Who's cryin' now?
Not the charismatic Marina Abramovic, whose all-accepting God(dess)-like gaze famously made thousands weep three years ago at New York's Museum of Modern Art as they participated with her in the long-running performance piece she called The Artist is Present. Sixty-six now, 67 in November, the Belgrade-born Abramovic shed a few tears herself over the course of that mutual-gaze marathon's 736 hours and 30 minutes. But the real overspill came several months later, in the rehearsals leading up to the July 2011 world premiere of The Life and Death of Marina Abramovic at the Manchester International Festival.
"I cried from the beginning to the end. I was completely hysterical," a typically intense, completely black-clad Abramovic recalled the other day, while eating a late-afternoon lunch in the private dining room of a posh Toronto hotel. "You know how difficult it is to put all the [crap] of your life on stage and everybody listen?" Certainly there's no lack of trauma in the Abramovic autobiography, including a strict mother who never hugged or kissed her only daughter for fear of "spoiling" her (Abramovic, in fact, plays both herself and her mother in Life and Death) and an abusive father, a high-ranking Yugoslavian Communist, who left the family when Marina was 17.
Finally, though, Robert Wilson, Life and Death's director and conceptualizer-in-chief, told his star: "I think you should stop this bullshit crying. The audience has to cry, not you." Eventually, Abramovic did, thanks in part to Wilson's ministrations and those of fellow performer Willem Dafoe. "He make really incredible funny stories out of the most tragic stories and I started laughing with him and laughter is a great release of pain. Now there is no pain any more. I kind of liberated myself of the traumatic stories of my life." Indeed, Abramovic is no longer seeing the "strict psychotherapist" she used to see in Manhattan. "I think the theatre piece completely served the function. I don't ever need to see a psychotherapist any more … I've never been more happy in my life than now."
Canadians get the opportunity to experience the source of Abramovic's catharsis starting Friday evening when Toronto's Bluma Appel Theatre hosts the North American premiere of The Life and Death of Marina Abramovic. Part of the 2013 Luminato Festival, the much-anticipated bow features the same creative crew – Abramovic; Wilson, most famous perhaps for co-creating the opera Einstein on the Beach; Dafoe, a two-time Oscar nominee; and New York musician Antony (who composed 11 songs) – that took the production to Basel, Madrid, Antwerp, then Amsterdam after its Manchester initiation.
The presentation represents something of "an about-face" in Abramovic's career, according to Wilson, who's five years her senior. The two have known each other since the early seventies when both were active in the then-fledgling performing arts scene, doing their thing in churches, alleys and on rooftops, in parking garages, art galleries and gymnasiums – anywhere except traditional theatre spaces. Wilson, however, broke with that soon enough and began to learn about makeup and lighting and painted scenery and conceiving work for "proscenium theatres and opera houses." Abramovic, by contrast, "stayed the course with the performing arts scene where nothing is false, everything is real … so she would take a razor blade and cut herself or sit in a room with raw meat."
Still, as the years progressed, Abramovic would make the occasional overture to Wilson "to work with her," or to prepare a production with her in mind. Nothing came of it until several years ago when she asked if the now internationally acclaimed director "would make this piece about her life" as part of a larger commission involving other artists preparing their own works on her.
"I had a lot of reservations about whether I should do it or not," Wilson admitted in an interview this week, not the least being Abramovic's own recognition that "I never played theatre before." However, thanks partly to the encouragement of Jorn Weisbrodt, currently Luminato artistic director but at that time both Wilson's working associate and friend of Abramovic, he did grasp the opportunity and is now happy to have done so. "The amazing thing about Marina is she knows how to take a challenge," he said.
For Abramovic, Life and Death is "a kind of contribution of all the people I love in my life, the four of us, and we always want to work together and we never had the chance until now … We are so different between each other, but together we've created this good soup – I love soups – and everyone has brought their own ingredients to make this new kind of play."
Performing for more than two demanding hours each night over four consecutive evenings would, for most artists, be enough of a contribution to a festival like Luminato. But Abramovic also is giving a two-hour lecture the evening of June 18 on a very big topic: "the past, the present and the future of performance art."
Further, in Trinity Bellwoods Park, she's overseeing the erection of MAI/ Prototype – seven interlocking pavilion-like octagons through which participants, wearing white lab coats and headphones and organized in groups of four, will walk and, in the course of two hours, "perform" a series of Abramovic-conceived exercises and activities.
MAI stands for Marina Abramovic Institute, which the artist hopes to make a reality next year in a renovated recreation centre (co-designed by architect Rem Koolhaas no less) in Hudson, two hours north of Manhattan, where she has a home. The Trinity Bellwoods prototype is, as its title suggests, a sort of temporary, portable testing ground or satellite for some of the initiatives Abramovic plans to pursue in Hudson.
Its origins go back, in fact, to May 31, 2010 – the day Abramovic completed the last seven-hour stretch of the "historic ideal" that was The Artist is Present. "After I stand up from this chair at MoMA, I was a different person. I understood that now my duty is to create legacy – a legacy of everything I learned in the last 40 years of my career that I could unconditionally give to humanity in general. Because it really can help; it can help change the consciousness of human beings today. Because things are not right on this planet … There's such an enormous need in our society for its own experience. Everything we do, we've been told. We've been told to shop; we've been told what products to buy. We have to have our own mind; we have to get back to ourselves."
Two hours without checking your Blackberry or caressing your iPad: That's not too big a price to pay to begin "claiming your freedom again, is it?" she asked.
The Life and Death of Marina Abramovic runs June 14-17 at Bluma Appel Theatre. MAI/Prototype runs June 14-23 in Trinity Bellwoods Park. The Abramovic lecture on performance art is June 18 at Winter Garden Theatre. For times and details go to luminatofestival.com.