Last week, I watched the play "The Life and Death of Marina Abramović" at the Park Avenue Armory. Some of the world had already seen it; it debuted at the Manchester International Festival in 2011, and tonight is its last night in New York.
I've been following Marina Abramović closely at Complex this past year, to the point where my Vines of her performance with Jay Z for his "Picasso Baby" video went viral. When I went to see the highly acclaimed play about her "life" and "death," I learned that it was about neither, and as many critical reviews have already shared, it is hardly about Marina at all. Rather, it rethinks the concept of biography through surrealist imaging and an emotive, precise musical score (composed by William Basinski and Svetlana Spajic and sung by Antony Hegarty of Antony and the Johnsons and a Serbian choir—at one point Marina sings, also). It exposes the temporality of human life, in hindsight, by reordering the parts of Marina's story and implicitly assigning their meanings to the audience. Not once is the name "Marina" spoken by a character.
I watched the Willem Dafoe-narrated production over director Robert Wilson's shoulder (by chance), as he flipped through pages showing still photographs of each scene. It's safe to say that LADOMA is as much a play as it is a painting (Wilson is also a painter, choreographer, and designer)—colors blend and meet each other in one-of-a-kind harmony against a grey/blue shifting gradient, with hardly any furniture or structures interrupting his lighting design. As Dafoe told the audience in a live streamed Armory Q&A days later, the makeup is also part of Wilson's overarching goal to "get to the truth through artificiality." He added, "when things are heightened, garbage goes away." Eyebrows were higher than normal, and the faces were white, adding another canvas for Wilson to paint light on.
The same Q&A revealed that Wilson agreed to depict Marina's funeral only if he could depict her life. Three coffins with dogs sniffing the ground beneath them open the play before her youth and artistic development are humorously articulated by Dafoe, who describes himself as the "connective tissue for all the scenes." Marina's fixation on depicting her death came from seeing her friend Susan Sontag's funeral in Paris; she decided that her own funeral needed to be an artistic celebration of her life. Three coffins, only one with her real body, will be buried separately in Belgrade, Amsterdam, and New York, and Antony will sing "I Did It My Way" at the ceremony, as she has requested in her will.
Marina initially plays her mother, who she had a tumultuous relationship with. While these early moments shape the play's examination of life's temporality in retrospect, there is one that moved me the most; it's followed by Antony singing "Cut the World" (Marina and Dafoe also appear in the song's music video, directed by Nabil). Dafoe reads off a one-line summary of recent years in Marina's life as she stands on her knees and holds a mirror next to Antony (2008: "Her mother died, finally," 2010: "MoMA!," 2013: "Kissed like never before"). As Marina said in the Q&A, the scene is "about what your life is edited down to," and as Dafoe shuffled through piles of papers, feverishly reading off and even repeating certain years, the audience gets a sense of this temporality as it relates to their own short, reduced existence.
Marina has said many times, "I always had a vision that what I was doing was right." Whether this has been asserting her freedom to collaborate on a major "pop" level in 2013 with artists like Jay Z and Lady Gaga, or giving up freedom to have her life and death interpreted by Robert Wilson, it's certain she's doing something important that has so much more to do with her audiences than herself. Beyond "The Life and Death of Marina Abramović," 2013 was the year when Marina funded part of her Abramović Institute on Kickstarter, announced a film she's making about James Franco's life, appeared in Givenchy ads, did a Reddit AMA, and led Lady Gaga through the Abramović method. We can only imagine what she'll teach us about our lives, through her own, in 2014.