Maria Abramović: The Artist Is Present
The True/False Film Fest continued in Columbia, Missouri on Friday as the Fest's schedule—now fully in swing after a comparatively sedate Thursday—ballooned with screenings and events related to documentary cinema. Early in the day, the Forrest Theater at the under-renovation Tiger Hotel hosted a sold-out screening of Maria Abramović: The Artist Is Present. This new feature from cinematographer-turned-director Matthew Akers profiles New York-based Serbian performance artist Abramović, with a particular focus on her 2010 Museum of Modern Art retrospective and accompanying new piece, also titled The Artist Is Present.
Akers' new film makes for an auspicious feature debut, following his directorial contribution to the 2007 Sundance Channel series Nimrod Nation. A self-described “performance art skeptic” when he began The Artist Is Present, Akers has clearly been smitten by the glint of his subject's startling and divisive works of art. The film finds Abramović—still sensual and roiling at 65—in a state of both wry reflection and professional anxiousness. Her looming MoMA exhibition represents long-sought recognition from the Art Establishment, but also a ruthless call for a bold new work. Akers' status as a veteran lensman pays dividends as his high-definition video elegantly preserves both the gleaming loveliness and grotesque edges of the exhibition's preparations and three-month-run.
The film looks on as Abramović gathers a cadre of game young performers to re-create some of her most recognizable works for the exhibition. These include Imponderabilia (1977), a piece in which she and fellow performance artist Uwe Laysiepen stood naked in a narrow doorway, forcing discomfited viewers to squeeze between them to reach the adjoining gallery. Other notorious works by Abramović are not amenable to re-creation: In Rhythm 0 (1974), she invited viewers to select from 72 objects—including a rose, scissors, and a revolver with bullet—and use them on her motionless body. Whether such pieces comprise true art or mere ego-driven stunts is not a question the film confronts directly. The Artist Is Present simply presents Abramović as a person, artist, and brand, allowing the viewer to draw their own conclusions regarding the worth and integrity of her work.
Akers assembles archival materials, talking-head interviews, and vérité behind-the-scenes footage into a remarkably warm portrait of Abramović. Predictably, the film's tone is generally hagiographic, although Aker retains a gentle awareness for his subject's ludicrous qualities. (Fortunately, Abramović herself proves to be an almost childishly good-humored and self-deprecating sort.) Inasmuch as the film has a story, it culminates in the artist's galvanizing new performance: Abramović sits motionless and silent at a table for over 736 hours as tens of thousands of MoMA visitors sit down opposite her, one at a time, to simply look at her. Aker's film marvelously captures the terrible physical and psychological toll that this marathon performance takes on Abramović, while also plainly conveying that the fleeting voodoo it conjures is worth such Herculean effort.
Late afternoon brought another remarkable new feature film to the Forrest: Low & Clear, a poetic and visually ravishing portrait of two old friends re-uniting for a fly-fishing trip in British Columbia. Kahlil Hudson (Stanley Rubin: A Work in Progress, Kumaré) and newcomer Tyler Hughen delve deeply into the yin-and-yang personalities of J.T. Van Zandt and Alex "Xenie" Hall, two middle-aged anglers who have grown apart as they followed divergent paths on different sides of the country. J.T. hopes that a Canadian catch-and-release trip will rekindle his camaraderie with the older and more accomplished angler, but the journey only raises vexing questions about aging, identity, and human relationships. Hudson and Hughen treat the proceedings with the sort of intensely masculine philosophical seriousness that would do Hemingway proud, while never losing their sense of playfulness or black irony. Lusciously shot, edited, and scored, Low & Clear proves to be the sort of unexpectedly rich documentary experience that a mere conceptual description could never adequately convey.