Great Escapes

12.12.13

The Death of a Performance Artist

Performance artist Marina Abramović puts her life—in all its traumatic detail—in the hands of internationally-acclaimed director Robert Wilson in a new show at the Park Avenue Armory.

It all began with one infamous performance: The Great Wall Walk.

In 1988, performance artist Marina Abramović started at the East end of The Great Wall of China and began walking west. Ninety days later, she met her long-time lover and performance partner, Ulay, who had started on the West side walking east, to say, or rather perform, their goodbyes.

Abramović had come to a crossroads in her career. “It was difficult because we always worked together,” Abramović told The Daily Beast, “So, for me it was [time] that I actually make a theater of my life.”

For each of Abramović’s past biographies, spanning print and film, the artist relinquished every aspect of her life to the directors of her choosing, allowing them to arrange and edit as they liked, promising no interferences in their decisions. “They are always mixing things according to their own taste,” the artist stated, “but every time my life looked different to me.”

Now, for her fifth biography (and first theatrical depiction), she’s finally including her death. When Abramović approached internationally-acclaimed director, Robert Wilson, to do her most recent adaptation, The Life and Death of Marina Abramović, she asked him to include her funeral. Abramović stated that, “[at] 67 it is very possible to start thinking that you’re not immortal and that you’re going to die – that it’s the last stage of your life.”

“For me, there is one scene that I still don’t have enough emotional distance from.”

The theater meets opera meets visual art, which debuted at the Manchester International Festival in 2011, spans the artist’s entire life, from her tumultuous childhood in former Yugoslavia to present day. Abramović takes the role of herself and her mother while actor Willem Dafoe and singer Antony (of Antony and the Johnsons) belts original songs.

The self-proclaimed “godmother of performance art” has spent the past four decades pushing the limits of her body, both physically and psychologically, for herself and viewers. The possibility of death has consistently presented itself. In 1974, while staying positioned for six hours among various objects of the viewers choosing, she was cut with rose thorns and knives and one daring man pointed a loaded gun at her.   

For Rest Energy, a performance with Ulay in the 1980s, she held the front end of a bow while her partner pulled it taught and aimed the arrow at her heart. And, with Rhythm 5, she lost consciousness while lying inside a flaming star – a performance that could have proven deadly if an onlooker hadn’t pulled her from the flames.

Any number of these performances could have been included in Wilson’s version of Abramović’s biography. Instead, he chose to focus on the traumatic events of her life. But, he presents them in a comedic fashion.

“If you take a tragedy and present it as tragedy, it becomes kitsch. But if you take a tragedy and make it comedy, it becomes deeper – you become touched in a much stronger way,” Abramović recalled Wilson saying. 

However, it is not all laughs for the performer. “For me, there is one scene that I still don’t have enough emotional distance from.” Abramović stated in reference to a very early childhood experience. “It is very painful and I think that the audience will react the same way.”

Spending every rehearsal and performance repeating the traumatic events of her life proved to be very rewarding for the artist. “Everything is shameful when you are actually exposing [yourself], and you become so vulnerable,” Abramović described of the liberation she felt performing from the stage. “And, this was very rewarding because it was better than any form of psychotherapy.”

‘The Life and Death of Marina Abramović’ opens at Park Avenue Armory on Friday and will run through the weekend, with additional performances on Saturday, December 21.