Published  17/12/2013

The Life and Death of Marina Abramović

The Life and Death of Marina Abramović

Park Avenue Armory at 67th Street, New York
12-21 December 2013


Marina Abramović, a master of performance art, in collaboration with theatre director Robert Wilson, with musical arrangements and composition by Antony, and outstanding performances by Willem Dafoe and the rest of the cast, packed the Park Avenue Armory at 67th Street for the US premiere of The Life and Death of Marina Abramović. The idea of this theatrical life and death performance began in 2007 when Abramović phoned Wilson to say she wanted him to stage her death. “Only if I can also stage your life,” he replied.

The vast Armory space had been transformed into a theatre for the performance and, although it was a pricy benefit, ranging from $750 to $1,500 (£460 to £920) per ticket, it was a sell-out. On every seat was a copy of the programme, The Seventh Regiment Gazette, a large newspaper-like format, with the shocking front-page headline: “ARTIST MARINA ABRAMOVIĆ DIES AT 67.” The ensuing obituary listed all her accomplishments and stated that in her last will and testament she wanted “three coffins containing her body and likeness to be dispersed and buried in different parts of the world”.

As the audience took their seats, on stage, against a highly lit backdrop, stood three coffins and in them laid black-robed figures with white masks. Three large black dogs ran from side to side sniffing bones scattered around the floor. As the curtains came down, the narrator, Dafoe – whose character reminded one of the Joker – appeared and began to introduce the audience to Abramović’s life.

An array of emotionally charged songs, chanting and performances that could only have come from the inner sanctum of 40 years of creating deep cultural and inspiring work are woven between narrated details of her life, including: “1998 selling less and less”; “2012, going to Brazil, seeing shaman, who tells her to eat garlic and consume large quantities of milk”; “2006, death of her mother …”; “2003, working with Tibetan monks again”; “2009, heart broken”; “2010, last of the performances in front of 17,000 people, he stood looking at her, they embraced, she loves his smell, she loves his touch, time stops, he is like an eternity”; “2000, Money problems, office problems …”

There are The Story of the Washing Machine, The Story of the Big Nose, The Story of the Shoe Polish and The Story of the Russian Roulette, among others. During the performances, the stage lights were turned off and, with the bright background, the characters and objects appeared as silhouettes, reinforcing the life and death theme, reminding one of Kara Walker’s cutouts. The Story of the Big Nose tells of when Abramović was a young girl thinking she was ugly and wanting to change her nose. On stage, images of Photoshopped, elongated, pointed noses are shown, and we are told that the young Abramović had a cunning plan. She would fall down so that she broke her nose, and then, when in hospital, she would bring out the photo she carried of Brigitte Bardot and tell the doctor she wanted to look like that picture.

It appears that her looks have tormented her throughout her life, and it was not until this year, when she met her new man, who told her how beautiful she was, and with whom she had seven hours of straight pleasure, that happiness finally arrived. Dafoe states: “2013, she met a man. He told her she was beautiful, he kissed her like no one ever had, he made love to her like no one ever had.”

The two hours and 40 minutes long performance ended with a glorified death. Abramović, in a white dress with spiral folding on its side, is raised from the floor along with the two other figures first shown in their coffins, reminiscent of allegorical figures of the Virgin Mary, or perhaps even the resurrection of Christ.

After the performance, I was pleased to meet Ms Abramović, very much alive and looking radiant and beautiful in a black dress. She is grounded by her personal and artistic struggles. She mentioned that she is in mourning all the time, that even that very day she had an aunt being put into the ground, who had died two days ago, and that this would be incorporated into her show, so that every day there is something new. Asked about her love life, she said: “Now I’m very happy, so there is something good about 13, so see, there is a God.”

Speaking about her new project in Hudson NY, she said it will be like no other. She also said: “It is very easy to be an artist for four or five years, but after 40 years it’s hard.” She has, she said, “a very simple wish, just to change the world”.  

This theatrical production premiered at Manchester International Festival in 2011.

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