Intimate Exhibitionist

Marina Abramović: The Artist is Present Very, Very Present.

After the filmmakers Jeff Dupre and Matthew Akers met Marina Abramović at a dinner party, they quickly became enmeshed in the geographical and spiritual arc of the artist’s preparation for her landmark retrospective at MoMA, following her to Germany, Italy, New York and India’s Swaswara center, where she underwent an intense five-week program of detoxification and “spiritual rejuvenation.” In the process of making their documentary, Dupre and Akers grew intimate with Abramović, seeing another, more mischievous side of an artist known for extremely public works of corporeal endurance, self-flagellation, and, ultimately, transcendence. Akers, the director of Marina and Dupre, the producer bring us up close—just how Abramović likes it.

What is it about Abramović that captivated you?

MA: The work she is performing at MoMA is called The Artist Is Present, and the same could be said of her when you’re with her. Even in a crowded room, if she turns her focus towards you, you feel like you’re the only person there. Her energy is very manic in a way, but she has the ability to focus intensely, very quickly, and completely engage you on every level. And she’s really funny and self-deprecating, and open to everything. I went to stay with her a couple of weeks ago. She was listening to Norwegian black metal—a 63-year-old woman listening to black metal! The interesting thing is the contrast between her fun-loving personality and her work, which is dead serious and powerful.

When will you stop filming?

MA: We’re planning to film to the end of the retrospective, and then we’re hoping to make a trip to her father’s and mother’s gravesites in Belgrade. And also to Paris. She is friends with Riccardo Tisci [head designer of Givenchy], and she wants to go to fashion shows. She wears a lot of Givenchy.

Givenchy and Black Metal!

MA: I think a lot of her life was spent suppressing that side of herself. She lived for a number of years in a van, driving around Europe with her partner Ulay. When they split, she said she just had this moment where she thought, “I want to live it up. I’ve been living on trading goats milk, working for shepherds, and now it’s time for something different.”

But her recent trip to India was an ascetic experience?

MA: It was more relaxation, but she did do something called “panchakarma.” It’s body purification. She was locked in her room for seven days. It is essentially a fast. You take a little bit of clarified butter, “ghee,” each day. And you’re not supposed to communicate with the outside world.

Would you say this MoMA show is her magnum opus?

JD: She has done very challenging durational works in the past that involve breaking through thresholds of pain, but the work she’s doing at MoMA is by far the most challenging of her entire life. She’s sitting at a table motionless for seven hours a day, six days a week. She is 63. She could be resting on her laurels. But she told me that she’s stronger now than she ever has been, because her mind is stronger. She’s stronger than when she was 23. When her body starts to give out, she draws on the energy in the room, the public, and it enables her to transcend the pain. She has this thing with people where she forces them to stop and focus and be in the moment. That can be powerful if you’re addicted to your BlackBerry.

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