Marina Abramović: Life and Death

The Performance Artist Grapples with Mortality for Robert Wilson’s New Production

Having braved razor blades and a loaded gun in the name of her craft, the grand dame of performance art now attends her own funeral for The Life and Death of Marina Abramović. Antony Crook photographed the marathon rehearsals of the new production, which enlists torch singer Antony Hegarty and soundscape artist William Basinski for its score, actor Willem Dafoe as narrator, and a trio of doberman pinschers. Directed by American avant-garde luminary Robert Wilson, the piece pulls from Abramović’s private diaries for a plot interweaving details of her intimate relationships, including her complicated backstory with her mother. It follows Abramović’s endurance-based spectacle, The Artist is Present, at New York’s MoMA last year, and marks the sixth installment in an ongoing biography project punctuating her three-decades-plus career. We spoke to the Serbian legend just before the show's Manchester Festival debut.

What did you find most intriguing about working with Robert Wilson?
How everything is an illusion. When we began I had this image in my head of me sitting on an ice block. When we arrived at the rehearsal I saw this huge block of Perspex, made to look like ice. I said, “This is not ice?” and he replied, “Are you out of your mind? You want to sit on a block of ice and for the rest of the performance your dress is wet? Theater is illusion, Marina.”

How did Antony Hegarty and Willem Dafoe come to be involved?
When we started this I had to think about music, and the only person in the world I wanted to say yes to the project was Antony. He has created 11 incredible songs based on my biography. For me, Antony is like an angel sent from the sky. The first time you hear him sing there is an incredible emotional impact. Willem Dafoe is a friend whom I have known for a long time. As the narrator, he is the spine of the whole piece. He even sings and dances to Slavic songs.

Tell us about the animal cameos.
We were supposed to have a live horse but we couldn’t stretch the budget, so I have a wooden horse. The opening scene is a funeral scene with the dogs eating the bones of my body. It is very macabre but incredibly poetic at the same time. We originally wanted to have 12 dogs, but because of complicated British legalities we ended up with three. We also have a live snake.

The rehearsals clock in between ten and 12 hours. You're known for your stamina, but was it challenging? 
During the first three days of rehearsals I thought I was going to end up in a mental hospital. Robert creates a parallel reality and it takes some time to adjust. He is incredibly obsessive about every aspect; even the position of the little finger on your hand must be controlled in relation to the shadow that it casts. It made me see the body in an entirely new way. It was an incredible learning process for everyone involved. 

Audience participation is a signature of your work. Does it feature in this piece? 
No, I think the only participation will be that they are going to need Kleenex. Everyone who sees it seems to cry.

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