The Artist Is Present RantWritten by Ryan Adam Smith
What the hell is performance art? Apparently it’s not just someone parading around a stage and taking themselves way too serious (I’m talking about you Matt Lauer). And performance art is definitely not Johnny Knoxville riding wild bulls. Nor is performance art one of Lebron James’s amazing and intricate pre-game handshakes. Performance art is someone sitting in a chair for three months and making other people cry.
It’s a crazy world out there. But there is not much that sounds appealing about a woman sitting in a chair. So you can imagine my reluctance at watching, The Artist is Present, a 2010 documentary which follows performance artist Marina Abramovic as she prepares to literally sit in New York’s Museum of Modern Art for three months.
I know you’re thinking this documentary sounds like a great chance to giggle at the troves of Manhattaners with nothing more to do than think-up bullshit ways to spend their trust-fund money. I was also hoping the same thing. But if you give it a chance, The Artist is Present, will be one of the most captivating documentaries you have ever seen.
Marina Abramovic isn’t just any performance artist. She’s not the crazy woman at the park covered in layers of clothing in the summer, the one feeding pigeons bird-seed that makes them explode—though that may be her next performance. Marina Abramovic is the performance artist. She’s survived being born in Yugoslavia to a militaristic mother. She’s survived living in a bus for five years. And in four decades of performance art, she’s starved herself for 14 days, stripped down naked and slapped another man for hours, walked the Great Wall of China, and carved a pentagram into her stomach with a razorblade. Though all of these accomplishments sound somewhat fantastic, they are dwarfed by the MoMA piece; they are simply just pieces of a back-story to set you up for the second half of the film. Because it isn’t until you understand the lengths Marina has gone through for her art that you are able to walk with her through the preparation and execution of her most accomplished piece. It isn’t until you understand the years of scrutiny she’s faced that you can see the discipline of an artist that is fearless. And when you get there, you’ll begin to wonder how much you’re hiding, how much insecurity lays someplace you never thought existed.
There isn’t much glamorous about watching Marina sit in a chair for three months (7 hours a day, every day). There is nothing exciting about watching a 63 year-old agonize over low-back pain or double-over under the table, barely able to move. But eventually what unfolds, the element that pulls you into this documentary, is the complete passion Marina has for her work, and the constant torture of being an underappreciated artist (by people like me). Even as Marina prepares to do something she has successfully done for nearly four decades, there are traces of insecurity everywhere. Never do you get the sense of an artist that drapes themselves in money, an artist that vainly mocks the mainstream, and showers themselves in champagne. From conversations about love to Marina staring at other artists and wondering if they hate her, you get the deeply rooted insecurities of an artist that has to prove her worth over and over again. You see an artist that is so driven by insecurity that she is desperate to connect with others. This desperation is what drives nearly 750,000 people to MoMA to see Marina sitting in a chair. It’s what drives thousands to sleep on the sidewalk in the hopes they can sit in the empty chair across from her. And for those that do sit across from Marina, all appear to get more than they bargained for.
There are no words spoken between Marina and the thousands of people that eventually sit across from her, but each person appears taken-back, swept away to some far place where looking into Marina is like looking into their childhood. Some people nervously smile, others cry. But everyone connects.Even as I write this, much of Marina’s art seems inconceivable. It’s almost laughable that nearly 1 million people would desire to stare at a woman in a chair. A large part of me wants to make Marina a villain for producing art that other can’t hang in their homes, put on a bookshelf, or throw on an iPod. But I realize it’s not the idea of Marina’s art that makes me want to scream; it’s the extremely threatening idea of one woman’s willingness to stare at strangers in silence. It’s an attack on everything we believe. Silence isn’t art! The new iPod with 1 Million songs is art! Because hasn’t it become the case that our society is reliant on stimulation? We watch television while surfing the internet on our iPads. We tirelessly text people we would never speak with on the phone. We pop-pills and chug Red Bull to keep-up with PowerPoint presentations and numbers flashing across a screen. Anytime a conversation gets serious, we reach for our cell phones. Anytime the dinner gets boring, we check our Facebook profile. We don’t have time to reflect on those moments we cherish or things many of us want to forget. We keep memories locked away, shoved behind a computer screen of celebrity news, porn, and sports. We hide our ability to connect with others, to deal with actual problems.
So of course sitting across a woman in silence will make people cry. They have been watching Wall Street breakdown, their student loan debt is piling up, their homes are drowning in worth, and their jobs hang on by a thread. They have compacted all their emotions deep inside. And they’ve been covering it all with the latest season of True Blood, the latest Brad Pitt gossip. But once the stimulation stops, their emotions explode. Marina is not just a woman in a chair; she’s a mirror. She is a reflection of the people themselves. Marina forces her viewers to tap into real, raw emotion that is getting to be mind-bogglingly rare. And if art is truly something that is supposed to elicit real emotion, something that makes you question yourself or what you believe, than Marina is not a hack cheating people of out of money. She is an artist performing the most important art in the world.
But the Jonah Hill movie you watched last Friday night is still pure crap.
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