Each year, I look forward to the art, contemporary dance and performances that Luminato brings to town. For me, it’s Toronto’s best festival, in that the quality of programming is so high, much is free and it’s so multi disciplinary.
Marina Abramovic, in The Life and Death of Marina Abramovic. Image: thestimuleye.com
So I was thrilled to discover that The Life and Death of Marina Abramovic was coming this year. I’m a fan of Abramovic’s performance work and interviewed her last year. You can read the interviews HERE and HERE.
What I admire most about Abramovic’s work is that she adheres to the idea that the art must come before the artist – something that I believe is a vital quality in all great art. Given how often she has put herself in danger for the sake of her art, she must agree.
She has played Russian roulette, carved a star of David into her stomach, surrounded herself by fire and forced herself to sit for days, weeks, months on end barely moving for her legendary performance at MoMA in 2010.
What would compel her to do these extreme acts? I’ve often wondered this, and when you meet her you see what a strong woman she is, very interested in spirituality. I suspect that she found that surviving her performances gives her power. If she can rise above the pain, then it ceases to affect her, and she can free herself from the suffering. Her work can be seen as a metaphor for the path to enlightenment – in many eastern philosophies including Buddhism, life is seen to represent suffering, and enlightenment is achieved when one rises beyond life to a liberated state.
Tn The Life and Death we learn that she was abused by her militant parents in Communist-era Belgrade, so presumably the pain began for her in childhood. But the piece focuses exclusively on her biography, doesn’t engage with her art and leaves it up to the viewer to connect the two. The script would have benefitted a lot from an analysis of her clearly conflicted relationship with her mother. I wonder how a story of Louise Bourgeois’ life would have played out.
Nonetheless, the story of her life is told, in over-the-top staccato, by a brilliant Willem Dafoe, whose character is reminiscent of Joel Gray as the emcee in the film version of Cabaret and Heath Ledger’s unhinged Joker from the Batman trilogy.
The collaboration also brings together the brilliant artist and theatrical director Robert Wilson whose lighting, spare sets and white pancake makeup gives a super modern feel to the whole thing, and the transgender signer Antony Hegarty of Antony and the Johnsons, whose voice is heartbreaking and unforgettable. It’s thanks to the three that the production is so dazzling.
But I have to admit, I found Abramovic’s place in the whole thing sort of pointless. It was about her life, and her death, but strangely it left out the most interesting this about her, her ART (aside from a striking clip of a skeleton’s face being scrubbed with a stiff brush.) Near the end, as she rose to heaven as some kind of angel, I rolled my eyes.
The show’s real art lies in the performances of Wilson, Hegarty and Dafoe, who thankfully rise to the occasion. Abramovic is on stage in nearly every scene, but in The Life and Death of Marina Abramovic, the artist was decidedly NOT present.