ABOVE: MATTHEW AKERS. IMAGE COURTESY OF HBO
While documentarians often tackle difficult subjects, few have attempted the nearly impossible task of capturing a piece of performance art for posterity. With Marina AbramoviÄ?: The Artist is Present, director Matthew Akers managed to do just that. Akers followed the legendary performance artist Marina AbramoviÄ? for months as she prepared for her retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art and through the three months she spent as a living fixture in the museum for her piece The Artist is Present. For the duration of her retrospective, AbramoviÄ? sat in the museum’s atrium—barely moving—as visitors sat across from her, one by one. Akers, who previously worked as a cinematographer and producer, found himself as a first-time director trying to capture a piece where “nothing happens.” Although the piece sounds simplistic, it caused many visitors to have very visceral and emotional reactions. Some visitors started crying, others remained passive, and at least one woman stripped down. We spoke to Akers about filming the impossible and what it was really like to stare down AbramoviÄ?.
GILLIAN MOHNEY: You mentioned that you weren’t interested at first in working on the piece after spending months working on Circus [a documentary series on PBS]; can you talk about getting involved and what won you over?
MATTHEW AKERS: I didn’t even give it a moment’s thought that I would want to work on the project. I was so tired from trying to convince clowns and acrobats to let me into their trailer. I was like “I don’t know… I can’t spend another year trying to convince someone to let me in.” [Producer Jeff Dupre] was like “No, look, she’s really charming. She’s going to give us access. Just trust me.” So I went up and met with her the day before [shooting], and I knew he was right. If nothing else, it was going to be fun to hang out with her, and she’s such a cool person. But I said to her very clearly, “This is a huge risk for us… You have to give me access. You can’t restrict me in anyway. I can’t spend months and months trying to track you down. Would you be willing to do this?” And she was like, “Absolutely.” Within a week, she had given me keys to her apartment. I mean, like, a total dream.
MOHNEY: Were you familiar with her work before you started working on the film?
AKERS: I went to art school and studied painting and sculpture. I had a healthy dose of skepticism about performance art, because it wasn’t part of my art making [experience]… Certainly when we decided we were going to make the film, [Jeff Dupre and I] both started studying her work quite extensively… That said, all the books don’t communicate the transformative power of witnessing something like that firsthand. I was very skeptical. She wasn’t the great artist persona that she became when she sat in that chair. She was this fun-loving, self-depreciating, almost manic human being that had boundless energy that never stopped.
It posed a peculiar challenge. Is this really this great artist that has been written about for all this time? I certainly don’t seem to be witnessing that person. I was terrified, is this going to be great or is this going to be a big joke? Has she been pulling the wool over people’s eyes for 40 years? It was a terrifying prospect on some level. Also the fact that she told us she was going to be doing nothing. Like, what are we going to be filming?
MOHNEY: Did you ever sit for her?
AKERS: I did, yeah. But for me it was different, because I sat towards the end, and we had just been talking, just before we both sat down. So I had this insider perspective that no one else had. The public was never let in before she was actually seated and motionless. I never had that presentation, but nevertheless, when you enter that space, something peculiar happens. The lights that she set up around the perimeter seem to seal off the space like a vacuum, and you really were just there with her… and you were confronted with your own self. You were having this dialogue with her—silent dialogue—but you were also confronted with whatever was happening in your mind in your own space. Also, there were some weird optical things occurring. The lighting sort of lent itself to this strange—all these optical illusions. Her face would disappear at times and then reappear. I think it’s very hard to look at someone for long periods of time, [at] their eyes. You’ve got the light on you, hitting your retina from different perspectives and different angles. You could attribute metaphysical meaning to what was happening, but I think it was explainable scientifically.
MOHNEY: Was it a challenge to shoot a piece that’s essentially motionless?
AKERS: Well, it’s not much of a challenge, because I’m used to shooting things that seem like paint drying. Then you get into the edit room and figure out a way to make it have energy and maintain interest to a film audience. I shot a lot of very subtle movements or no movement occurring. It was sort of like making a nature documentary. Just watching animals on the savannah.
MOHNEY: She’s curated her own life for so long—what was it like when she handed it over to you?
AKERS: Maybe it was a challenge for her. I don’t know. She never let on that it was a challenge. She seemed pretty fearless. I don’t know why she did that. I just feel so fortunate and lucky to have been given the opportunity.
MARINA ABRAMOVIÄ?: THE ARTIST IS PRESENT PREMIERES ON HBO JULY 2 AT 9 PM, AND IS SCREENING AT FILM FORUM STARTING TODAY.