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The Pick: The Artist Is Present, a look behind Marina Abramović’s carefully guarded public persona

The performance artist Marina Abramović comes across as positively otherworldly. She looms on the stage, tall and imposing like a pagan priestess. She moans and writhes, chanting in a sonorous, Slavic-accented alto. She flogs her naked body and carves pentagrams into her abdomen. She stands passively, surrounded by sharp objects and a gun (with one bullet) and challenges her audience to harm her. In her most recent exhibit at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City, she sat for eight hours a day, staring both blankly and piercingly at an endless parade of curious patrons. In all of her pieces, she exhibits supernatural stamina, a wilful disregard for social norms and a chilling solemnity. The new documentary The Artist Is Present, currently playing at the TIFF Bell Lightbox, dismantles that carefully guarded public persona—in it, Abramović is disarmingly human.

The film is a companion piece to Abramović’s recent MoMA exhibit, as well as a retrospective of her career, including her collaborations with her former lover, Ulay. (In their final epic work, they each started on opposite ends of the Great Wall of China, meeting in the middle.) It captures Abramović’s hypnotic power over her audience; many giggle nervously, some try to get her to break, others are moved to tears. (In one cheeky sequence, a smug James Franco takes the chair, then pontificates on the nature of performance art and acting. “Are you an actor?” someone asks.)

The film is at its best, however, when we get a glimpse into Abramović’s jarring normality. She shimmies during a photo shoot and talks about finding dates. She cooks with Ulay. She talks about her love for designer clothes and giggles and chats with her staff. She’s charming and affable—someone you’d love to chat with over cocktails. The film’s insight into Abramović’s everyday life and underlying insecurities (over her age, her appearance, her failed relationship) make her vulnerable in a way that her own art never permits. At one point, she opens her eyes at the MoMA exhibit to see Ulay sitting across from her, triggering a display of emotion that could never be evoked through staged histrionics —it’s the film’s best moment.

The details: Various times. $12. TIFF Bell Lightbox, 350 King St. W., tiff.net

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