Growing Pains

Jennifer Krasinski on The Life and Death of Marina Abramović

Robert Wilson, The Life and Death of Marina Abramović, 2011. Performance view, Park Avenue Armory, New York, December 2013. Willem Dafoe. Photo: Joan Marcus.

AS THE STORY GOES, performance artist Marina Abramović asked director Robert Wilson if he would stage her funeral as a theatrical event that would double as “a celebration of life and death combined.” Wilson agreed, with the proviso that she grant him permission to stage her life as well. The artist consented and supplied Wilson with personal anecdotes and biographical details; she also promised to participate as a performer. Wilson enlisted actor Willem Dafoe, composer/lyricist/performer Antony, singer Svetlana Spajić, composer William Basinski, as well as an impressive group of other musicians and artists to create The Life and Death of Marina Abramović, a glowing machine of many moving parts, manufactured to convey the artist’s life story first as tragedy, then as art.

The production opens with Abramović’s funeral, set as a kind of moving still life on stage as the audience files into the theater. Three Marinas—masks allow for multiples throughout the play—all dressed in black, lie on casket-shaped pedestals while two Dobermans pace the floor, which is littered with bones. The play begins with the appearance of Dafoe, the magnetic narrator/ringleader of the show, dressed in a military uniform, standing downstage in a bunker riddled with boxes and stacks of paper. Red hair whipped atop his head, kabuki-cum-Cabaret makeup on his face, he looks equal parts emcee and The Joker. Dafoe, in a wild and electric performance, is the jittering live wire that transmits most of Abramović’s story in snippets fired off, machine gun–like. Behind him, Wilson’s stunning stagescapes take shape around the story—in moments, to illustrate, at other times, to elegize.

The plot points, though not presented in chronological order, will be familiar to those already acquainted with Abramović. Wilson’s production pays little attention to her work; it is lightly referenced throughout. Instead, the director paints an unconvincing portrait of the artist as martyr, one who has lived a life in which love and pain are twisted together so tightly that her path seemed predestined. Dafoe rattles off her numerous traumas. Some are of the innocuous, adolescent variety: She hated her nose; her mother dressed her in ugly clothes; she had flat feet. Other events are far more terrible: Her mother threw a heavy ashtray at her head when she heard that Abramović had performed naked (the artist ducked out of the way, but not before considering that her death might avenge the cruelty her mother doled out to her in life). Her mother also repeatedly warned her that sex was dirty, told her to only have it once to have a baby and then “never do it again.” We learn that Abramović’s happiest childhood memory is a yearlong hospital stay, during which people brought her presents and nobody punished her. Later in life, of course, Marina continued to suffer—at the hands of lovers, for her art, and one day, mortality.

Throughout the play, Abramović is not an actor so much as she is a stand in, at first for her abusive mother, and later for herself. She poses more than she performs, filling the spaces in which she would act. “I’m material, nothing more,” the artist clarified in the production notes, claiming that this theatrical vision, though in possession of her body, belongs wholly to Wilson. As The Life and Death of Marina Abramović unfolds, however, odd angles on its subject are revealed. The portrait warps to appear strangely arch; its edges at times bleed perilously close to farce. Wilson’s tone seems unusually off-balance, unable to rectify the emotional extremes of Abramović’s life story with his meticulous craft and dazzle. Perhaps meaning to puncture the unrelenting gravitas (the artist’s traumas never seem to end), Wilson injects comedic touches that often fall flat. His expressionistic performance style, in which the actors exaggerate gestures and emotions, appears in moments to mock the artist’s story, at other times to enact it as melodrama. Though one would never expect nuance from either the play’s subject or its director, its absence is regretted throughout.

Robert Wilson, The Life and Death of Marina Abramović, 2011. Performance view, Park Avenue Armory, New York, December 2013. Willem Dafoe. Photo: Joan Marcus.

At one point, Abramović faces the audience and sing/speaks in a Dietrich/Nico basso, “Salt, salt in my wounds / To dull more pedestrian pain […] Pain hangs onto me / As if in a dream / As if I had a choice.” Later, Dafoe crawls across the stage on all fours, rasping “Why must you cut yourself? […] Why must you suffer / Like Christ for his father?” In another context, it might be easier to appreciate the delicate beauty of certain other lyrics, which pit the lightness of language against feral emotional swells. Pinned to this production, however, gossamer lines like “When will I turn and cut the world?” turn to sap. It must be said that two of the show’s great triumphs are singers Antony and Svetlana Spajić, whose voices are powerful forces of polar opposite frequencies. Antony’s is otherworldly; both muscular and downy, it soars inside the space, while Spajić seems to channel and release singular sounds and spirits from the ground beneath her. From them and through them, as well as through the other members of Spajić’s group, we experience something that most closely parallels Abramović’s aesthetic: the body as medium and instrument.

The show ends as it begins, with three Marinas on stage. Now, however, they are all dressed in white, hovering above the others in angelic ascent. For the artist, death—of her mother, her father, of her previous days and pains—begets an afterlife, though exactly what that is isn’t specified. If Wilson here wishes to depict the artist as Christ figure, paying for the sins of others, hanging center stage for all to see and judge, it is a desperately unsuccessful analogy. Whatever one thinks about Abramović—a complicated, polarizing character in the art world—her artistic ambitions and will to survive have propelled an ascent of another kind: that of the art star. If that story is to be told someday, its production will certainly require a very different sense of gravity.

Jennifer Krasinski is a writer based in New York.

The Life and Death of Marina Abramović runs through Saturday December 21 at the Park Avenue Armory in New York.