Three coffins, each with a body lying in state, sit on the stage of the vast Park Avenue Armory as the audience enters. All contain a version of Marina Abramovic: Two are masked and one is the real artist portraying her own demise. This provocative tableau — boosted by newspaper obituaries left on each seat — alludes to the artist’s penchant for self-mythology, a trait taken to soaring new heights in Robert Wilson’s The Life and Death of Marina Abramovic. But these multiple Marinas also remind us, the reflexively cynical public, that the versions we see of this controversial figure may not be real; there is an authentic being among them, too.
The Life and Death of Marina Abramovic isn’t the first biography the artist has made; in her program note, she says she’s done six. But this theatrical collaboration should rightfully transform the conversation about her oeuvre beyond the art world’s obsession with her material success following her 2010 MOMA retrospective. (Yes, the lobby has a gift shop with merchandise and information about her institute, “the legacy she leaves to the public.”) But this stunningly beautiful theater production largely steps away from those dimensions of the now-successful artist’s life, staging a biography of her psyche instead — a far more daring strategy that brings splendid rewards.
Willem Dafoe, white-faced with a shock of wavy red hair, serves as the evening’s hot-wired narrator, excavating evidence of her life from archive boxes. But although he calls out significant dates and facts (“2010: MOMA! 2013: Kissed like never before!”), such information is just a way for him (and the production) to jump into a more speculative headspace.
Wilson’s gorgeous stage compositions immerse us in Abramovic’s psychological milestones: Dafoe maniacally rattles ice in a cocktail glass, and we hear about Marina’s mother holding her as a shield against her father’s violent urges — a body on the line. Later, Abramovic, who has also been playing her formidable mother, removes her mother’s mask from her face and becomes herself — an astonishing gesture that shows how she incarnates maternal shadows.
A more textured episode conjures the young Marina’s coming of age as an artist in the context of her native Communist Yugoslavia. A martial tableau assembles, with sirens and soldiers calling out creative restrictions through bullhorns. (“An artist should not repeat himself!” “An artist should not overproduce!” “An artist must not steal ideas from another artist!”) At various other points, Wilson summons exquisite images to evoke her state of mind: dark angels, oceans of clouds, and lovers disappearing into silhouette. The finale is visually sublime: Abramovic hangs high in the air, suspended alongside her other selves, a long-tormented body dangling between living and dying, between transcendence through art and surrender to pain.
The original musical score, however, gives this collaborative creation its most haunting powers. Antony (of Antony and the Johnsons) performs soulful, searching songs written for the production. (“When will I turn, and cut the world?” he laments in one chilling elegy.) Traditional Serbian music recurs throughout, offering a wailing undercurrent and adding hypnotic, otherworldly dimensions to Wilson’s colorful abstractions. (William Basinski and Svetlana Spajic are co-composers.)
Despite its bold title and playful frame, the production amounts to far more than a hagiography of an art star or a funeral stunt. It is an expressive metaphysical pageant, reflecting on how an extraordinary life can defy death through art.