In the Presence of the Artist: A Conversation with Marina Abramovic and Matthew Akers

Marina Abramovic, the producers of The Artist is Present, and director Matthew Akers. Photo by Chad Hurst.

Eric Hynes

Marina Abramovic is ready for her close-up. Eight months after the completion of her historic retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art—the first large-scale exhibit for a solo performance artist in the museum’s history—the artist was present at Sundance for the world premiere of Matthew Akers’s powerful documentary portrait, The Artist is Present.

Using the MoMA show as a launching pad for examining the Abramovic’s life and work, the film explores the nature of performance, art, time, and existence and dedicates much of its running time to the astoundingly epic live performance that accompanied the show. For every day of the run, for every hour that the museum was open, Abramovic sat stoically in a chair in the middle of a squared-off space where museum-goers were invited to sit across from her and look into her eyes — one at a time, for as long as they wished.

Meanwhile, upstairs in the gallery, live performers, many of them nude, recreated works from Abramovic’s 40-year career. The show became a phenomenon, eliciting long lines, attention-hungry scenesters, public weeping, and even a video game. In the process, it made performance art a topic of popular discourse. The show also made Yugoslav-born Abramovic a cover-girl celebrity at the age of 65. We caught up with Akers and Abramovic in the atrium of the Park City Marriott, where they were just finishing up a chocolate break.

How did you become involved with Marina?

Matthew Akers: My producer Jeff Dupre met Marina at a dinner by happenstance. He happened to be sitting in between Marina and Klaus Biesenbach, the curator, and they were talking over him about what they were about to do at MoMA. Jeff told her about what he’d been up to, the projects I had collaborated with him on—Carrier, which was a ten hour, ten part series, and Circus, in which I lived with a circus for a year.

I think Marina liked the notion that we were observational filmmakers with this body of work, for which we invested a lot of time. When I went up to meet Marina for the first time I was charmed by her, even though I was skeptical of performance art. I was really exhausted after living with the circus and trying to penetrate that insular world, so I needed assurance that she was going to give me total access.

Marina Abramovic: I saw this as a really important moment, that if we made a film it could reach the larger public—a completely different type of audience that performance art [normally] doesn’t have. So I give him the key and say, “Let’s go into this adventure.” Plus, of course I checked on what they’ve done before, and I saw that they are completely crazy, hardcore guys, who never give up. This was something I really needed.

Matthew Akers: This was a historic moment for performance art—the first time that a performance artist was being given this sort of platform at a major museum, in which she would be doing a performance that would be the longest of her solo career. Right there we knew it make for an interesting story.

Your art is based in exposing yourself and making yourself vulnerable, but documentary filmmaking is different. Were there any lines drawn, where privacy became a different equation?

Marina Abramovic: No, there was no privacy at all. I literally gave him the key. At 6:00 AM in the morning he’s there with a crew, and when I wake up there’s a camera at my head. I’m sick like a dog, vomiting in the bathroom—he’s there to film. There wasn’t any barrier at all.

Matthew Akers: I can’t recount the number of times she dragged me into the bathroom.

Marina Abramovic: I can’t pee without him, it’s true. I really can’t. (Laughs). It really became a part of my life.

Film, by nature, is so different from what you’re doing, where the element of time is such that there’s no editing, and the endurance is part of it. How do you feel about your work being represented on film?

Marina Abramovic: Documentation is so important for me in performance work. I hate photography, when in a lecture about performance art the historian uses slides. It’s not the right material, because you’ve frozen just one image, where performance is about movement, about sound and process. So video was always the best material. I documented from a very early stage.

Then, with “The Artist is Present” piece, I just made a video installation in the Garage in Moscow of 736 hours of unedited material, with every person sitting in front of me in real time. But this is something for an art audience, to be presented in museums and galleries. You have to find a solution so that you can have a bridge to the real audience that doesn’t know what performance art is, that has no access to even the idea of this form of art. That was this film for me, to bridge that. You can’t show 736 hours, but I think you can get a good sense of the time with how Matthew edited the material.

Matthew Akers: This is something we thought a lot about when we set out to make the film. We knew that it was ephemeral and that the true transformative power of the work was in seeing it firsthand. So what is the film? Is it documentation? Is it something else? We hope that the film is its own work of art. It’s our subjective view of it. So in some ways, constructing an artifice and making a work of art like we’ve done is a more accurate representation of what was there.

Marina Abramovic: I want to kill them sometimes because they put the music over the real sound of the piece, stuff like that. I had to give up control, and the results have to be accepted. Otherwise I would have a nervous breakdown sitting there for hours, saying I want this or want that. It would never come to anything. So this is really a film. A film about a performance artist. And I couldn’t put any of my ideas inside of it. It has to be his.

Matthew Akers: You like it though, right?

Marina Abramovic: What do you mean, I like? I cry from the beginning to the end. It’s ridiculous. I have not any kind of distance. It’s too emotional for me. But then the public cried too. I think we have to sell the tickets with handkerchiefs. That’s the new thing.

I think it’s wonderful how much you’ve chosen to focus on the people sitting across from Marina in the film. You make me see what she’s seeing, and it’s incredibly powerful.

Matthew Akers: For me, the takeaway ultimately is that it’s not actually about Marina.

Marina Abramovic: Exactly, yeah.

Matthew Akers: It’s about the mirror, about the reflection in her eyes. These profound concepts, about how do you have a genuine human connection, what do you think about time? As a former skeptic of this particular piece, it’s really been inspirational. It’s made me think about myself.

Marina Abramovic: I like so much this moment with James Franco, where the guy asks if he’s an actor. Because though we had all these glamorous people sitting in front of me, it just wasn’t about that, it eliminates all of this.

Matthew Akers: It was important to have that moment to pose the question of if you’re acting. Because that’s one of the central questions of the film. At one point before The Artist is Present begins, Klaus says the risk is whether or not it ventures into being theatrical. And I think that’s where we do question you and your theatricality, because you do have that tendency.

There are a lot of different sides of Marina—as there are with all of us—and I witnessed all of them. But what I’ve realized is that in spite of her theatricality at times, what’s relevant is the power of the work. Despite the fact that she’s a great artist, a glamorous art world icon and superstar with a sometimes glamorous life, I don’t think it has any bearing on what happened there, in that charged charismatic space.

Well the rules of the piece itself take that all out of it.

Marina Abramovic: It was very strict, yeah.

I’m interested in the film as an extension of, or answer to, the gallery show. Whether or not you’re a skeptic of performance art, or even just skeptical of how it can be represented in that environment, it was thrilling to see those ideas in play. To me that was part of the exhibit, and now part of the film: how do you represent these things?

Marina Abramovic: And to re-perform was for me essential, to give up this thing that’s it’s me, me, me, my ego, and nobody can perform my pieces. So that the work can live without you. Because performance art is timeless art. You have to let it go, and you have to let it go while you’re alive.

Was it difficult for you to let go?

Marina Abramovic: No, it started when I was so fed up seeing everyone taking and copying—MTV, fashion, advertising, the new theater—and they weren’t giving credit to the original pieces. They would just take it and steal it. Not just from me but from all these other artists of my generation. I said if you want to do this, do it the right way: ask for permission, pay for permission, and say where the piece came from.

This is why I did Seven Easy Pieces at Guggenheim, and when it came time for my retrospective, I had to do the same with my work. It was the natural thing to do. And it’s so liberating. It was important to be detached from the material, to get another point of view on the whole thing.

And you’re doing that on several fronts. You’re giving up control to let somebody else make a film of you, and you’re casting actors to play you, in a sense, in the gallery. I was fascinated by how the piece would change, that not only is someone else representing your work, but that…

Marina Abramovic: … they could put their own charisma, their own self inside of it.

Matthew Akers: They’re not actors, though. They’re performers.

Right, of course, there’s that distinction. But isn’t there a theatricality to the piece? When you enter that space, it’s a kind of theater, no?

Matthew Akers: (Flashes a disapproving look)

Marina Abramovic: It’s a kind of… but it’s incredible to me, why American media have to analyze everything, why they have to, as he shows in the film, talk about this provocateur from ex-Yugoslavia, and why this Fox newswoman says everything was about nudity. Nobody sees the poetical thing. Only taking this kind of spectacular aspect and never getting into what something really means, taking it seriously. It really pisses me off, always. Why does American culture always have to be this way? You’re American, tell me.

I don’t know the answer, but I’m offended by it too.

Marina Abramovic: I want to know (theatrically pounding the table). It’s making me crazy.

So why do you respond so negatively to the idea that there’s a theatrical quality to it?

Matthew Akers: Because it was real. Everything was real. Yes, you can have a real experience [in theater]. But in theater there’s a proscenium, a threshold. This is an act of participation. The public completes the work. The museum worked very hard to minimize the risk to Marina, but people could have attacked her.

She has a history of doing things where the public literally could do anything they wanted, and we tried to point out in the film how this is the difference. There’s a real element of risk. She could get hurt, physically, by others but also by herself, maintaining that position in the chair. Risk is an important part of it.

In the film, Klaus says something to the effect that you’re never not performing. Is that accurate? Is that fair?

Marina Abramovic: If he perceives it that way, that’s for him. But I don’t think so. Whatever I do, I’m really real. I always think performance is pretending you’re someone else, but I’m always me. So I don’t know that I perform.

Matthew Akers: Even when you’re not performing—and I think that’s what he means—you are so devoted to the work, that all of your energy, your private…

Marina Abramovic: Like having a mission. It’s a mission for me.

Matthew Akers: … and public life goes towards the work. You don’t have a normal life. You don’t have children, what people consider the normal trappings.

Marina Abramovic: Who wants to live with me? It’s insane. It’s an incredible feeling of duty, a commitment to the cause.

The word “medium” always comes to mind with your work. That you’re the medium through which things are happening.

Marina Abramovic: I feel like that.

And you feel that way beyond the work itself?

Marina Abramovic: At the beginning I was so afraid that the energy would not come back, or I would be absent. But now, I’m feeling really like a receiver and sender of energy. That I don’t need anything anymore—I don’t need the structure, the subject, the story to be told. I just need to be. That’s the most difficult, to get to that kind of simplicity. I don’t know where it’s going to go.

Were you haunted by the faces you confronted during The Artist is Present?

Marina Abramovic: No, this was the best time of my life, doing that. I was living 100%. Whatever I did.

Were they present afterwards, the faces?

Marina Abramovic: You know I still have them in my head, and I see them on the street. The eyes catch, and you just go to each other and kiss. Non-verbal communication is the strongest there is. Scientifically it’s proved that you create waves in your brain that sub-consciously go deeper than anything you can say with words.

There’s almost a religious quality to it that the film gets at—not to diminish it by putting it in that box—but in the sense that there’s a medium through which people come to some transcendent moment. And I think you’re capturing that on everybody’s faces.

Matthew Akers: I personally don’t subscribe to any spiritual or religious connotation, but I think it’s unavoidable to talk about it. For everyone it’s different. For some, it’s a spirituality, a transformation. But I’m not even sure what those words mean. For me, all I can say is it’s about what it means to be human, to be alive. I’m here, I’m existing in time. What does it mean to exist with others, what is my reality, what does time mean to me?

Marina Abramovic: In touch with yourself and another person. The present. (Holding out a chocolate) You have to eat this. I want to have your expression. Please. It’s our religious moment in Sundance.

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