Marina Abramović is, without a doubt, an art-world superstar who has made her name pushing her mind and body to the limits in performance with relentless abandon. She surrendered complete control of her body in Rhythm O (1974) and recently continued her meditative, endurance-testing quest by having numerous face-to-face encounters (silent) as the capstone to her retrospective, The Artist Is Present, at the MoMA in 2010. To relinquish control of one’s self, to welcome unknown dangers into the work, and to risk losing authorship and intent, are hallmarks of Abramović’s career.
But there seems to have been a shift in Abramović’s focus in recent years, beginning with her re-performances in 2005, Seven Easy Pieces. It’s a welcome shift: is it perhaps more dangerous to relinquish control of one’s story, the narrative of one’s life, than that over the body? While the threat to the body and psyche is certainly more immediate, visceral, and thus relatable, a scar on the stomach lasts only as long as the flesh itself, whereas the impact upon history and culture is written to last for generations and, in special circumstances, millennia. Which is more barbaric: scarring one’s self or, following Walter Benjamin, writing the narrative of the scarring?
This is not to hold Abramović up as the beacon of twentieth-century art necessarily, as some already have, but rather to bring some new perspective to Abramović’s concerns. Now an official “senior citizen” in the States, she is clearly becoming more and more aware of her legacy, understanding that she will only have so long to control and write the history, a practice that her work once defied and questioned. The ephemerality of body and performance art is folding into its traces in the critical and historical accounts of art and performance, and the stakes of who writes these accounts is getting an increasing amount of attention from historians, critics, and artists alike. In the best cases, the concern over history transforms into a stunning, thought-provoking encounter with the very definitions of performance art, aesthetics, and cultural legitimacy, as it did with Seven Easy Pieces. At worst, it devolves into absurd totalitarianism that flies in the face of what was so revolutionary about the work in the first place, as it does with the new Marina Abramović Institute, or Abramović’s face-off with “performance artist” Jay-Z earlier this year. At moments such as these latter examples, Abramović risks becoming the Metallica of the performance world.
Somewhere in the middle of this spectrum is the recent Life and Death of Marina Abramović at the Park Avenue Armory. A veritable super-group of artists, the piece features Abramović, Willem Dafoe, and Antony (who also composed some of the beautiful music for the piece) among a talented company of performers under the direction of Robert Wilson. This is the sixth time Abramović has surrendered her biography to another artist, allowing them to do with the stories as they please, with no ostensible interference from the biographee. Of course, Wilson cannot take just anything from her biography, as it is limited by the information available, such as newspaper articles, critical features, published interviews, and the artist’s own narrative; these are a highly selective, edited series of stories to choose from. In other words, the authorship of this piece is not entirely under Wilson’s control to the same degree that Abramović cannot entirely relinquish control. This fact is made palpable in performance by the presence of Dafoe, who spends most of the performance on a separate platform downstage left, surrounded by stacks of papers and fileboxes, reading from randomly grabbed papers. Each piece supposedly contains one line of text: a year followed by one thing that happened that year. The gesture to the summation of a year in one line, which is then clearly catalogued, points to the highly selective art of writing history.
What is incredibly intriguing about Life and Death is the fact that the two driving forces—Abramović and Wilson—are two of the greatest models of high modernism of the 1970s and 80s, not to mention beyond. They both struggled with the Theatre of Images and body art as a means to thwart conventional modes of art making and spectatorship. In this performance, however, the focus is upon Abramović’s personal history—psychoanalysis by way of Wilsonian stage pictures. The audience is presented with the artist’s father abandoning the family, Abramović’s adolescent angst over her large nose, or the loneliness following her separation from life/art partner, Ulay. All of these are certainly significant events to the formation of Abramović as a holistic person—it’s just surprising to see it staged in the bizarro universe of Bob Wilson. For a good portion of the performance, Abramović plays her own mother, whose footsteps resound through the Armory as though they were those of a giant. Paging Dr. Freud, indeed …
Most significant for the performance itself is the fact that my reaction was similar to many others: if you like Wilson’s aesthetic, this is a fine piece—beautiful, meditative, tedious, and powerful. There is nothing blatantly “wrong” or “bad” about Life and Death. Dafoe is committed as ever, entertaining and even heartbreaking in the final moments of the piece; Antony, his singing, and his music are gorgeous and ethereal; the company—performers, musicians, technicians, and designers—are all on top of their game; and it is fascinating to see Abramović as a part of a larger project, not the entirety of the piece. Am I glad I went? Of course.
But this is where the praise ends—a fine performance. Did I learn anything about Abramović, aside perhaps from her teenage insecurities? Did I see into an artistic abstraction of her soul? Did I learn something new about performance or what it can do for the audience? Did it add anything significant to the Abramović or Wilson oeuvre? Not really.
The program for Life and Death of Marina Abramović is a faux newspaper, The Seventh Regiment Gazette, whose front-page headline reads, “ARTIST MARINA ABRAMOVIC DIES AT 67: Pioneered Durational Performance Art with the Body as Her Medium.” Not only does the medium of the newspaper playfully signify the objectivity of history making, but it also brings us to the most provocative aspect of the piece: the death of the artist. The opening image is of three white figures lying in state, an allusion to the fact that Abramović wants to be buried simultaneously with three effigies of herself around the world; the ending image is of the Abramović ascending to Heaven, angel wings and all, a possible path for the artist after her death, but perhaps more a not-so subtle canonization of the historical figure of Abramović, self-proclaimed patron saint of performance art.
Jean Baudrillard, my old friend, once wrote that, “In order for ethnography to live, its object must die.” By subjecting her life to this type of artistic representation, Abramović seems determined to have a hand in the construction and, more significantly, control of her story, significance, and legacy. She seems to embody an early-twentieth-century panic over the challenges that performance art faces with regard to artistic control and estates, financial security, documentation, critical reception, and, of course, preservation of and credit for historically significant cultural events. But as she writes these histories, Marina Abramović is concretizing herself increasingly to the point where her art is less concerned with exploration, provocation, or even relevance. Dafoe, emerging from his fortress of files which now lay in chaotic disarry, joins Abramović center stage and sings, “Why must you cut yourself? / Don’t you know it hurts me to see you suffer?” The cut can come as the slice of a razor blade or the editing of a pen or a few keystrokes; both can inflict irreparable damage. Is Abramović suffering as she struggles to define her life and career for herself and the audiences who paid handsomely to see her? It’s hard to tell these days. Instead, The Life and Death of Marina Abramović is a success with regard to the artist’s approach: a beautiful museum piece. But one has to wonder, as Shelley did about Ozymandias, whether the struggle over legacy is more important than the life lived well.