By Harry Weil
In a piece I previously wrote for The Art Section, I highlighted how so much of what has motivated the move toward recognizing performance art from the 60s and 70s was a fear of forgetting, or, as the historian Adam Philips explains, a fear of not getting “our forgetting right.” Marina Abramovic fetishizes this fear in The Life and Death of Marina Abramovic, a “quasi opera” directed by Robert Wilson that made its American debut at the Park Avenue Armory in December. While at times I couldn’t help but feel skeptical of this bio-epic’s truthfulness, I was enamored of Abramovic’s chutzpah. In compiling a larger-than-life narrative, and steering clear of allowing us to forget, Abramovic the person and Abramovic the artist perfectly align together in a grandiose vision of life and death.
I wrote this review on a bench in a quiet corner of the Metropolitan Museum, sitting across from a Franz Klein canvas dated to 1952. It is filled with the artist’s signature style of black brush strokes atop a white and grey background. Despite his being considered a seminal figure in the mid-century camp of action painting, the wall label dispelled any misconceptions about the work, which while seemingly spontaneous, was in actuality closely studied and altered. Myths about how works come into being propel the art historical canon, often garnering more legitimacy than facts ever could. They engage with what the theologian Christopher Bryan describes as our logic and its loyalties, an appeal that is at the heart of The Life and Death of Marina Abramovic.
The Life and Death of Marina Abramovic
The program for the opera took the form of a broadsheet that announced Abramovic’s death, explaining what we were about to see “could be considered her final performance art masterpiece.” I was taken back. Is she abandoning performance art all together, as did Vito Acconci and Chris Burden? Or is it a ploy, à la sports legends Brett Farve and Michael Jordan, or music icon Cher, and we should expect to see her coming out of retirement in the very near future? But even more disconcerting was the production’s being labeled a “masterpiece.” Is this a case of an inflated ego, an over-zealous public relations machine or both? As the lights began to lower, these questions swirled around my head and I prepared myself for either a mournful commemoration or a Las Vegas style send-off.
Things begin in Soviet controlled Belgrade, unfolding as a series of unfortunate events punctuated with emotional and physical abuse. Despite their often whimsical or morbid tone, the stories are told in a matter-of-fact way, such as when a young Marina got caught in a washing machine. After being set free by a repairman, she was promptly slapped by her stern and unsympathetic mother, Danica. She reacted similarly to learning that her daughter was performing in public naked, throwing a solid crystal ashtray at her head. Danica makes a number of appearances as a counterpoint to Abramovic, whose artistic career failed to fall in line with the propriety of the dominant social order. Unfortunately, as she matured, drama was never too far away. Her tumultuous romantic and professional relationship with Ulay takes on a histrionic quality, with woeful songs of love found and heartbreakingly lost. All these incidents have been previously acknowledged in Abramovic’s biography (written by James Wescott) and retrospective exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art (both from 2010), as well as the documentary film, Marina Abramovic: The Artist is Present (released in 2012). Here they are narrated by Willem Dafoe, who also stands in for Ulay on stage, and unfold in Wilson’s trademark style: a macabre carnival of melodramatically lit stage sets, monotonous choreography, and actors in makeup reminiscent of Tim Burton’s Edward Scissorhands. During intermission, a Russian art critic leaned over to ask if I saw last year’s restaging of Wilson and Philip Glass’s Einstein on the Beach. I knew where she was going with this, as the repetitious design of the production further extends the brand Wilson has created for himself in the same way that the stories it tells extend Abramovic’s own image. In teaming together, and pulling from their respective wheelhouses, the opera, for both artists, was a perfect marriage of mythmaking and self-aggrandizement.
So much of Abramovic’s current endeavors are bound up in propagating her persona and position in the history of art. This is best evidenced by her founding of the Marina Abramovic Institute [MAI], reported as early as 2008 in The New York Times, a resource center complete with workshops and courses, as well as a theater and library, meant to preserve and promote time-based and long durational works, in Hudson, New York. It will also be a training ground for the Abramovic Method, explained in the program as “a series of exercises conceived to increase awareness of the present moment and explore the boundaries of the body and mind,” by “ritualizing” everyday activities like “standing, sitting, drinking, dreaming, thinking.” All of this is fitting, given her claim, as told to Benjamin Genocchio, that her legacy depends upon on MAI’s success: “Performance is fleeting. But this place, this is for time. This is what I will leave behind.”
The Life and Death of Marina Abramovic
Conceived and Directed by Robert Wilson
Premiered at the Manchester International Festival, Manchester UK
July 11-17, 2011
Park Avenue Armory, New York City
December 13-20, 2013
This review is a project of the Creative Capital | Warhol Foundation Arts Writers Grant Program.
For further comment on The Life and Death of Marina Abramovic by Philip Auslander, please click here.
Harry J. Weil lives and works in Brooklyn, New York.