Behind the New Wave of Artist Documentaries, Part I: Directors on Filming Marina Abramovic and Ai Weiwei

Behind the New Wave of Artist Documentaries, Part I: Directors on Filming Marina Abramovic and Ai Weiwei
"Marina Abramovic: The Artist is Present" and "Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry"
(Left: Photo by Marco Anelli © 2010; Right: IMDb)

Artists fascinate us. From Vasari’s Renaissance tell-all “The Lives of Artists” to last year’s Banksy-14779">Banksy-14779">Banksy-14779">Banksy-14779">Banksy-14779">Banksy-14779">Banksy-14779">Banksy-14779">Banksy-14779">Banksy-14779">Banksy-14779">Banksy-14779">Banksy-14779">Banksy-14779">Banksy-14779">Banksy documentary “Exit Through the Gift Shop,” the media steadily feeds our desire to know about the personal lives of the artists we love. This year, however, there seems to be more fodder than ever: Artist documentaries are having a moment, it would seem.

More documentary films devoted to the lives of artists are being released in the next four months than have received wide release in the previous four years. ARTINFO spoke with a number of directors behind this new crop of films to find out what make artists such appealing subjects today. By and large, they came up with two different answers about the surge of interest in the art world: the artist’s personality — because in this media-frenzied age, artists are becoming stars — and the artist’s process — because, in this media-frenzied age, artists still seem to hold out some honest investment in craft and creativity.

For the first installment of this two-part series, we speak with directors who belong to the first group: those enthralled by the personalities of the artists in their films.

MATTHEW AKERS ON Marina Abramovic

Marina Abramovic: The Artist is Present” follows the renowned performance artist for over a year as she prepares for her 2010 retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art. When filming began, neither the movie’s director Matthew Akers nor its star knew that the exhibition — which involved Abramovic sitting motionless in the museum’s atrium across from an empty chair for 716 hours — would become a phenomenon.

“Even Marina and Klaus [Beisenbach, the exhibition’s curator] assumed there would be large chunks of time when the chair would be empty,” said Akers. “And right from the beginning there was a line. So I think even from that moment there was a sense that it had the potential to become a sensation.”

Akers credits the same X-factor for both inspiring the film and transforming the MoMA retrospective into a media event: Abramovic’s personal magnetism. “I resisted doing a project with Marina at first,” he said, explaining that he had just finished following a traveling circus for a year and was hardly in the mood for another intensive shoot. Furthermore, trained as a painter, Akers was skeptical of performance art. But meeting Abramovic in person changed his mind. “She was just charming, open, and cool to hang out with,” he said. “I think she gave me keys to her apartment that first day.”

When an artist’s persona is so integral to her art, however, how does one distinguish between the “real” person and the performer? “I often wondered: Is she being real now?” Akers said. “When she’s sitting down and crying at the performance, is that the same thing as when she’s crying not in the performance? What I recognized later is that it’s rather irrelevant.” What does matter, Akers said, is that both the exhibition and the film “seek to remind people that art has the power to be transformative.” Especially today, when we are constantly plugged in and zoned out, he said, “it’s nice to be reminded about that.”


Like Akers, Alison Klayman captured her subject as he made the shift from prominent artist to international icon. Klayman began following the Chinese dissident while she was working as a journalist in China in 2008 — well before Ai Weiwei was detained for nine months by the Chinese government, a development that prompted front page headlines and international outcry. “Without me knowing it, the movie ended up capturing the most important moments of his life,” Klayman said. Her film, “Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry,” went on to win a Special Jury Prize at Sundance.

Klayman, like Akers, was attracted to her subject initially not because of his art, but because of his persona. “As a filmmaker and a documentarian, you need someone who can carry a film by the force of their personality,” Klayman said. “I felt people could definitely watch him [Ai] for a full 90 minutes.”

Ai is also used to being filmed: he constantly releases documentation of his life and political actions online, and his home is in view of government surveillance cameras. (He also recently launched — and then was forced to shut down — a live video feed of his studio.) Klayman said this aspect of Ai’s work was part of what made him an interesting subject. “So much about this story that fits in the zeitgeist: there's an interest in social media, creative forms of dissent, and of course, there is an interest in China,” she said.

But she’s not surprised by the wider trend of which her film is a part. “It’s not surprising that documentarians might be interest in artists as a subject — we’re reaching a period where documentary is easier than ever to make, and artists make a good subject: a single individual who is creative.”

To hear from the directors behind "Gerhard Richter Painting" and "Gregory Crewdson: Brief Encounters," tune in for part two of this series.

“Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry,” released by Sundance Selects, opens in New York on July 27 and will hit theaters nationally in August.

Marina Abramovic: The Artist is Present” airs on HBO on July 2, preceded by a run at Film Forum in New York and Nuart Theater in Los Angeles.