- It is rare to see Marina Abramović without a mask. Not a physical barrier – as we know well, she often performs without a stitch of clothing or a smear of make-up. This covering is an emotional sheath – a rigid facade upheld throughout her work and her career even at the most vulnerable of moments. So it was beguiling to find here, under layers of theatrical makeup, staged dialogue, and highly elaborate scenes, a side of the artist unbeknownst to me. Astonished at how taken aback I was when Marina Abramović smiled did I then register the inconspicuous absence of such an expression.
Abramović’s work and life are inextricably linked and she has been creating biographical theatrical pieces since 1989 – remixed and reworked by a different director with each incarnation. For the Manchester International Festival, Abramović puts her life in the hands of director Robert Wilson who fragments her stories, and twists fact, fiction, dreams and nightmares into the fierce surrealistic theatrical production, The Life and Death of Marina Abramović.
Willem Dafoe is the Tim Burton-inspired narrator who punctuates Abramović’s life with abrupt revelations – ‘1948: Refusing to walk. 1964: Drinking vodka, sleeping in the snow, first kiss. 1969: She doesn’t remember.‘ The atmosphere is charged by the score written and performed by the infamous Antony who sings ‘Watch me. Hurt myself. It makes me. Feel so alive.’
In contrast to the uninflected and exhausting durational performances Abramović is known for, The Life and Death of Marina Abramović, is extravagant, sumptuous and highly dynamic, and reminds us of things we often forget – for example, that Marina Abramović is funny. The self-proclaimed ‘grandmother of performance art’ has a bone-dry sense of humour, exacerbated by her thick accent and peculiar sentence structure, and the ability to laugh at herself as we see in such elaborate scenes as those constructed around her childhood insecurities of her ‘big nose.’
However, this highly theatrical and absorbing production moves beyond the superficial to the nature of performance art, and the authenticities of those who perform. Here is an artist who has lived out her life in the public eye, and has given herself over completely to her art. As in the infamous The House with the Ocean View in 2002 and the 700 hour performance at The Artist is Present at MoMA last year, Abramović exists purely for the public. Her life is a series of replayed and remixed symbols and signs that construct the persona ‘Marina Abramović’ – played by an ecclectic cast of characters here.
In one of her Nightsea Crossing performances where she and Ulay sat across from one another motionless, excruciatingly trapped in their aching bodies, it was only in confronting death that Abramović was able to go on. Here, once again, in The Life and Death of Marina Abramović, she meets the inevitability of her eventual demise – a spectacle that, when the time comes, will likely rival the theatricality of this production. But in the meantime she will continue to embrace her life and move forward, in a charged way only one who has accepted death can do.