NEW YORK (Reuters) - Marina Abramović, the performance artist who became a cultural phenomenon when she gazed silently at audience members at her acclaimed New York retrospective two years ago, has now allowed herself to be the subject of study.
A new film documentary, "Marina Abramović, The Artist Is Present," is named after the 66-year-old's 2010 retrospective at New York's Museum of Modern Art and uses that show as a window into her life, dedicated to a controversial art form. It hits theaters in New York and Los Angeles this week and airs on cable TV channel HBO on July 2.
The Serbian-born Abramović told Reuters the MoMa exhibit changed her life and helped define her life's mission: "To teach the public to get to their own (spiritual) centers."
"Since I was young, I always had a very strong sense of purpose. This is more clear now than ever. This is why I gave everything else up. I have no marriage, no anybody, no children, no family, only one brother who lives in Belgrade."
The documentary shows audiences how Abramović's charisma and sense of humor have built a supportive circle of friends and colleagues, as well as rock star status in the art world. It also depicts the transformative power of her work upon the public.
As highlighted in the film, the retrospective, which lured an estimated 750,000 people, included recreations of Abramović's early, controversial works performed by 41 artists she trained. In one piece, two nude people stood facing each other in a doorway through which the public passed, inevitably touching their skin.
Yet the show's centerpiece was an ongoing performance piece in which Abramović sat in a chair as audiences lined up for hours for the chance to sit in a chair facing hers. Silently, each gazed into the other's eyes.
Some cried. Others waited in line all night or returned several times. As for Abramović, she sat immobile for seven-and-a-half hours a day for three months. The film shows her smiling, crying and responding as the connection with each person played out.
The film shows how the question, "Is this art?" has followed Abramović since the 1970s and her radical performances with ex-boyfriend, German artist Ulay, during which the couple stared at each other in the face and screamed back and forth until their voices gave out.
Abramović's early performances have also involved self-mutilation. In one piece, she stabbed her hand with knives.
"I started out as a skeptic," said the film's director Matthew Akers. "I told her, 'I'm skeptical about all this,' when she told me she was going to sit in a chair and do nothing. She was totally unfazed, like, 'Bring it on, I like that.' She gave me keys to her apartment within the first week and said, 'I will never restrict you.'"
And so, Akers set out to "make a compelling film for the broadest audience possible." As such, he kept his distance from his subject.
"I was unrelenting, I was pretty hard on her," he said.
The result of his approach is a film driven by intimacy, authenticity and curiosity, giving viewers a chance to get to know Abramović in surprising ways and to better understand the work that goes into art, its social value and the importance of simple human connection.
"People feel like they're there in the room with her," Akers said.
He still believes there is a lot of bad performance art, but he is no longer a skeptic of Abramović.
"I can assure everyone that this is art," he said. "She has a profound, transformative effect on a lot of people. I witnessed it ... She's arguably the most famous performance artist alive and challenged my preconceptions about a very difficult genre."
The New York-based Abramović said she has plans for more projects, including a touring theater piece directed by Robert Wilson called "The Life and Death of Marina Abramović." The experimental opera also stars Willem Dafoe and Antony Hegarty.
Plans for the Marina Abramović Institute in upstate New York, where she aims to build an art center that teaches the public to "think and experience" like artists, are also underway.
"This has never been done," she said. "We are living in very uncertain times, we're so disconnected from everything. We have lost our spiritual center completely, we have to find one."
(Editing by Christine Kearney and Bob Tourtellotte; Desking by G Crosse)