Marina Abramovic II
By Philip Auslander
I offer these comments in the spirit of starting a public conversation around The Life and Death of Marina Abramovic, which I saw at its premiere during the 2011 Manchester International Festival. Although I was thrilled to land a ticket at the last minute, I also went with a certain amount of anxiety about what I was getting myself into. How on earth could a collaboration among such titans as Abramovic, Robert Wilson, Willem Dafoe, and Antony Hegarty possibly work? Would it be endlessly long, as Wilson’s work frequently is? Would there be a clash of egos? Would it be yet another chapter in Abramovic’s ongoing project of self-hagiography?
Mercifully, the answer to the first two questions was no—it was production of normal length and everyone seemed to have found a way of working together. And even if the answer to the third question was probably yes, as Harry suggests, I found it to be much more restrained than most of Abramovic’s recent efforts at simultaneously establishing and protecting her legacy.
The opening scene, in which large black dogs sniff around three bleached white figures lying on black coffin-like structures, was strangely reassuring to me. The image was vintage Wilson, especially the contrast between brilliantly lit pale figures and the deep black surround, as was the stasis. Nobody moved, except the dogs. I found it remarkable how uncomfortable the presence of live animals on stage, even dogs, made many in the audience. Each time a dog approached one of the human figures, you could hear murmurs of concern about whether the animal might do something inappropriate. Perhaps this is the final frontier of an avant-garde whose human performers have become all too predictable.
In my judgment, The Life and Death of Marina Abramovic is more Wilson’s production than Abramovic’s. Yes, it’s based on her life and, yes, she’s in it, playing herself. Dafoe, an actor I admire greatly, acquitted himself incredibly well in what was essentially the thankless task of narrating Abramovic’s life, making really extraordinary choices in his approach to the material. For me, the one element that conspicuously didn’t work was Antony, a regal presence in a long black dress who came out every so often to sing, beautifully and mournfully, but never seemed integrated into the production. Abramovic herself seemed thoroughly integrated, restrained by and contained within Wilson’s powerful visual vocabulary. The art historian Carrie Lambert-Beatty points out that the staging of The Artist is Present, Abramovic’s performance during her MOMA retrospective of 2010, seemed designed to make her seem super-human. She took her place before the audience arrived and left after the last spectator, with no breaks. In the context of Wilson’s rigid formal framing, she seemed all too human. She sang in the show, as did Dafoe. Neither of them should have, but there was something very humanizing, almost endearing (though also painful) about seeing them amateurishly plowing their way through songs.
I agree with Harry that everything Abramovic does these days is part of her continuing program of self-aggrandizement and self-mythologization. But I found that my fear that this particular production would be a massive ego-fest was misplaced. Ultimately, it came across to me more as a Robert Wilson production about Abramovic in which she happened to play the lead role than as another occasion for her to once again stage her own sense of importance and to reiterate, for the thousandth time, what a crucial figure she is in the history of performance art.
Philip Auslander writes frequently on music and performance. He is the Editor of The Art Section.