Cate Blanchett Will Play a Marina Abramović-Like Performance Artist in the Third Season of ‘Documentary Now’

The mockumentary turns its satirical gaze on the art world.

Marina Abramovic. Photo by Paul Bruinooge, ©Patrick McMullan. Cate Blanchett. Photo by Pascal Le Segretain, courtesy of Getty Images.
Marina Abramovic. Photo by Paul Bruinooge, ©Patrick McMullan. Cate Blanchett. Photo by Pascal Le Segretain, courtesy of Getty Images.

The upcoming third season of IFC’s Documentary Now, in which comedians Fred Armisen and Bill Hader lovingly send up famous documentaries, has set its sights on Marina Abramović and her longtime partner Ulay. Australian actress Cate Blanchett will play Izabella Barta, described as “a world-renowned performance artist who feels pressured to put on the show of her life.” The episode will see her reconcile with her former lover, Dimo Van Omen (Armisen), “an infamous provocateur of the art world.”

The famed Serbian performance artist’s 2010 retrospective at New York’s Museum of Modern Art was the subject of Matthew Akers’s 2012 film, Marina Abramović: The Artist Is Present, which seems like a natural target for Documentary Now. The episode will almost certainly include earlier works by the artist as well.

Ulay and Marina Abramović, Rest Energy(1980). Photo courtesy of the Marina Abramović Archives VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn (2017), ©Ulay/Marina Abramović.

Ulay and Marina Abramović, Rest Energy(1980). Photo courtesy of the Marina Abramović Archives
VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn (2017), ©Ulay/Marina Abramović.

Could Blanchett and Armisen take on Rest Energy, described by Abramović as the most difficult piece she’s ever done? In the piece, she and Ulay held a bow and arrow taut and ready to release, leaning with the full weight of their bodies, for four minutes. The arrow was aimed at Abramović’s heart the entire time.

A review of the film in the Atlantic notes that Abramović’s “pieces often border on the ridiculous” and performance art is so inaccessible and divisive that “every interlocutor becomes a parody of oneself.” In AAA-AAA, Ulay and Abramović alternate screaming into each other’s faces for 15 minutes—another scenario that seems ripe for parody.

Ulay and Marina Abramović, AAA-AAA(1978). Photo courtesy of the Marina Abramović Archives VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn (2017), ©Ulay/Marina Abramović.

Ulay and Marina Abramović, AAA-AAA(1978). Photo courtesy of the Marina Abramović Archives
VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn (2017), ©Ulay/Marina Abramović.

Of course, Documentary Now likely faces one major roadblock: Ulay and Abramović performed naked much of the time. The MoMA retrospective was controversially staffed with naked models recreating works like Imponderablia, which required visitors to turn sideways to squeeze between a naked man and woman flanking a doorway.

It will be interesting to see how much, if any, nudity the mockumentary will opt to show on screen. Akers’s original documentary includes footage of outraged Fox News hosts decrying the show, so there’s a good chance we’ll get Hader’s best news anchor impersonation.

Ulay and Marina Abramović, <i>Imponderabilia</i>(1977). Photo courtesy of the Marina Abramović Archives VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn (2017), ©Ulay/Marina Abramović.

Ulay and Marina Abramović, Imponderabilia(1977). Photo courtesy of the Marina Abramović Archives VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn (2017), ©Ulay/Marina Abramović.

But the climax of the episode will almost certainly be when Barta and Van Omen finally reunite. In Akers’s documentary, Abramović, tasked with sitting at the MoMA for 750 hours, suddenly finds herself face-to-face with Ulay, with whom she had now been estranged for decades.

Their tumultuous relationship has undeniable mockumentary potential: The two split in dramatic fashion in 1988, walking separately for 90 days to meet in the middle of the Great Wall of China, officially dissolving their union. (Originally, the piece was set to culminate in their marriage, but Ulay impregnated their translator while they were waiting for permits approving the performance.)

Marina Abramović and Ulay, The Lovers (1988). The piece took three months to complete, and marked the dissolution of their romantic and professional partnership. Courtesy of the artists.

Marina Abramović and Ulay, The Lovers (1988). The piece took three months to complete and marked the dissolution of their romantic and professional partnership. Courtesy of the artists.

The MoMA exhibition’s title work, The Artist Is Present, was an adaptation of a durational performance work, Nightsea Crossing (1981–87), by the former duo. The two artists sat for hours in silence, facing each other across a long table. At MoMA, museum visitors lined up to take the seat opposite Abramović, sitting in silence with her.

Ulay was a surprise visitor to the performance, and shocked whispers rippled through the space as onlookers realized what was happening. Akers captured the shock in Abramović’s eyes. Soon, the two began weeping, reaching out to hold hands across the table—notably shorter than the one used in the original piece. The touching moment has been watched hundreds of thousands of times on YouTube. (Ulay and Abramović are now reportedly planning to release a joint memoir.)

Marina Abramovic and Ulay reunite at the MoMA during her retrospective <em>The Artist Is Present</em>. Photo by Scott Ruddl.

Marina Abramovic and Ulay reunite at the MoMA during her retrospective The Artist Is Present. Photo by Scott Ruddl.

According to a statement from IFC general manager Blake Callaway, “Cate’s portrayal of an art world superstar has her doing it all: performance art, comedy, and even her own stunts.” A two-time Oscar winner, Blanchett has clearly demonstrated both the dramatic and comedic chops necessary for the role. The actress also has art world cred, having tackled no less than 13 different characters in Julian Rosefeldt’s multi-channel video work Manifesto, which screened in New York at the Park Avenue Armory in 2016 and as a feature film at the 2017 Sundance Film Festival.

Documentary Now debuts February 20, 2019; the last new episodes aired in October 2016. When reached by artnet News via email, Abramović declined to comment on the casting.

Watch the trailer for the real documentary below.


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