Performance artist Marina Abramovic may not be a household name, but the level of fame she has achieved since her 2010 Museum of Modern Art retrospective, The Artist is Present, has been awe-inspiring. How often does a contemporary artist inspire a meme (The Tumblr “Maria Abramovic Made Me Cry”, featuring pictures of overwhelmed art-goers who sat facing Abramovic throughout her 736-hour appearance at MoMA), or align themselves with celebrity fans such as James Franco and Lady Gaga without appearing like a fame-baiting sellout?
One example of integrity-intact pop culture alignment occurred earlier this year when Abramovic made an appearance at Jay Z’s performance art piece. The six hour rendition of “Picasso Baby” held was at New York’s Pace Gallery. In an interview, Jay Z asserts that contemporary art and hip hop came up together harmoniously in 1980’s inner New York.
While Jay Z’s production was similar to the raw performance art Abramovic does, most modern pop performances can be simply described as defanged. Any performance from the MTV Video Music or American Music Awards illustrates the point perfectly. These programs create spectacle with little meaning and in comparison it becomes undeniable Abramovic’s approaches her subjects with teeth intact. The six prior biographic “remixes” preceding the experimental opera The Life and Death of Marina Abramovic were directed by theater director Michael Laub and video artist Charles Atlas, among other noted edge of the industry figures. The artist describes the complete biography as liberating, and has used the multiple productions as a vehicle for detachment from a painful personal history. The series has generated enough acclaim Abramovic could have asked anyone to direct the final installment. The choice of avant garde theater director Robert Wilson is divisive. Wilson’s body of work could be described as immaculate whereas Abramovic’s prefers to focus on violence. Wilson valiantly attempts to bridge the gap, attempting a middle ground between the bombast of pop performance and Abramovic’s more visceral work. With integrity in tact, of course.
Originally debuting in Manchester in 2011, The Life and Death of Marina Abramovic has made it’s US debut at Manhattan’s Park Avenue Armory, selling out the run. This opulent, epic venue suits Wilson’s overpowering visuals nicely. Likewise, the Armory’s upcoming season of programming , which includes everything from a residency by The xx to art installations by Turner Prize winner Douglas Gordon falls in line nicely with The Life and Death of Marina Abramovic’s core: accessibility trumped art.
In the past Wilson has staged silent overtures and free-form operas, but his work lacks the hand-holding customarily found in mainstream performance. His signature sets are both austere and breathtaking. Grotesque expressions by performers are abundant throughout The Life and Death of Marina Abramovic, as is Abramovic and Wilson’s shared fondness for endurance. Phrases are repeated until the meaning is found and then altered. Performers move glacially, and there is little clear meaning between scene transitions.
Then again, Wilson has also worked with Lady Gaga on a series of video portraits, and sometimes, a visual can be so strong that it can override the impenetrable. A scene from Life and Death, such as the barrage of choreographed soldiers picking up and waving white flags and shouting about artists while Abramovic rides out on a Trojan horse, may be difficult to unpack, but there’s no arguing that the resulting visuals are stirring.
As opposed to her own work, staying astride that horse is perhaps the most dangerous thing Abramovic has to do in Life and Death. The productions most taxing role is given to Willem Dafoe, the play’s narrator. Dafoe is the audience’s key to deciphering the action unfurling on stage, and the veteran actor performs with tremendous energy. Appearing like a leftover ghoul from Wilson’s production of Tom Waits’ and William S. Burrough’s collaboration The Black Rider, the look suits Dafoe’s sometimes demented, sometimes cabaret approach to material. Some of the pain Abramovic experienced throughout childhood borders so closely to a parody of abusive parenting techniques that only the over-the-top approach Dafoe employs in narration staves off the melodrama.
Critics have complained much about the performance’s plot focusing largely on Yugoslavian born Abramovic’s relationship with her violent mother. However the stories of abuse provide insight into Abramovic’s work. The most telling anecdote is the self-assessed happiest period of Abramovic’s childhood. It was a year spent in hospital undergoing treatment for hemophilia (a misdiagnosis.) Perhaps so much of Abramovic’s work is pain-based because it was at the forefront of her childhood. The fixation on this particular facet of Abramovic’s life could be seen as Wilson’s sympathetic explanation of her work.
As with most Wilson endeavors music plays a significant role in The Life and Death of Marina Abramovic. Comparable to the Philip Glass-composed Einstein on the Beach and The Black Rider, musical accompaniment serves as a major vehicle for forward momentum. In Life and Death, Antony Hegarty, William Basinksi, and Serbian singer Svetlana Spajic feature prominently in the score.
The strongest performer of the trio, Hegarty appears on stage in numerous scenes. His otherwordly voice sounds unbelievable in the Armory’s expansive theatre. The first appearance, to sing Baby Dee’s “Snowy Angel”, is beautifully staged, with Hegarty dressed in breastplate and black gown. In the scene Abramovic in a hospital bed holds a puppet of herself. Dafoe is resting stage left with a green apple. Each performer is completely still, inactive so as not to disrupt the power of Hegarty’s voice.
In another scene, Hegarty strolls on stage walking a lobster. The sight recalls something straight out of surrealist Max Ernst’s famous collage book, Une Semaine De Bonte. Wilson’s visuals are a beautiful sight to behold, even though the payoff may take awhile. The performance’s penultimate scene is also the most striking, as Abramovic, in a scarlet gown, is wheeled out on a metallic structure, billows of smoke creating rolling waves from whence Dafoe crosses the smoky sea to her.
During intermission a couple was overheard describing Wilson’s approach as “hermetic”. This description is apt, although it doesn’t mean his work is so obscure its pleasure is stifled. The audience is just forced to wait for the reward. Abramovic, Wilson, Hegarty, and Dafoe may not have created a transcendental force that will make the shallow culturati pause in their tracks, but The Life and Death of Marina Abramovic is still powerful enough to outlive the vast glut of spectacles staged this year.