Luminato and Summerworks 2013 welcomed The Life and Death of Marina Abramovic, the astounding new autobiographical performance piece starring the artist herself and film and stage actor Willem Dafoe.
Three women dressed in black with white masks, defined but closed eyes and bright red lips are laying on coffin-like black beds spread out equally on the stage. Bones cast in a red glow are scattered around them as three massive and toned dark Dobermans (real dogs, yes) scour the stage for scraps. This is what you see when you walk into The Life and Death of Marina Abramovic. It has begun, even before you reach your seat.
The biographical piece was performed as part of Luminato this year. The four performances from June 14-17 saw a packed Bluma Appel Theatre, leaving dazzled and intrigued audiences at each performance, and standing ovations upon their end. Seeing the work of director and visual artist Robert Wilson, Marina Abramovic herself on stage with a definitive smirk or wink alongside the narrator and volatile caricature of Willem Dafoe and the outstanding and harmonious voice of Antony of Antony and the Johnsons created an atmosphere of strength and captivation.
If you’re looking for a linear depiction of Abramovic’s life, however, you won’t find it here.
As Dafoe brings us through significant events divided by years, sometimes specific dates, we build our own portrait of Abramovic as it’s mimed out by her cast in eccentric, unconventional, and heartwarming reflections of her life.
1968 – discovered Zen Buddhism. 1964 – doesn’t remember. 1972 – starts using her body as material; pushing the body to its physical and mental limits. This is how we learn of the artist that has grown to define the act of performance art in the modern world, exploring the realm of human experience and endurance. Little tidbits that Dafoe reveals, like Abramovic going to the hospital and watching live procedures to discover what’s on the inside and how she can reflect this in her work, act like portals into the artist’s personal life as she strolls across the stage followed by a loud echo in the heel of every step she takes.
We learn a great deal about her relationship with her mother; how Abramovic wanted a nose job to her mother’s dismay, placing a picture of Brigette Bardot (and her dream nose) in her pocket and subsequently planning to fall onto the corner of a bed frame to break it. She would then pull out the photo of Bardot in the hospital and show them the way she wanted her nose to look. Genius, she thought. Laughing alongside Dafoe’s storytelling as he keeps us spellbound we learn that Abramovic, in this memory, didn’t hit her nose at all, but her cheek… and before taking her to the hospital, her mother slapped Ambramovic’s other cheek to teach her a lesson.
Scattered with stories and songs chalk-full of repetition, grief, and humour, this piece not only gives you insight into the life of Abramovic but forces you to contemplate your own – as an artist and individual.
Repeated phrases like, “Love or despise her,” transposed with the definition of an artist, stories of struggle, and metaphorically mimed depictions of who and what one should and should not be… The show asks you to feel something. Anything.
She seemingly discusses every milestone, small or large – divorce, death, financial fears – including her 1988 walk to meet Ulay in the middle of the Great Wall of China. “We took 2000 kilometers just to say goodbye,” she says, to Dafoe’s laughter. “It’s really human in a way. It’s more dramatic, in the film way,” she says, as if she’s trying to convince this laughing menace (Dafoe) that it was worthwhile, even if it was a parting of ways.
Although it is plain to see that Abramovic is not an actress, this theatrical performance doesn’t beg that she be in that role. Her presence is strong enough to keep us locked, balanced by the musically ambitious voice of Antony and the charged and engulfing presence of Dafoe, not to mention the beautifully raw and exhibitionist qualities of the ensemble.
The Life and Death of Marina Abramovic is clearly indicative of her art and, even if she did feel unwanted in 1987, there is a world out there watching her, feeling it just the same.
Originally published June 2013 by Andrea Wrobel for Toronto Social Review | Permalink