“People don’t understand that the hardest thing to do is to do something which is close to nothing.” — Marina Abramovic

I confess that my knowledge of performance art is not vast (actually, it’s pretty much limited to less than a handful of exponents, Laurie Anderson primarily among them), so I was until now not at all familiar with the name of Marina Abramovic.

A new HBO documentary, Marina Abramovic: The Artist is Present, has thankfully added to my education.

Known as “the “grandmother of performance art,” the 66-year-old Serbian-born artist has been challenging audiences since the 1970s via controversial pieces that were often of a violent nature, with blood as an often attendant feature. (She nearly died during one project, Rhythm 5, in 1974.) Her what would now be called “extreme” performances are legendary in the genre she helped so much to shape, and The Artist is Present, held at the Museum of Modern Art (MOMA) in 2010, was the largest retrospective of her work to date.

Superficially, the question, “why is this art?” could easily loom over much of this examination of Abramovic’s career, but sometimes the answer is more obvious than it seems. An example would be Imponderabilia (1977), where spectators are asked to traverse two performers in a doorway — one male, one female, both unattired — before entering a gallery space. Not for the squirmish, but so elementarily at the heart of the reason for its creation: forcing us to face the fears, biases, and psychological discomforts that comprise so much of the human experience.

Abramovic’s relationship with the German performance artist Frank Uwe Laysiepen (“Ulay”), which began in the late 1970s, formed the basis of her most creatively charged years, culminating in a spiritual and physical journey that would encompass the end of their association both personal and professional: each crossing the Great Wall of China from different starting points and meeting in the middle, where they bade their farewells.

The Artist is Present, which ran from March – May 2010, was a more quietly metaphysical attempt by Abramovic to forge a connection with the public. For three months, and for seven-and-a-half hours a day, she sat preternaturally still (and silent) on a chair in a section of the museum space devoted to the exhibit, her gaze unwavering as one by one the visitors would sit in another chair across from her for as much time as they liked (one took his place for over seven hours). The reactions ranged from tears to the broadest of smiles. Thousands made the trek to sit at the altar of Abramovic’s art.

“When you have a nonverbal conversation with a total stranger,” says Abramovic, “then he can’t cover himself with words, he can’t create a wall. Sometimes, I have to cry because there’s so much pain.”

And therein lies the answer as to why this is art.