Performance artist Marina Abramovic's four-decade career receives its mainstream platform in "The Artist is Present."

Performance artist Marina Abramovic’s unique four-decade career receives its mainstream platform in “The Artist is Present,” an intelligent overview that makes a radical artist’s work comprehensible to audiences with no previous awareness of her or her chosen path. Abramovic fans, among the art world’s most rabid, will salivate at the chance to see their star up close, while skeptics of performance-art modes may have to reconsider their stance after watching this, set for a June theatrical release in Canada and HBO summer airings. Euro buyers are sure to line up.

Director-d.p. Matthew Akers (with credited co-director Jeff Dupre) follow Abramovic for a year as she prepares and presents the biggest show of her career, a March-to-May 2010 retrospective that takes up several floors of the Museum of Modern Art. Devised by MoMA curator Klaus Biesenbach, the show encompasses key Abramovic pieces (some of them originally performed by her and her 12-year partner, German performance artist Ulay), as well as a new piece to which the title is particularly relevant and the film’s second half is almost exclusively devoted.

First half cleanly sets up several dimensions of Abramovic’s world, as well as her daily life. Raised by strict communist partisan parents in former Yugoslavia, Abramovic believes much of her art stems from a loveless existence with her mother, though she says she received considerable affection and support from her grandmother. Just as important, the artist notes, is her spiritual view of existence, which she conveys without resorting to high-flown mystical rhetoric.

The code of always being in the present moment is critical to Abramovic’s artistic practice, which she first established with a series of stunning works that featured her often naked body placed in extreme physical circumstances (wounding, whipping, surrounded by fire, banging against walls), followed in the late 1970s and most of the 1980s by pieces that stressed the conflicts between women and men. Few docs have better laid out the central tenets and philosophy behind performance art, which has been so often misunderstood by the general public and ridiculed by mainstream media.

Indeed, these cultural distortions (suggesting, as Abramovic remarks on camera, that she’s “crazy”) have been so ingrained that she’s tired of the notion that performance art is “alternative.” A key motivation for participating in Akers and Dupre’s film, she says, is to bring performance art to the masses and make it, finally, accepted. Abramovic is in the best position in her field to do this, since she’s already an art superstar, media-savvy, enormously photogenic (looking drop-dead gorgeous in her 60s and keeping her body in tremendous physical condition), and knowledgeable about the business of art, a detail not overlooked by the film.

From workshops at her Hudson Valley home with an ensemble of performers to the final act, the picture revealed here is of an incredibly hard-working artist who continues to push her body to extremes of endurance, yet listens to the wise advice of her gallerist Sean Kelly when need be. Just before the show opens, the film opens up surprising emotional currents that play out fully in the concluding half.

Abramovic’s own performance at MoMA, in which she’s seated in an armless chair and facing one seated museum audience member at a time (they line up for hours to get a chance to face her), packs a powerful punch. The simplicity, directness and immediacy of the piece, which compels both Abramovic and her fellow sitter to remain silent and slow down in the moment, strikes the observer as a sublime antithesis to so much of high-speed, Internet-infused contempo culture.

Akers and Dupre film the piece from a well-judged range of extreme closeups of eyes, medium closeups capturing many emotional responses (including loads of tears) and long shots of the massive crowds. Indeed, performance art has never looked this populist, this open to a reception from a wide audience of spectators.

Unexpected if finally unflattering appearances by illusionist David Blaine and actor James Franco, plus a few oddball stunts by audience members, accent the film but don’t detract from a steady focus on Abramovic, who exudes good spirits, humor and energy. Production package is solid, though Nathan Halpern’s score becomes too intrusive.

Marina Abramovic The Artist Is Present

Production

A Films We Like (in Canada) release of an HBO Documentary Films presentation of a Show of Force production in co-production with Avro Television. (International sales: Submarine, New York.) Produced by Jeff Dupre, Maro Chermayeff. Co-producers, Francesca Von Habsburg. Executive producer, Sheila Nevins, Stanley Buchthal, Maja Hoffmann, David Koh. Directed by Matthew Akers. Co-director, Jeff Dupre.

Crew

Camera (color/B&W, HD), Akers; editors, E. Donna Shepherd, Jim Hession; music, Nathan Halpern; music supervisors, Carter Little, G. Marq Roswell; sound (stereo), Marcus Ricci, Richard Fleming; re-recording mixer, Martin Czembor; archival research, Amy Schewel, Sally Rosenthal; associate producer, Marcus Ricci. Reviewed at Sundance Film Festival (competing), Jan. 20, 2012. (Also in Berlin Film Festival -- Panorama.), Running time: 106 MIN.

With

Marina Abramovic, Ulay, Klaus Biesenbach, Davide Balliano, Chrissie Iles, Sean Kelly, Arthur Danto, David Blaine, James Franco.

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