In Review > North America

The Life and Death of Marina Abramović

NEW YORK CITY
Park Avenue Armory
12/15/13

In Review Marina Abramovic hdl 1213
The Life and Death of Marina Abramović, a music-theater piece conceived and directed by Robert Wilson currently playing at New York's Park Avenue Armory
© Joan Marcus 2013
In Review Marina Abramovic lg 1213
Williem Dafoe in The Life and Death of Marina Abramović
© Joan Marcus 2013

Like Tom Sawyer, Marina Abramović has been given the chance to attend her own funeral. As the audience filtered into the Park Avenue Armory for The Life and Death of Marina Abramović, a music–theater piece conceived and directed by Robert Wilson, the titular Belgrade-born performance artist was lying in state on the stage, flanked by two doubles wearing Abramović masks, while a pair of Dobermans sniffed around their coffins. At the end of the performance, the three Abramovićes appeared as angels in white robes, suspended above the stage. The intervening two-hour, forty-minute extravaganza — seen at a December 15 matinée in the midst of a ten-performance run — sustained the conceit: just as at a funeral one doesn't speak ill of the dead, Abramović never remotely suggested that its subject and star was worthy of anything less than the most reverent attention.

Abramović was listed as "co-creator" of the show, with Wilson credited with the "concept" and Antony, of Antony and the Johnsons, responsible for assembling the music. It consisted of scenes from the artist's life, narrated by an indefatigable Willem Dafoe in a Struwwelpeter pompadour, and illustrated in tableaus displaying Wilson's patented blend of visual savvy and solemn obfuscation. The vignettes told of victimization and pain — hardly surprising from an artist whose most famous works involve masochistic feats of endurance. Playing her own terrifying mother, Abramović skulked around the stage like Ortrud in Wilson's Met Lohengrin. Later, in her own guise, she offered recipes for "Spirit Cooking." ("Cut sharply into the middle finger of your right hand. Eat the pain.") She even got to sing, in a husky, Dietrich-y baritone: an Antony–Nico Muhly ditty called, natch, "Salt in My Wounds."

Antony himself — dressed as a Balkan widow — sang a handful of his own songs; his androgynous quaver gained in power as the music edged away from art rock toward pop anthem territory. Wilson provided plenty of striking imagery, even if his signature effect — silhouetted performers creeping in slow motion before a brightly lit cyclorama — is familiar to the point of cliché. But for all its occasional pleasures, it was not a satisfying afternoon. The show promised to show us the epic resonance of Abramović's life, but didn't deliver. The air of humorless self-importance was stultifying: if anyone in the audience had so much as belched, the whole aesthetic edifice would have tumbled. If there was a lesson to learned from The Life and Death of Marina Abramović, it was that funerals are best reserved for the dead. spacer 

FRED COHN

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Current Issue: August 2014 — VOL. 79, NO. 2