MARINA Abramovic is as eccentric, fascinating and puzzling as artists come. And the documentary Marina Abramovic: The Artist Is Present tries very hard, but doesn't quite manage, to unlock the puzzle of the woman beyond the glossy artistic persona she began building for herself since her first performances some 40 years ago.
In fact, watching four of the nine art documentaries that will be shown at next month's Art-In-Film Festival At Dusk, one is struck by how most of these renowned artists (Ai Wei Wei, Jean-Michel Basquait, Chuck Close, among celebrated others) have each forged his or her own unique world, complete with its own laws and logic.
Try as you might to find your footing in each world, you don't always succeed. Their worlds are as strange and elusive as they are recognisable; each abides by a kernel of truths about life and art that would be instantly recognisable to a thinking person.
Abramovic, for instance, once invited an audience into a studio and took her clothes off for six hours. She then allowed them to do what they wanted to her, using any of 72 instruments she provided such as nails, paint, a rose with thorns, alcohol, matches, and a gun with one bullet.
Towards the end of the six-hour session, the audience got violent. But Abramovic made a spectacular point about the physical and psychological limits of human beings.
Directed by Matthew Akers, the documentary contains numerous clips of the extreme performances Abramovic has carried out over the years - screaming till her throat gave out, dancing till she fainted, trading slaps with a fellow artist for hours on end, and hurling her body against another until both collapsed in exhaustion.
Why does she do these things? Is she a masochist? The documentary reveals a lot, but is unable to say for certain why this woman would risk life and limb for her art. A personal search for answers might be one guess, but the standard "quest for immortality" might be a more plausible reason. Whatever it is, Marina Abramovic: The Artist Is Present is nothing short of fascinating.
Another outstanding documentary in the festival is Ai Wei Wei: Never Sorry, which does a fine job of illuminating the motivations of the world's most famous dissident artist against the regime he confronts.
Ai Wei Wei rose to fame for helping to design the Bird's Nest Stadium for the Beijing Olympics in 2008. But he then chose to boycott the Games as a stand against China's dictatorial policies. His anti-government blog and Twitterstream made him an increasingly dangerous thorn on the side of China, but at the same time, it garnered him worldwide attention. "The Internet is the greatest invention of the 20th century," he declares. "It allows ordinary people a chance to change public opinion."
Through his art, the artist-provocateur has sought to highlight what he perceives as injustices to the Chinese people. After the 2008 Sichuan earthquake, he collected the names of more than 5,000 children killed in schools that fell like "tofu" because of their shoddy construction. He then created an artwork on the wall of Munich's Haus der Kunst using thousands of children's backpacks to create the phrase "She lived happily for seven years in this world", a quote from one of the victims' mothers.
"If we don't push, nothing happens. Life is more interesting when you make a little effort," he says. Alison Klayman's documentary captures Ai's intelligence, charisma and determination to make a difference. The result is a mesmerising examination of an artist and the power (and limits) of art.
The other seven documentaries being featured in the festival have also garnered positive reviews in the US. They include Jean-Michel Basquiat: The Radiant Child, which chronicles the tumultuous life of the late artist; Waste Land which documents Vik Muniz's stunning artistic collaboration with Brazil's scavengers of recyclable materials, as well as Black White + Gray: A Portrait Of Sam Wagstaff And Robert Mapplethorpe which looks at the forgotten legacy of curator Sam Wagstaff, the longtime partner of photographer Robert Mapplethorpe.
Together, these films give viewers a rare opportunity to understand the artistic processes of acknowledged greats, and dissect what's sometimes known as the "artist's mystique".
The Art-In-Film Festival runs from March 7 to 16 at Tanjong Beach Club, Sentosa, Singapore. For a schedule of the screenings and ticket purchase from $19, visit www.artinfilmfest.com