There are many reasons as to what determines the number of biographies written about a person, for example, the level of influence and significance of the biographee on the world, new discoveries and revealing insights on the biographee, or opposing views by biographers on the biographees life.
Since 1989, six biographies on the Performance artist, Marina Abramovic, have been produced, all commissioned by herself, and not necessarily in the traditional form of a book. The 65 year old Belgrade-born artist is interested in biographies as artists always work with the materials of their own lives. “Making art is about transferring those feelings and thoughts into a universal language. That’s how biography works, too,” she writes in the program book of her latest biography project ‘The Life and Death of Marina Abramovic’ – a poetic piece of biographical theatre directed by the avant-garde theatre director, Robert Wilson. The world premier was at last year’s Manchester International Festival and last month it was part of the Holland Festival program.
Abramovic always invites a different director to take on her biography. She starts each biography with the same principal: to completely relinquish control so the director is free to make his own interpretation of her life. As a result Abramovic’s life looks anew to her.
Wilson’s theatre and opera works are known for their long duration with slow movement (his free-form opera ‘Einstein on the Beach’ has a running time of five hours). Some of the scenes in ‘The Life and Death of Marina Abramovic’ look like they are performed in slow motion, but this aspect of Wilson’s work surely appeals to Abramovic as her work deals with time, duration and being in the present moment. “She is able to slow everybody’s brain down – she transforms us as a result,” Klaus Biesenbach, the curator of Abramovic’s MoMA retrospective ‘The Artist Is Present’ commented in Matthew Aker’s enthralling documentary ‘The Artist is Present’ which was made during the time of the retrospective.
In 2010, in New York City, one of the most rushed and hectic places in the world, Abramovic undertook a 736.5 hour silent performance, for which she sat immobile in the museum whilst spectators were invited to take turns to sit opposite her. Some of the sitters were shocked by the undivided attention Abramovic gave to each of them, and moved them to tears. People travelled from Australia to sit with the charismatic artist and there were long queues outside the MoMA.
“Marina’s connection to the audience comes out of this extraordinary lack that she feels or she felt as a child”, comments her New York gallerist, Sean Kelly, in Aker’s documentary. “She desires to be loved, to be needed”.
Wilson chose to explore Abramovic’s childhood, and in particular, the horrific love-hate relationship she had with her mother, Danica, who raised her children with a military regime and a history of outrageous child abuse.
To create even bigger drama on the stage the director decided that Abramovic would play the role of her mother. In this capacity, she strides onto the stage with loud, firm placing of the heels of her shoes. I asked Wilson what made him decide to let the artist embody her mother on stage: “I thought it was fitting to Marina Abramovic to play her mother as she had such strong feelings about her mother and, of course Marina’s age.” In the Financial Times, Abramovic herself decribed playing the role of her mother as ‘hell’.
The intense relationship between Abramovic and her mother is narrated on stage by the actor Willem Dafoe. He is dressed like the brother of The Joker, sporting wild red hair, his face painted white and wearing an olive green Partizan army suit. He narrates the tales fast-paced, gripping manner, interspersed with sweet irony.
One of the narrations refers to Abramovic’s pronounced nose, which she doesn’t like at all. One day, with a picture of Brigitte Bardot in her pocket, she went to the bedroom where a bed with a sharp corner was positioned. She spun around and let herself fall on the sharp corner so it would break her nose. She reasoned that her mother would take her to the hospital where she would take the Brigitte Bardot picture out of her pocket, show it to the doctor who would then give her nose a similar style. She missed the corner, however, and cut her cheek. Her mother came into the room, saw what had happened and punished her daughter by slapping her on her unharmed cheek before taking her to the hospital.
Abramovic’s life stories are alternated with heartfelt and intimate songs by Antony Hegarty, for example, ‘Saints Ascend’: “God condemns / Those who hurt others / But what does he think / Of a woman who afflicts pain / Upon herself?” Abramovic’s violent performance ‘Rhythm 10’ – wherein she stabs, with a large knife, between the fingers of her left hand as fast as possible – could have served as the musical inspiration for the song. With his transfixing voice, Antony expresses the nakedness and vulnerability to which Abramovic exposes herself to in her performances whilst still being able to create a feeling of hope in the face of sadness.
Hegarty is accompanied by another distinct voice on the stage: the Serbian singer Svetlana Spajic and her quartet. “Oj Jabuko Zeliniko” is a traditional Serbian ritual song in which, in the last part of each sentence in the lyrics Spajic is joined by three other singers of her group. The longer the harmonic singing continues the more hypnotic it becomes. Performers dressed in Partisan uniform are waving white flags and, after five minutes, Dafoe becomes a drill instructor and starts barking through a megaphone to the rhythm of a machine gun Abramovic’s Artist Manifesto. It consists of statements such as ‘An artist should not be depressed’, ‘An artist should not make himself into an idol’ and ‘An artist should not repeat himself’. Then, Abramovic appears on the stage, also wearing a Partizan uniform and sits like a commander on a horse made of wood. This image makes reference to Abramovic’s 2001 performance ‘The Hero’, dedicated to her father, a Yugoslavian war hero, where she sits in white clothes, on a white horse carrying a white flag.
It’s a great example of Wilson’s artistry and virtuosity of staging a scene that gradually builds up to a thrilling climax. It created expectations as to how Wilson would visually handle perhaps one of Abramovic’s most dramatic performance pieces: ‘The Great Wall Walk’. It’s an epic tale – a perfect idea for a feature film or a biographic Opera – that marks the end of her 12 years collaboration and relationship with Uwe Laysiepen (Ulay). In 1988, after eight years of negotiations with the Chinese authorities, they were given permission to walk the entire length of the Great Wall of China – 5,000 km. Abramovic started at the Eastern end of the wall, walking westward, whilst Ulay started walking from the Western end of the wall eastwards. They walked until they met, which was after 90 days, each of them walking 2,500 km.
Unfortunately this epic tale of Abramovic’s life is worked out quite un-dramatic and conveyed through a dialogue by Dafoe and Abramovic sitting on an empty stage. At a certain point Abramovic says: “We needed to walk 2,500 km to say goodbye”. Dafoe reacts: “Isn’t that a bit exaggerating? A phone call wouldn’t do?”
Abramovic points out in the program catalogue that tragic stories can “become so tragic you almost have to laugh”, but the profoundness, integrity and significance of her performances can also lose its meaningfulness when treated as a joke.
One of the things the audience can take from ‘The Life and Death of Marina Abramovic’ is that, despite all the hardships Abramovic has faced in her life, she still radiates life and she is a testimony to Friedrich Nietzsche’s quote: “What doesn’t kill you, makes you stronger”. In an interview she once commented that “to suffer is very good for an artist: the more one suffers the better as, for an artist, it is material with which you can work”.
‘The Life and Death of Marina Abramovic’ gives insight to what an inhumane extent she has suffered throughout her life and that remains an inexhaustible source for many biographies to come.
Written by Thierry Somers, Pictures by Lucie Jansch (except decor picture below)