When filmmaker Jeff Dupre met legendary performance artist Marina Abramovic at a dinner party a year before her groundbreaking career retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art, he had a vague idea of who she was (the artist who once walked the Great Wall of China) and a healthy dose of skepticism about performance art. By the end of the night, Dupre says he was smitten with the legendary artist known for pushing the boundaries of her body as the subject, object and medium of her work.
“It was one of those serendipitous moments you hope for as a filmmaker,” says Dupre, a Louisville native who now lives in New York.
A fascinating character and an unprecedented, high-stakes retrospective of performance art at one of the world’s most prestigious museums – Dupre knows when a great documentary is sitting right in front of him.
“It is a love letter, but it’s not a simple love letter. It’s very complicated,” he says. “I think the film reveals Marina to be a human being with lots of foibles and weaknesses and missteps. But you get a sense of her entire life, a life that’s characterized by her endless striving to push limits and take risk and try to move audiences.”
“Marina Abramovic: The Artist Is Present,” which won the audience award at the Berlin Film Festival, chronicles the creation and duration of her 2010 MoMA retrospective, the first of its kind.
21C Museum and the Flyover Film Festival will screen the film Tuesday at the Kentucky Center, and Abramovic and Dupre will be on hand to answer questions. The documentary will air on HBO and enjoy a three-week theatrical release in New York and Los Angeles this summer.
Dupre served as co-director and producer of the film, and Matthew Akers directed. Louisville native Owsley Brown is a co-producer.
The film chronicles the months of mental preparation she endured, her training of a squad of young artists who re-performed her earlier works, and the intriguing new work the artist performed during her retrospective.
In her piece “The Artist Is Present,” Abramovic sat still and silent in the museum’s atrium every day for three months. Visitors would sit down across from her and lock eyes for as long as they liked. Dupre says the performance generated a palpable energy inside the museum.
“I’m not a religious person. I don’t practice any particular faith. But Marina really transformed the Museum of Modern Art into some kind of secular temple,” says Dupre. “Because what happened there was something that was really spiritual. People were having this spiritual experience by sitting across from her and looking into her eyes.”
Filming a performance artist’s work can be tricky. Some purists say that the artist’s act is ephemeral, and if you’re not in the room at the moment the piece is performed, you’ve missed it. But Dupre maintains that film can not only capture the essence of the artist’s act, but provide some necessary context for understanding the work.
“If you walk into a room and witness one of these performances you might ask yourself what the hell’s going on here. But in our film we set out to help the viewer understand Marina’s entire career and how she got into it and how her work evolved and the different ideas she was grappling with,” he says.
Dupre says he came away from the making of the film with a new appreciation for Abramovic and her work.
“The really interesting thing about her is the lengths she’ll go to for her art. She really is radical and she accepts no compromises,” says Dupre. “She’s 63 years old and she sat motionless in a chair for three months at MoMA. If you’ve ever tried sitting still in a chair for five minutes, it starts to get painful. She sat there for three months.”
“It changed the way I feel about performance art. It’s not as though I now love all performance art, I’m just as skeptical as ever,” he added. “But the film is a really kind of subjective expression of the journey I went on from that night I met her to the end of the performance at MoMA. It blew me away and it blew lots of people away. It packed a real emotional punch.”