In March of 2010, legendary performance artist Marina Abramovic sat down on a chair in the atrium of New York’s Museum of Modern Art. For three months, Abramovic spent every hour that MoMA was open sitting in that chair. Across from her was a table and a second chair, in which museum patrons were invited to sit. As each visitor sat down, Abramovic would look up, stare forward, and remain completely silent and still. Some visitors would simply stare back, others would cry. If this film is to be believed, nearly all of them experienced a moment of profound connection with the artist.
Although Abramovic’s performance, part of a larger retrospective exhibition documenting her decades of groundbreaking work called The Artist is Present, left an impact on many who sat across from her, the visual of a woman sitting silently in a chair for three months is hardly the stuff that documentary filmmakers dream about. That was certainly the case for director Matthew Akers, who was asked by producers to document Abramovic for a film that would also eventually be titled The Artist is Present. Despite having a background in fine art, Akers, like many, was skeptical about performance art, which tends to have a reputation as being inaccessible and pretentious. Even after getting to know the charismatic Abramovic, Akers had serious doubts that this particular performance would have any cinematic value.
“She told me that she was going to be sitting in a chair, so that was terrifying as a filmmaker,” Akers says. “I didn’t know if there was going to be truly enough for the film. And [curator] Klaus [Biesenbach] and Marina were saying that they didn’t assume that the other chair was always going to be occupied. They thought there were going to be large periods of time where the chair would be empty. There were all these unknown factors.”
While Akers prepared himself to fill out a potentially boring film by filming plenty of footage of Abramovic preparing for the show, reuniting with former lover and partner Ulay, and taking shots of other parts of the artist’s MoMA retrospective, something magical happened: Abramovic’s MoMA show became a hit. While performance art doesn’t typically turn into an international (or even local) sensation, thousands of people flocked to MoMA to sit with Abramovic, or to simply park themselves in the atrium and observe her staring at others. People were willing to stand in line for hours for a chance to sit, and as the show neared its end, some visitors would leave the museum at closing time and immediately sit in front of the door to be first in line for the next day’s performance. By the end of May, over 750,000 people saw Abramovic sitting in that atrium. The public’s connection with the artist was nothing short of otherworldly, and Akers managed to capture that feeling on film.
“There was a charged atmosphere in that atrium,” Akers says. “So that was surprising. And then it just grew and grew and grew. And I certainly didn’t predict that. And I don’t think Marina or Klaus predicted that.”
While Akers says that he’s still somewhat skeptical of performance art in general, he’s no longer suspect of Abramovic and her ability. In addition to a theatrical release, the film will air on HBO later this summer and Akers feels like he’s created a movie that will appeal even to those who have never heard of Abramovic or have absolutely no interest in performance art.
“I didn’t want to make an art film specifically. I want to tell universal stories,” Akers says. “My journey of trying to understand if the work is valid is sort of the journey the film takes. So hopefully that’s something that everyone can relate to.”