Monumental, but still human

Svet a Divadlo 2012, issue 06

At this year’s Holland Festival, a sold-out crowd flooded Theater Carré for a monumental performance, truly epic in scale. Theatre director Robert Wilson joined forces with Hollywood actor and darling of the experimental theatre, Willem Dafoe, supported by a group of highly trained dancers, actors and musicians headed by singer and avant-garde pop icon Antony Hegarty. All coming together to tell the life-story of Marina Abramovic: the larger-than-life grande dame of contemporary performance art. With an all-star cast like this, expectations can be killing. But in two and a half hours of majestic, hypnotically slow and extremely aesthetic theatre, Wilson manages to create a hypnotic insight into what made Abramovic go to such extremes in her legendary performance art. That is, if you can stomach the idolatry.

The Serbian Marina Abramovic (Belgrade, 1946) made a name for herself in the art-world with a series of brutal and painful performances, focused on self-mutilation and overcoming the limitations of the body. She combed her hair until her scalp started bleeding, she carved a star in the flesh of her belly, she lay naked in a sarcophagus filled with rats, or she would sit perfectly still for hours on end. Exhibitionistic acts of negation of the self, in which she was able to endure her self-imposed suffering, only because of the fact that people were watching. The fact that she has witnesses, gives her power.

Since the dramatic break-up with her long time partner-in-art Ulay (Frank Uwe Laysiepen, 1943) in 1987, Abramovic has been working through this trauma by staging her biography. The Life and Death of Marina Abramovic is the sixth part in this ongoing series.

Five years ago, Abramovic approached director Robert Wilson to bring her biography to the stage in his highly aesthetic style. Wilson, known to be an extreme perfectionist bordering on the maniacal, has used the life of several other – no less monumental – historical figures as a basis for his stage-works before. Starting with The Life and Times of Sigmund Freud (1969), The Life and Times of Joseph Stalin (1973), Einstein on the Beach (1976) and Edison (1979). This time however, the central figure of his unique form of Totaltheater is a woman, an artist, and most notably, still very much alive. Wilson agreed, on the one condition that he was to have carte blanche access to mementos of Abramovic’s personal life. Thus, The Life and Death of Marina Abramovic is based on an enormous amount of personal material, letters, video’s, diaries that Wilson used to construct a collage of biographical texts that give insight to her world.

The Life and Death of Marina Abramovic is a dreamlike collage of extremely static tableaux vivants, filled with bizarre characters that appear and disappear during the performance. Sometimes they re-enact specific scenes from Abramovic’s childhood, for instance when Marina played with her brother and broke the precious family washing machine – infuriating her mother, but mostly they appear and disappear seemingly at random, with no apparent purpose. Like memories that come and go. They walk across the stage, or stand in clusters like silent witnesses: a dictatorial mother, a transvestite in a corset, a bare-chested muscleman, a woman wearing a snake, a naked dancer, a young figure of Marina in a red dress, an old man, women wearing traditional gowns, scared children, acrobats, partisans and clowns. All with a twisted grin on their faces, or other highly over-exaggerated expressions of shock, awe, fear or anger.

All the characters are related to the Abramovic life-story. At times this relationship becomes clear immediately – a young woman in a red dress signifies a young Marina – but most of the characters seem to embody a more conceptual side to Abramovic’s personality and life. For instance, at one point the transvestite in a corset is being tied down, which seems to refer to the masochistic side of Abramovic’s life and carreer.

The lighting design by A.J. Weissbard plays an extremely important role in creating the minimalist décor, and haunting atmosphere. Most of the time the stage is empty, except for a few wooden frames that appear occasionally to create the suggestion of the interior of the Abramovic family house, a ladder, or a staircase. But at all times, it is the lighting design that creates a haunting depth of field. The bright colours of the flamboyant costumes by Jacques Reynaud – leather pants and suits, corsets, dark robes, tight acrobat outfits – form a nice contrast with the projected background of dark tones of blue and purple. A horizontally projected beam of bright light is almost always visible, cutting across the backdrop, like a sharply blinding explosion. The scenes are narrated by a jester-like figure played by actor Willem Dafoe, and interspersed with haunting soundscapes of drone, glitch and industrial music, traditional Serbian folk songs – performed by the Svetlana Spajic Group – and of course, the unique orchestral pop-hymns composed by Antony Hegarty.

The long, drawn out scenes are harrowing. Starting with a masked Abramovic laying in on a bier, flanked by two performers wearing the exact same white, Kabuki-like death masks and dark robes. Like a funeral wake, while three big dogs scurry across the stage, looking for a bite to eat. Here and there lay pink neon-lit bones. Two of the dogs have their tails cut off, one is still intact. Which refers to the fact that two of the three figures on stage are ‘fake’, only one of them is the ‘real’ Abramovic. The music is ethereal and dreamy, which gives the scene the ambiance of a cathedral. A haunting Serbian folk chant is heard, like a ghost’s voice. The subtle light fades, and all that stands out in the darkness are the three white death masks.

From a recent article by the Dutch critic Anna Tilroe I learned that this particular prologue is based on the last work of performance art that Abramovic will ever perform herself, which will take after her death. Abramovic wants three coffins to be buried in the three different cities that played an essential role in her life and work – Belgrade, Amsterdam and New York – with only one of those containing her real, dead body.

After this opening scene it becomes very clear that after three decades of punishing herself and suffering for her art, Abramovic – the 65 year old grandmother of performance art – does not show any signs of having mellowed with age.

On a platform in front of the right side of the stage, as a little island in the orchestra pit between the stage and the audience, sits actor Willem Dafoe, wearing a green partisan uniform, surrounded by big piles of newspapers. We hear the sound of rainfall. Dafoe reads:

“1946: Born in Belgrade. Mother and father partisans. ’47: Hugging, likes singing: ‘Give me a glass of water’. ’48: Refuse to walk. ’50: Scared of dark bedrooms. ’51: Watching father sleeping with pistol.”

Dafoe is heavily made up with thick layers of white face paint and bright red hair. As a sort of demonic clown, resembling The Joker from Batman: The Dark Knight. In the performance Dafoe plays the role of narrator, with his raspy staccato voice and thick Serbian-English accent. Bending and mutating his voice at will, from hilariously comical to deeply threatening. He describes the long list of life-events of Abramovic. These notes are very sparse and no-nonsense, as from a hastily written Wikipedia page or shorthand diary entries. As if there’s no need to make things more dramatic than they need to be. But the drama and sense of personal tragedy is always present.

The Life and Death of Marina Abramovic shows the story of an artist growing out from shadow of het tyrannical mother and hardcore upbringing. In the first part of the performance Abramovic herself assumes the role of her own mother. As a dark, threatening figure, observing the action, her face concealed by impersonal white make up. Walking across the stage with sharp footsteps, arms crossed in disapproval. The immediately recognizable voice of Antony rings out. Giving voice to the inner turmoil of Abramovic, singing the first song of the play, entitled Your Story, My Way.

 I’ll tell you a story / through my man’s eye / your story / my way

your black and blue story / through the white of my eye / my loneliness

my pain / my drinking / my eminence / the horror of / my manicured grave

I’ll tell you a story / grind it through my eye / crush it through my white’s eye

I’m gonna cry / but I’m gonna use your eyes / I’m gonna cry through your eyes

Dafoe continues rattling off his list of events:

“’62: First exhibition. ’63: Her mother writes: my dear little girl. Your paintings have got nice frames. ’65: Father gives her pistol for birthday, teaches her how to shoot. Games with knives. ’66: Joining communist party. Painting trucks exhibits.”

Listening to such a stream of apparently unrelated details can easily become a very dull affair. But, thanks to the skills of Dafoe, this never happens. The actor uses his voice in wide range, imitating voices, squeaking sounds and mimicking accents in such a way that it stays fascinating to watch and listen to. Seemingly freestyle, like a jazz-musician. But always in full control. Dafoe:

“’69: She doesn’t remember. ’70: Sound installation. Putting speakers on bridge in Belgrade, with sound of bridge falling down. ’71: Realizing that her grandmother’s kitchen is the centre of her world. ’72: Starts using her body as material. Blood, pain, watching major operations in hospitals, pushing her body to its physical and mental limits. ’73: Burning her hair, cutting a star in her stomach with razorblade.”

On the backdrop a projection of a work of video art is shown. A human skull is being brushed, while loud a-tonal electronic free jazz is heard.

In an interview with Thomas McEvilley, Abramovic mentioned that she lived with her mother until she was 29 years old. A grown woman, still having to surrender to her mother’s bizarre rules and evening curfew. The very same artist that was doing those extreme performances still had to be indoors before 10 ‘o clock every night. From the start, mother and daughter were involved in psychological and physical warfare. It’s a bizarre fact that the play clearly refers to. Dafoe:

“Someone telephones her house and tells her mother that her daughter is hanging on wall, naked. When she gets home her mother is home, dressed in double breasted suit with broche on right side and blouse buttoned to the neck. She sees her and says: “I gave you life. I will take it away.” With her right hand she picks up crystal ashtray – the only gift of twenty years of unhappy marriage – and throws it at her head. As the ashtray is flying towards her head, she stands still. And thinks: “I will not move. I will not move. I will let ashtray splatter my brain on the wall. She will go to prison and pay for it.” Last second she moves her head and ashtray goes through glass door behind her.”

In the first act of the play, Abramovic struggles to get out from under the influence of her extremely controlling mother. As described in the lyrics to the song Dream Crusher, written by Antony Hegarty, performed by Christopher Nell – whose magnificent, high pitched voice also deserves praise:

you don’t want the best for me / you don’t want to see me free

you seek to crush my dreams / as someone crushed your dreams

before you met me

As the light fades out, one by one the characters disappear and Marina takes off a white kabuki mask, revealing her real face. This leads into the most beautiful, arresting parts of the performance, where the entire ensemble comes together in one powerful scene.

Serbian folk singer Svetlana Spajic enters the stage dressed in a traditional costume, and begins a minimal, shuffling sidestep dance while starting a repetitive hymn. One by one the other performers join in with the chanting and dancing, which builds up in intensity to orchestral levels with militaristic marching and ceremonial waving of flags.

At a glance, the shuffling steps seem simple. But because of the sheer number of performers on stage moving together in unison the movement becomes hypnotically complex, reminding me of the radical-minimalist choreographies of Boris Charmatz: the French enfant terrible of contemporary dance. Marina rolls up onto the stage on the back of a huge wooden horse – looking both like a conquering hero and an excited child riding a pet pony. She is carrying a flag, while Dafoe start to declamate Abramovic’s Artist Manifesto through a bullhorn. In one stunning scene cultural and ethnic roots, nationalism, collective effort, militarism, the ideal of the avant-garde artist and childlike imagination fuse together.

Antony arrives and sings his song The Cut, while the ensemble joins in for the chorus: “But when will I turn and cut the world?”

This last line is essential to understanding this performance. After years of destructive (self) abuse, will Abramovic eventually lash out at the world? Or will she be able to overcome those adversities, to rise above them, to transcend the painful experiences of the past?

This question makes The Life and Death of Marina Abramovic much more than ‘just’ a piece of biographical theatre. Wilson transforms the personal suffering Abramovic into something universally understandable. In my opinion, this is the strange paradox of ‘good’ art: the more specific and personal the artist gets, the more the viewer is able to recognize those specific moments, and translate them to their own life experiences.

In the second act, after the intermission, Abramovic struggles with overcoming the painful separation with her lover. In 1975 Abramovic started an intense relationship with soul mate and fellow performance artist Ulay. They worked and lived together for many years in total symbiosis. In 1987 their relationship was brought to an end by a dramatic performance. Both walked thousands of kilometres across the Great Wall of China, met halfway, and broke up. A tragic ending, which Abramovic has since been trying to work through.

[youtube width=”605″ height=”490″][/youtube]

In a hilarious and tragic scene between Abramovic and Dafoe, Abramovic describes the experience of meeting Ulay again, years after the breakup. Abramovic and Dafoe sit across from each other, both dressed in partisan uniforms. In the back, figures slowly walk across the stage like fading memories. While Abramovic talks about this painful confrontation, Dafoe responds with an excited, hungry voice. Overly eager to hear all the details, Dafoe reacts with childlike enthusiasm to her brutally honest confessions.

Abramovic: “Each of us took a 2000 km walk to say goodbye.”

Dafoe: “Wow, that’s really something! Yeah!”

Abramovic: “We needed a certain form of ending, after this huge distance walking towards each other. It is very human. It is in a way more dramatic, more like a film ending. Because in the end you are really alone, whatever you do.”

Dafoe: “Because in the end you’re really alone, whatever you do.”

Abramovic: “No shit.”

Whereas before her life-story was told in chronological order, in the second part of the performance the events and dates become one big blur. Dafoe sit amidst a big pile of torn newspapers and reads from the shreds of paper. Often repeating himself. There is no more sense to be made. Love and heartbreak have destroyed all logic here.

In The Life and Death of Marina Abramovic, Robert Wilson portrays a woman using the pains of her life and transforming herself through art. Never does this border on melodrama, as the performance of all involved is restrained and menacingly calm at all times. The angel-like figure of Antony appears to be the only character who offers comfort and understanding, through his music, his lyrics and very sparse but deliberate gestures. Laying a hand on her shoulder or raising his arms in forgiving gestures, as the compassionate transgender Mother of God.

Truth be told, this a stunning piece of theatre. But at times, I wondered if it was all a bit too much and bombastic. Who is Marina Abramovic, why should I care about her, and why should I spend two and a half hours watching all these traumas of her life pass by? Did Abramovic herself not warn against such acts of self-importance in the Artist Manifesto she presented at the 2009 Florence Biennale? Where she read, albeit ironically: “An artist should not make himself into an icon.” And repeated that line three times over?

But then again, suddenly the curtain drops and Abramovic stands on stage. This time all alone, with no extravagant dress or support from other characters she confronts the audience. She starts to sing the song Salt in my Wounds. In a shaky voice, with a thick accent:

salt, salt in my wounds / to dull more pedestrian pain

to sting transcendentally / as if in a dream

as if I had a choice / as if I had control

salt, salt in my wounds / hanging like a skin on a man

pain hangs onto me / as if in a dream

as if I had a choice / as if I had control

gold, gold in my womb / gold is the white of my eyes

gold will deliver me / as if in a dream

as if I had a choice / as if I had control

Her singing is obviously infinitely inferior to the skills of Antony Hegarty. But it’s bone chilling. So fragile, yet so powerful. For a moment, she is no longer that untouchable larger-than- life cultural icon. Just a scarred, frightened human being. Like all of us.

The Life and Death of Marina Abramovic. Seen at Theater Carré, Amsterdam during Holland Festival 2012, on June 22nd. A production of Manchester International Festival, Teatro Real Madrid, together with Holland Festival, Theater Basel, Art Basel, Salford City Council and deSingel, Antwerp.

Daniël Bertina is a journalist, critic, writer and dramaturge based in Amsterdam.