As the story goes, when artist Marina Abramovic came to legendary stage director Robert Wilson about helping him to stage her funeral onstage, the director only replied, “only if I can stage your life as well.” So begins the mythology behind The Life and Death of Marina Abramovic, the nearly three-hour long performance that just completed its first run of U.S. dates at the Park Avenue Armory in New York.
Embracing Wilson’s signature minimalism, the piece is a daunting piece of theatrics, often comical, occasionally jarring, and wholly focused on Abramovic’s personal mythology, keeping her work framed by her often difficult relationship with her mother, and her life growing up in post-war Belgrade. Smoke, light and and scrims are used to masterful effect, creating elegantly dissonant environments, against which narrator Willem Dafoe is given ample room to run. Painted in white with a shock of red hair, the actor paces and mutters, shouts and rants, moving between Abramovic’s occasionally violent home life and her increasing notoriety as a boundary-breaking artist, occasionally punctuated by a soaring vocal line from singer Antony.
For all of its laudations and heavy-handed atmospherics, the piece occasionally takes on the rationale of a piece of vaudeville theatre, shifting from Wilson’s avant-garde staging to song to monologue and back, all presided over by a silent Abramovic, who appears in a variety of guises, including a soldier and her own mother. She never speaks, letting the audience draw their own conclusions from the performers moving and pantomiming around her. Not that this is a bad thing; the choreography of the work is particularly impressive, especially during a powerful scene in which an eastern European folk song is punctuated by the striding, movements of a stage full of soldiers.
All in all, it’s maybe a closer look at Abramovic than she was maybe ready to give, one that repositions her work as a reaction to her difficult life growing up in Communist Europe , or rather in dialogue with this background, and the performance itself as the grand unification of these thematics. If one can could truly trace the language of the piece to a true death, it may be the final unification of her story and her work, an understanding often joined at the end of one’s life. Bringing action and context into play onstage in equal measure, it’s this look at the artist, and what she foresees as the true conclusion of her life, or her work, that ultimately makes the piece so noteworthy, and ultimately, so revealing.
— D. Creahan
“The Life and Death of Marina Abramovic” [Park Avenue Armory]
“Watching “The Life and Death of Marina Abramović” Over Director Robert Wilson’s Shoulder” [Complex]
“The End, if It’s Up to You” [The New York Times]
Robert Wilson [Artist’s Website]