Wait, Why Did That Woman Sit in the MoMA for 750 Hours?

Marina Abramovic: The Artist Is Present reveals a lot about the most famous living performance artist—but says little about her art.

marina artist is present 615 hbo.jpg

Perhaps you were one of the thousands of museum visitors to engage Marina Abramovic in a staring contest during her 2010 Museum of Modern Art exhibit The Artist Is Present. Most likely, you weren't. Sitting opposite the "grandmother of performance art" requires a certain degree of mobility: tickets, being physically present in New York, plus stamina and free time—people waited in lines for hours to behold the Abramovic in the flesh.

But with the new documentary Marina Abramovic: The Artist Is Present, which airs today on HBO at 9 p.m. EST, director Matthew Akers lowers the barriers to access. The film follows Abramovic as she prepares and executes her 2010 retrospective show, in which young artists repreformed some of her earlier work and she unveiled a new piece that sounds like it could be deployed at Gitmo: to sit entirely still, in silence, in a chair, across from museum visitors, for 750 hours. It's admirable that the movie broadens the audience to those far beyond the borders of Manhattan. But as the overwrought, emotional footage of the exhibit reveals, the couch is not the ideal venue to confront Abramovic's intense gaze. At one point, Abramovic cheerfully remembers the question she fielded at the beginning of her career: "Why is this art?" Somehow, Akers's film never quite gets around to answering that question.

Out of all fringe art forms—like experimental theater or unwieldy installation sculptures of found objects—performance art is among the most inaccessible. It's one of those things, like the O.J. Simpson verdict or the final episode of The Sopranos, that fling people to the margins of opinion, where every interlocutor becomes a parody of oneself: Abramovic, whose pieces often border on the ridiculous, as when she drives a car in endless circles for 16 hours; the pious art insiders, nodding knowingly; the Fox News philistines decrying the nudity in the MoMA show as obscene; and Abramovic's willowy disciples spending a weekend workshop at the artist's home in Hudson, New York, where they're captured in golden light as they hug trees and weep in her presence. It's easy to mock performance art (as Sex and the City cheekily did) because it is so challenging, and it's equally easy to puff oneself up pretending to get it. But it's a little more difficult to develop criteria for evaluating performance art since, by design, it's so downright weird. What, the uninitiated can't help but wonder, makes Abramovic's work stellar and worthy of institutional accolades and not the scores of imitators who have proceeded her?

Marina Abramovic: The Artist Is Present does good work restaging the dialogue of performance art insiders (James Franco—of course—and bespectacled, continental-accented curators) and its detractors (Fox News and The New York Post ). But it misses a big opportunity to give voice to the regular people: the out-of-town tourists whose expressions waver between repulsion and fascination, and the diehards who camped out overnight to sit before the artist. It would have been more interesting to hear the reflections of the grandmother from Indianapolis than Franco. One man sat down in front of Abramovic 21 times and had that tally tattooed on his arm to commemorate his public stalking. But we never hear what it is precisely about this woman that compels him to spend his leisure time this way, nor do we come to understand why the people who sit before her cry.

While the film doesn't take up big questions about performance art, it does good work revealing the artist herself. She is warmer than the icy, self-flagellating warrior she portrays, and she is refreshingly and sweetly self-deprecating. On pioneering the performance art movement, she cries, "I'm 63! I don't want to be alternative anymore!" After another exhausting eight-hour day of sitting détente, she comments to her assistant that she should start getting the phone numbers of cute guys who visit her. Her Spartan upbringing in post-war Yugoslavia, we learn, is one of the motivations propelling her extreme performances. She admits that she needs the audience to make up for a lack of love she felt in her childhood from her war-hero parents. This, in other words, is a woman who likes to be looked at. As MoMA curator Klaus Biesenbach puts it, "Marina is never not performing. The audience is fuel to her, in effect, a lover."

Some of the most electric moments of the film are when she reconnects with her long-time collaborator and former lover Ulay. Together, they performed pieces that put her on the map, like Imponderablia, in which each stood nude in a doorway, forcing members of the public to squeeze through and choose whom to face. They spent a few idyllic years traversing the European countryside in a van, nomadically performing in villages. Both Ulay and Abramovic get raw addressing the dissolution of their partnership. While waiting for permits to perform The Great Wall Walk in China, where each started out on opposite ends of the Great Wall and walked thousands of kilometers to meet in the middle before turning around, Ulay impregnated their translator. "But," he says in the film, "she cheated on me with one of our friends." After their break-up, Abramovic was, in her words, "40, fat, ugly, and unwanted." As a result, she grew her hair long, got into fashion, and began doing theater pieces—"because she wanted money," Ulay sneers. He provides a nervy foil, seething with admiration and resentment, as he reunites with his ex-girlfriend who became astoundingly more successful than he.

And how did that success come about? As the documentary shows, it's Abramovic's intelligence and demented determination that sets her apart from other performance artists attempting the same thing. Who else could sit in that chair for three months without food or water? (But there was a strategically placed cut-out for bodily functions, a great mystery of the exhibit that the film clears up.) Her work reveals the ugly side of human nature, spanning from the relationship between men and women and having lived in the clutches of history. One writer featured in the film speculated that people were so taken with Abramovic's because she is a blank slate, a "giant canvas of projections" onto which the audience can assign their own meaning to her work. Whether or not it's a work of art or not is up to the viewer, but one thing is certain: It is work.