Performance, Perspective, Production: Crafting 'Marina Abramović The Artist Is Present'
HBO’s Marina Abramović The Artist Is Present provides a view into the world of one of the most compelling artists of our time as she prepares for her celebrated 2010 retrospective at the New York Museum of Modern Art.
Directed and shot by Matthew Akers, and produced by Jeff Dupre and Maro Chermayeff, the documentary feature premiered at the Sundance Film Festival in January and received the audience award at the Berlinale in February, followed by a limited U.S. release leading up to its HBO debut this month.
The film was conceived at a dinner party, where Dupre became smitten with the Serbian-born Abramović as she outlined her vision for her forthcoming performance retrospective. The exhibition would not only re-create past performances (other artists would perform her past pieces) but would include a new, original work that would mark the her longest performance of a single solo piece (three months, during the show’s entire run at MoMA).
Initially dubious of performance art as a medium, Dupre enlisted the equally skeptical Akers on the project, and within a week the renowned artist had handed over the keys to her apartment to the filmmaking team.
“Marina is completely fearless in all areas of her life. We told her we were still on the fence about her work and that we were sort of trying to come to a better understanding of it, and that there was no guarantee the film was going to be all positive. Her response was to give us the keys, to give us complete access,” Dupre explains. “The thing that’s extraordinary is that she took such a huge risk in the MoMA show by performing this new piece. It would have been so easy for her to just have it be about her past work, but she decided to do something that could easily fail. That really upped the ante for us.”
The new piece consists of a table and two straight-backed wooden chairs facing each other. Abramović sits in one and audience members take turns sitting in the other, and they gaze into each other’s eyes in silence. Abramović remained in the chair for seven and a half hours each day—every day the museum was open for three months—without eating, drinking or moving, a feat of mental and physical endurance that is challenging even for a veteran of such performances.
“I wasn’t out to comment on Marina’s myth, but I also wasn’t out to make a hagiography,” says Akers, a graduate of the NYC School of Visual Arts. “Initially my intention for the film was just to make the best film possible, the most entertaining film that would be for the widest audience possible, not just for the rarefied art world.”
The first-time director followed Abramović for 10 months, through six different countries, documenting her life relentlessly and gaining unprecedented access to MoMA in the weeks prior to and during the exhibition. “MoMA became great collaborators with us,” Dupre comments. “They really bent over backward to give us as much access as they could.”
“It was a huge risk for them,” Akers adds. “They gave us more access than they had ever given anyone. They had never done anything like this exhibition before, and on some level I’m sure it made them nervous to have it documented, but they really trusted us.”
Using a combination of Panasonic VariCam, Sony XDCAM EX PMW-EX1 and Canon EOS 5D and 7D cameras, Akers shot more than 700 hours of footage for the project, including the entirety of Abramović’s performance in the MoMA atrium. “On a formal level, I wanted to figure out a technique for capturing this performance,” says Akers. “Part of my thinking was that I should cover it like a sporting event. Performance art is ephemeral. Unless you witness it firsthand, you can’t really experience its transformative power.”
Attempting to heighten the experience with his shooting style, Akers relied on the small form factor and shallow depth of field the DSLR cameras provided to exploit the museum space from every angle and separate the faces of people sitting across from Marina from the crowd in the background. “I love the filmic look the DSLR cameras have, and it’s amazing how much we were able to push the color saturation in post and get the footage from all three cameras to match.”
“Using the DSLR cameras created an effect that was really powerful and interesting, kind of dreamlike,” Dupre adds. “Especially the retreat sequences at Marina’s country house. She’s always talking about being in a heightened state of mind for these performances, and the DSLR cameras conveyed that effectively.”
“Part of the thing with documentaries is you’re capturing realities. You’ve got one shot at it. You can’t miss it,” Akers continues. “With DSLR-style cameras, you can go out and make a film without having to use lights. To me, that’s a huge paradigm shift. I always prefer working without lights, but I also want it to look beautiful.”