-evincer Megyn Kelly, who questioned whether or not this "Yugoslavian-born provocateur" could even be considered an artist.
But the thing is this: Abramovic's art is, in a weird way, intended for people just like Megyn Kelly and her Fox audience. She's not trying to produce art that's too difficult or esoteric for regular people to understand, and visitors who sat with her had varied and often deeply emotional responses to the experience. She's trying to access a shared humanity, to foster an unusual intimacy with viewers—to strip herself, often literally, to a naked and undeniable truth.