‘We Hope She Likes It’: Fred Armisen Explains How He and Cate Blanchett Parodied Marina Abramovic and Ulay
The mockmentary series Documentary Now! takes on the famed performance artist and her MoMA retrospective.
The mockumentary, which is part of the third season of Documentary Now!, stars two-time Academy Award winner Cate Blanchett as Izabella Barta (a thinly veiled Abramovic) and Fred Armisen as Dimo (a fictionalized Ulay, the artist who collaborated with Abramovic in in the 1970s and ’80s).
Throughout the episode, we follow Barta as she struggles to come up with a new work for an upcoming show in Budapest. “The question on everyone’s mind that they’re not saying is, ‘does she have anything new to say?'” Dimo tells the filmmaker. “I think maybe not; her best work is in the past.”
The show is full of small delights for art-world insiders. There’s a Klaus Biesenbach-type curator, an appearance by the real-life Mr. Brainwash, and even a sequence in which Blanchett (as Barta) trains young performance artists, which is presumably inspired by Abramovic’s plans to open the Marina Abramovic Institute for the Preservation of Performance Art.
There is also a clever bit of gender politics. In the show, Barta labors to advance her career, while Dimo, a lazy unoriginal, and conceited artist, finds success easily. “I put no thought and no time into it,” he says at one point about one of his exhibitions. “Opening night, I went to the store and bought a bunch of crap,” including a fork and a toothbrush that he displays to acclaim.
Barta, on the other hand, is best known for her piece Bucket Series, in which the audience is invited to litter the gallery floor with all sorts of objects before the artist rushes in with bucket over her head, racing to answer a phone ringing in the center of the room.
In an interview with artnet News, Armisen was quick to clarify that he has nothing against Ulay. “In any narrative piece, you need a sort of villain, for lack of a better word,” he says. The choice to make Dimo lazy was plot driven, providing a foil to Barta’s unfailing dedication to her work.
One commentator in the show sums up their relationship thusly: “you had a woman who risked everything for her art, and a man who risked nothing.” (In real life, Abramovic and Ulay have had their ups and downs, but have set aside their differences in recent years, even making plans to write a joint memoir.)
We talked with Armisen about the episode, the challenges of parodying art, and waiting in line at art museums. This conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.
What was it like filming this episode with Cate Blanchett?
We shot it in Budapest, and there was a video art piece at the museum with Cate Blanchett in it. A total, total coincidence! [Julian Rosefeldt’s Manifesto, in which Blanchett plays 13 different roles, was at the National Gallery from May 30–August 12, 2018.]
Amazing! That’s a great piece. And it really shows what a chameleon Cate is.
We weren’t prepared for how much work she was going to put into it! She showed up with her own wardrobe, with outfits that were like Marina’s. Cate even had some sort of dental things to make her look more like Marina. Sometimes I like to fancy myself the person who over-prepares and really gets into it—she was 10 times that. She could have done the whole episode on her own. The accent, the posture, oh man, it was incredible.
Even her skin had the right kind of… sheen.
Yeah! Whatever that quality is, she had it.
Did you see the MoMA show?
No! There was a line! I saw the movie and I love pieces like that, but I can never wait in line to see art. It’s not that I’m a snob, it’s that I can’t enjoy it if i’ve been waiting. It’s too much for me. I like a nice empty gallery, an empty performance.
Have you spoken to Marina about the episode at all?
No! I wish I did. I’ve never met her. Let her know that we are huge fans and we hope she likes it.
Why is she a good parody subject?
The boldness of her presence—and I know her documentary is called The Artist Is Present—there is something about that, the fact that it moved so many people. That, I think, is moving. If a band has a hit record, something worked, something resonated. I consider her to be somebody who had a hit piece, a hit art performance. It’s a rare thing to hit the mainstream. It happens sometimes 100 years after you’re dead. The fact that she did that in present day is really rare. How great is that? I really respect her art.
What’s your favorite part of the episode?
I like the footage of Cate putting the pail over her head with the marbles on the floor. It just made me laugh. It’s a silly part to it—I underestimate silliness.
I loved the Mr. Brainwash cameo. Any chance you guys would do a Exit Through the Gift Shop parody?
Maybe. It’s just too hard to really nail. We kind of did one on Portlandia, where one of the characters thought he was Banksy. He saw some graffiti and he was like, “oh that looks like my handwriting. I wonder if I’m Banksy?” Whenever you depict art, it’s very difficult because it can come off as just lazy or easy.
See more photos of Blanchett and Armisen from the episode below.
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