That exasperation is two-fold. First, I have difficulty wrapping my mind around performance art. It’s not theatre, because what the artists do is real. I was impressed by many of Marina’s performances of the past, mainly because she has embodied art’s desire to shock through her work. She certainly did that in many cases, even putting her own life in danger in some of her performances, including sitting by passively while audience members were allowed to use objects beside her on stage to do whatever they wanted. Those objects included knives and a gun and a bullet. Performance art is provocative through actions like these and many others that include self-mutilation, real or implied violence as well as ample nudity (at least in Marina’s case). It comes as no surprise that several artists have died in the course of their performances. If the core of performance art is to shock, she certainly has succeeded to do so, grabbing our attention and becoming the recognized leader of this type of art. The second exasperation of this move is when Marina speaks about her art, she becomes very hard to follow. I have heard her in this movie and other occasions, and I always feel frustrated that I have not understood her point. This is not entirely uncommon for visual artists of any type, but it does contrast with the times she tells the story of her life. Those episodes are are touching, forthcoming and completely engaging.
Back to the documentary, the strongest insight came in the summary by the curator of her retrospective at MoMA who said that her initial work was about working by herself, the next stage was working with her life and art partner Ulay and the third period is about working with and engaging her audience. That becomes clear when seeing the enormous crowds of people who lined up for days to be able to sit in silence in front of her as part of The Artist is Present show. That’s all is was, just come, sit in silence and look into her eyes. At least some viewers broke into tears and apparently one person stayed for three hours. MoMA broke its attendance record with this show. In the lead up, she said that she did not know if this concept would work, perhaps she would go hours without anyone venturing to sit with her. Obviously, the performance tapped into something that resonated deeply with the public. Her 40+ years of art making leading up to the show was distilled into this performance. My sense is that most performance art remains simply something of interest for a small group of insiders, but as its leading proponent, she has achieved a success that no other has achieved to date.
The movie follows the preparation of the two elements of the show - the live performance as well as the retrospective that accompanied it. The enigma of performance art still remains for me, but I have a greater appreciation of its potential power. And while I still would like Marina to explain her art in a way I can understand better, The Artist is Present show has spoken louder than any words and I hope future shows will continue her success.