PopMatters is moving to WordPress. We will publish a few essays daily while we develop the new site. We hope the beta will be up sometime late next week.
Reviews

The Life and Death of Marina Abramovic

Marina Abramovic

Marina Abramovic, Willem Dafoe, Antony Hegarty, and Robert Wilson join forces for an "experimental opera" where artfulness trumps accessibility.

The Life and Death of Marina Abramovic

City: New York
Venue: The Park Avenue Armory
Date: 2013-12-13

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.

7

Please Donate to Help Save PopMatters

PopMatters have been informed by our current technology and hosting provider that we have less than a month, until November 6, to move PopMatters off their service or we will be shut down. We are moving to WordPress and a new host, but we really need your help to save the site.


Music

Books

Film

Recent
Music

Laura Veirs Talks to Herself on 'My Echo'

The thematic connections between these 10 Laura Veirs songs and our current situation are somewhat coincidental, or maybe just the result of kismet or karmic or something in the zeitgeist.

Film

15 Classic Horror Films That Just Won't Die

Those lucky enough to be warped by these 15 classic horror films, now available on Blu-ray from The Criterion Collection and Kino Lorber, never got over them.

Music

Sixteen Years Later Wayne Payne Follows Up His Debut

Waylon Payne details a journey from addiction to redemption on Blue Eyes, The Harlot, The Queer, The Pusher & Me, his first album since his 2004 debut.

Music

Every Song on the Phoenix Foundation's 'Friend Ship' Is a Stand-Out

Friend Ship is the Phoenix Foundation's most personal work and also their most engaging since their 2010 classic, Buffalo.

Music

Kevin Morby Gets Back to Basics on 'Sundowner'

On Sundowner, Kevin Morby sings of valleys, broken stars, pale nights, and the midwestern American sun. Most of the time, he's alone with his guitar and a haunting mellotron.

Music

Lydia Loveless Creates Her Most Personal Album with 'Daughter'

Given the turmoil of the era, you might expect Lydia Loveless to lean into the anger, amplifying the electric guitar side of her cowpunk. Instead, she created a personal record with a full range of moods, still full of her typical wit.

Music

Flowers for Hermes: An Interview with Performing Activist André De Shields

From creating the title role in The Wiz to winning an Emmy for Ain't Misbehavin', André De Shields reflects on his roles in more than four decades of iconic musicals, including the GRAMMY and Tony Award-winning Hadestown.

Film

The 13 Greatest Horror Directors of All Time

In honor of Halloween, here are 13 fascinating fright mavens who've made scary movies that much more meaningful.

Music

British Jazz and Soul Artists Interpret the Classics on '​Blue Note Re:imagined'

Blue Note Re:imagined provides an entrance for new audiences to hear what's going on in British jazz today as well as to go back to the past and enjoy old glories.

Film

Bill Murray and Rashida Jones Add Another Shot to 'On the Rocks'

Sofia Coppola's domestic malaise comedy On the Rocks doesn't drown in its sorrows -- it simply pours another round, to which we raise our glass.

Music

​Patrick Cowley Remade Funk and Disco on 'Some Funkettes'

Patrick Cowley's Some Funkettes sports instrumental renditions from between 1975-1977 of songs previously made popular by Donna Summer, Herbie Hancock, the Temptations, and others.

Music

The Top 10 Definitive Breakup Albums

When you feel bombarded with overpriced consumerism disguised as love, here are ten albums that look at love's hangover.

Music

Dustin Laurenzi's Natural Language Digs Deep Into the Jazz Quartet Format with 'A Time and a Place'

Restless tenor saxophonist Dustin Laurenzi runs his four-piece combo through some thrilling jazz excursions on a fascinating new album, A Time and a Place.

Television

How 'Watchmen' and 'The Boys' Deconstruct American Fascism

Superhero media has a history of critiquing the dark side of power, hero worship, and vigilantism, but none have done so as radically as Watchmen and The Boys.

Music

Floodlights' 'From a View' Is Classicist Antipodal Indie Guitar Pop

Aussie indie rockers, Floodlights' debut From a View is a very cleanly, crisply-produced and mixed collection of shambolic, do-it-yourself indie guitar music.

Music

CF Watkins Embraces a Cool, Sophisticated Twang on 'Babygirl'

CF Watkins has pulled off the unique trick of creating an album that is imbued with the warmth of the American South as well as the urban sophistication of New York.

Music

Helena Deland Suggests Imagination Is More Rewarding Than Reality on 'Something New'

Canadian singer-songwriter Helena Deland's first full-length release Someone New reveals her considerable creative talents.

Music

While the Sun Shines: An Interview with Composer Joe Wong

Joe Wong, the composer behind Netflix's Russian Doll and Master of None, articulates personal grief and grappling with artistic fulfillment into a sweeping debut album.


Reviews
Collapse Expand Reviews



Features
Collapse Expand Features

PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 PopMatters.com. All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.