When the artist is present at Sundance

Published January 25, 2012 4:17 pm

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Park City • "Marina Abramovic: The Artist Is Present" is ostensibly a documentary chronicling the retrospective show of the ground-breaking Serbian-born performance artist. But in the process, filmmaker Matthew Akers uncovers a tragic love story of Great Wall of China proportions.

"I want to show what it takes to make art," Abramovic says in this film that could be one of the best documentaries of an artist or art ever made. After four decades of obscurity pioneering performance art, Abramovic tells the camera that follows her around the clock: "I want [performance art] to be a real form of art before I die. I am 63, I am not alternative anymore."

As the camera follows her on the runup to her 2010 retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art (MOMA), she jokes that the question she constantly heard was: "Why is this art?" But as she has attained international fame, that question is no longer asked. "Now I am missing it," she says.

Sundance chief programmer John Cooper, who introduced the film at its Jan. 20 premiere, said he became "ferociously possessive" of the documentary after his first viewing, telling his staff: "It has to be at Sundance."

Cooper got the film and more. Abramovic attended the premiere with Akers, the producers, much of the film's crew and MOMA chief curator-at-large Klaus Biesenbach. The artist threw a "Silence Is Golden" party at a Park City gallery where attendees, including Sundance founder Robert Redford, wore white lab coats and headsets while drinking champagne and watching slides from Abramovic's MOMA performance in complete silence.

Abramovic, arguably one of the most important contemporary artists living, was born to World War II-era Yugoslavian partisan heroes. "I was trained to be a soldier; there was no love there."

The film follows Abramovic as she rigorously trains young artists to reproduce her landmark pieces, possibly the only way to "archive" performance art. But the jewel of the MOMA retrospective is a new and agonizing performance by the artist. The work requires Abramovic to sit motionless and mute in a chair at the MOMA eight hours a day for three months. Akers captures the artist's passion, anguish and, ultimately, the human connection she makes with thousands of MOMA visitors who take turns sitting opposite her.

As part of Abramovic's look back on her life, the film recalls the epic love story of Abramovic and the performance artist Ulay. It's telling to hear Abramovic read her manifesto proclaiming that artists shouldn't kill, lie, steal or compromise. But she also declares: "The artist should avoid falling in love with another artist."

In the film, we find out why.

An impossibly beautiful couple, Abramovic and Ulay lived together for three years in the 1960s in a battered van performing art "with no compromise."

"I loved him more than myself," she says.

The affair ended, appropriately, in their last joint performance work that required the lovers to walk toward each other from opposite ends of the Great Wall.

gwarchol@sltrib.com; facebook.com/nowsaltlake —

'Marina Abramovic: The Artist Is Present' screening

Thursday, Jan. 26, 9:30 p.m. • Redstone Cinema 8, Park City