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The Life and Death of Marina Abramović.

A Fortnightly Review.

Marina Abramovic, Antony, Willem Dafoe
Directed by Robert Wilson.

Produced by Manchester International Festival and Teatro Real Madrid and The Lowry.
9 – 16 July 2011.
Manchester International Festival.

By Anthony Howell.

Ka Mountain… (Photo: Basil Langton)

AS I WATCH THE magnificent sunset reflected in the waters of Salford Wharf on the terrace of the Lowry Theatre in Manchester, I go through my memories of Robert Wilson.  I first heard of him performing a piece called Ka Mountain and GUARDenia Terrace at the Shiraz Festival in the ruins of Persepolis and its environs in 1972.  Presided over by an Empress, and featuring a bizarre mix of Eastern and Western artists and musicians – from Bismillah Khan to Rubenstein – this was the archetype of all twentieth-century jamborees:  Warhol’s inflatables escaping from their moorings and floating away above the stupendous pillars, Ashbery reading his most abstract poetry, Cunningham dancing in front of ancient Persian friezes, and the Empress herself constituting a spectacle in her own right, dressed in the latest fashion.  Ka Mountain was a performance that lasted a week!  And here I am for a mere three hours of The Life and Death of Marina Abramovic.

In the early ’70s, I saw The Life and Times of Joseph Stalin, another of Wilson’s pieces.  It began at 7.30 pm, in the Brooklyn Academy of Music, and ended at 7.30 the following morning.  At least a hundred performers took part in it; some deaf and some blind, I believe – as well as professional actors and dancers and people Wilson had plucked out of everyday life.  These were all part of the Byrd Hoffmann School of Byrds – a sort of performance art tribe, congregating around Wilson at the time.

THERE WERE SEVERAL ACTS to that spectacle, each at least three hours long.  Motionlessness, or motion slowed to a fraction of its normal speed, seemed to have descended upon the stage and suspended the performers in some fascinating trance.  Occasionally, a swifter action would be dropped into the pervading honey of stillness – a wide-girthed, spinning black man in evening dress created one such incident – and these sudden events would leave an afterimage created out of their rarity.  The sets and the costumes were both lavish and incredible.  Somewhere in the depths of a vast cave, a seal fanned itself sporadically for ages as kneeling camels edged closer.  Once an hour, a huge metal pole would drop with a crash into place, sealing up the entrance to the cave and cutting it off from the golden sands outside, where deaf fairies danced silently by distant wavelets.  At larger intervals, a runner would pass in front of the cave-mouth.

It was great!  There was no real narrative.  It was like Rimbaud’s Illuminations.  If you nodded off, the performance simply continued…now a corps-de-ballet of be-turbaned black women spinning to Philip Glass with flaming parasols inside a pyramid as Wilson in a glass booth read from the Communist party manifesto – and thus your own dreams seeped into the dream-like scene…and when you woke up later there was that corps-de-ballet of be-turbaned black women still spinning to Philip Glass with their parasols still aflame inside the same pyramid, but just then its tip lifted off and ascended into space – just as it so Masonically does on the American dollar bill.  The effect was surreal, hypnotic, and as garbled and deranged as any dream.

A QUARTER OF AN hour before the beginning of the Lowry performance, I wander into the theatre, and the spectacle has already started.  Black swags of curtain have been raised to present a mortuary scene, and below, three Marina Abramovics have been laid out for us, and under their tables real live Dobermans go trotting among the bones strewn for them on the floor, their silhouettes as black as the curtains, and sometimes they disappear into the blackness of that material.

More Jack than Heath.

Now some wall-less junk room of boxes full of archives and clippings rises from the orchestra pit, and Willem Dafoe appears there as the Joker – more Jack Nicholson than Heath Ledger was the consensus in the interval.  Dafoe proceeds to narrate and then reiterate incidents from Marina’s life.  In the first half, these refer mainly to her violent relationship with her mother – who threw glass ashtrays at her head and was generally unreasonable.

Dafoe’s lively interjections usually happen after the curtain has gone down, and occupy the time required for scene changes.  As I recall, this was always a Wilson tactic.  I think these inter-scenic vignettes were called ‘joints’ in the days of the day-long (or night-long) spectacles.  Then the curtain lifts, and three little Marinas are abused by mum, who is very tall and stately, and played by Marina Abramovic herself.  There is something of Dafoe’s Wooster Group coincidences in the simultaneity of sharp noise and sudden action.  The mesmeric singer Antony – lead singer of Antony and the Johnsons, and an alternative legend – contributes haunting vocal interjections. The lighting is superb, as it always is in Wilson’s work.  It is extraordinary how, with a set of immense grids diagonally transecting each other, and with multiple performers contorting and freezing, he can pinpoint all attention onto one single detail – in this case a finger that mum keeps rhythmically tapping against her waist as she progresses with arms crossed across the stage.

IN THE INTERVAL I chat with Dragan, an artist from Serbia, to whom I’m introduced by Cornelia Parker, for the whole art-world is keen to see and be seen at this well-wrought and highly esoteric Manchester Festival production.  I share with him my memories of Marina – who is now an art-world mega-star, of course, after her recent show at MoMA in New York.  I last met her in 1977, at the Paris Biennale of that year, where the Theatre of Mistakes were performing Going.  Marina and Ulay, her partner, were driving the lorry they lived in as they journeyed from art-fest to art-fest round and round and round in a circle in the forecourt of the Musée d’Art Moderne.  The lorry had an oil leak, and by the end of the performance a perfect ring of oil had been formed on the pavers of the court (Marina reminded me later that the lorry actually finished its life in that performance and was subsequently towed away to the breaker’s yard by Parisian authorities).

A bit mawkish?

I have never been able to separate Ulay and Marina.  When I consider the wonderful conceptual work they did, I see them as a single entity, like Gilbert and George.  I still consider Ulay to be an immensely original artist.  When they decided to part they agreed on their last piece together.  One would start at one end of the Great Wall of China while the other started at the other end.  At some point they passed each other. Just wonderful!

IN THE SECOND HALF, this Wall of China performance is referred to, as we move on to Marina’s troubles in love.  Now the set is mainly the lighting, against the white screen that constitutes the backdrop.  The performers carry emblems alluding to celebrated performances, such as the one in which she and Ulay crawled on their stomachs with a python that hadn’t eaten in two weeks – the python element was then reprised by Marina on her own.  There is a fine scene when the performance artists who work alongside Marina in this spectacle get to contribute their own material – notable for Kira O’Reilly doing a slow-motion fall down a stair-case designed by Wilson.  It is suggested that Marina’s love-life has been as devastating as her relationship with her mother – and finally a transfigured Marina, Christ-like, ascends into the flies.

Well, it’s all a bit mawkish, frankly, and in general I feel that in the second half the spectacle runs out of inspiration.

I think the problem lies with the notion of a performed biography.  As John Ashbery puts it in the preface to his excellent translation of Illuminations  – recently published in the UK by Carcanet:

The self is obsolete: in Rimbaud’s famous formulation, “ ‘I’ is someone else” (“Je est un autre”).  In the twentieth century, the coexisting conflicting views of objects that the Cubist painters cultivated, the equalizing deployment of all notes of the scale in serial music, and the unhierarchical progressions of bodies in motion in the ballets of Merce Cunningham are three examples among many of this fertile destabilization.  Somewhere at the root of this, the crystalline jumble of Rimbaud’s Illuminations, like a disordered collection of magic lantern slides, each an “intense and rapid dream,” in his words, is still emitting pulses.  If we are absolutely modern – and we are – it’s because Rimbaud commanded us to be.

 The Robert Wilson who created Ka Mountain was absolutely modern.

AS MARINA FINALLY ASCENDS, we may be expected to experience catharsis – that “purification of the emotions by vicarious experience” – which depended on a unity of time, space and action to bring about an identification with the tragic protagonist.  However, in lieu of that, modernist performance, as pioneered by Wilson, posited an identification with the unconscious. This identification might have a purgative effect similar to that of catharsis, but it was experienced by the audience individually rather than as a group.  In August 1978, in an article (in Artscribe 13) entitled ‘Subjective Denouement’, I wrote this about Wilson, when reviewing his piece called I was sitting on my patio when this guy appeared I thought I was hallucinating, which he performed with Lucinda Childs at the Royal Court Theatre:

My ‘realisations’ are subjective.  I remember a moment during Stalin…when I leapt to my feet to shout ‘Bravo’, and noticed that at the same time someone was weeping in the audience, while yet another roared with laughter.  Wilson employs the single point of view ironically to achieve diverse effects.  Each member of his audience will experience realisations of their own, with all the intensity of personal detection.  His work allows such freedom to breathe.  Previous artists, in all fields, have been concerned with arriving at their own subconscious – now, whatever ‘the subconscious’ may mean, there is much territory of thought rarely returned to, not necessarily barred to one at conscious moments, simply seldom visited.  Often, the artists of our own time are concerned not only with getting to their own subconscious but also with getting to the particular subconscious of each receiver of their experience…


SADLY, THIS IS NO longer true.  The audience in Manchester comprise a slightly hesitant unity. Wilson’s work has evolved – we have all evolved – and in Wilson’s case the staging has been honed, the lighting refined and the action integrated to relate to a single story – and I think this was more successfully done in The Black Rider, Wilson’s take on William Burroughs seen at The Barbican in 2004 – which featured a marvelously peg-legged Marianne Faithfull.

Now the modernism has been whittled away until it is no longer apparent.

The slow motion is still there. Willem Dafoe repeats his lines almost as obsessively as Christopher Knowles, the autistic savant who was an expert in repetition and an inspiration to Wilson in the early days, and runners still traverse the stage, but the qualities which once had the force of perceptions have become merely the tools of a finely-mannered trade.

It needs Ulay, and a leaking lorry – probably a whole pack of Dobermans!

Some members of the audience complained that the production was so stylized that they couldn’t ‘identify’ with the artist’s pain as a child with an unfortunate nose and a domineering mother.  If ‘I is another’, there is no self with whom to identify.  So the style of which Wilson is the master works well for melding together disorder, for ‘crystallizing the jumble’ of our multivarious modern experience, but it cannot deliver the soap of poor Marina’s trials and tribulations.


The Life and Death of Marina Abramovic. Commissioned by Manchester International Festival and Teatro Real Madrid with Theater Basel, Art Basel, Holland Festival, Salford City Council and deSingel.

POSTSCRIPT:  Manchester Art Gallery adds to the rich mix of exciting work being shown at this international festival with 11 Rooms.  Co-curators Hans Ulrich Obrist of the Serpentine and Klaus Biesenbach of MoMA NY have brought together eleven artists in the field of concept and performance, among them Marina Abramovic.  Each has a separate room, and much of the work in these rooms is genuinely intriguing (and perhaps more resolutely modern than the spectacle at the Lowry).  I particularly enjoyed Mirror Check by Joan Jonas (created in 1970!), Swap by Roman Ondák (so simple that it seems a shame to give away the strategy) and Ann Lee, 2011 by Tino Seghal.

In Seghal’s room a child was giving what seemed almost a lecture, and occasionally asking questions of the audience.  Later another child took over the space, and again held forth.  There was a certain dislocation to this piece.  The speech and the gestures of each child did not appear to be spontaneous.  There were pauses, as if the performer were summoning up the memory of what to say next.  This made the questions all the more disturbing.  I was asked which did I prefer – to have too much to do or not enough to do?  The latter, I replied.  Why?  I hesitated.  Because I find having too much on my plate stressful and I don’t like to be stressed.  Well, later I wondered if I had told the truth, or expressed myself clearly, and I’m still wondering.  When an artist’s work stays with you like that, it’s a good sign.


Anthony Howella contributing editor of The Fortnightly Review and a former dancer with the Royal Ballet, was founder of The Theatre of Mistakes and performed solo at the Hayward Gallery and at the Sydney Biennale. His articles on visual art, dance, performance, and poetry have appeared in many publications including Art Monthly, The London Magazine, Harpers & Queen, and The Times Literary Supplement. In 2001 he received a LADA bursary to study the tango in Buenos Aires and now teaches the dance at his studio/gallery The Room in Tottenham Hale. He is the author of a seminal textbook, The Analysis of Performance Art: A Guide to Its Theory and Practice; his most recent collection of poems is The Ogre’s Wife, published by Anvil. A minor edit was made to this article on 19 July 2011.

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