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Marina Abramovic’s latest blurs the line between artist and star

Performance artist Marina Abramovic is photographed at the Ritz Carlton Hotel in Toronto June 10, 2013.

Moe Doiron/The Globe and Mail

2.5 out of 4 stars

Title
The Life and Death of Marina Abramovic
Written by
Robert Wilson, Marina Abramovic
Directed by
Robert Wilson
Actors
Marina Abramovic, Willem Dafoe
Music
Antony Hegarty, Svetlana Spajic
Venue
Luminato Festival
City
Toronto
Runs Until
Monday, June 17, 2013

An artist should not make themselves into an idol.

An artist should not make themselves into an idol.

An artist should not make themselves into an idol.

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– from Marina Abramovic's An Artist's Life Manifesto

In the lead-up to the Luminato Festival, artistic director Jorn Weisbrodt has taken to quoting a quip he credits to Joni Mitchell: "Stars are made by others; artists make themselves."

It's a neat epigram, but the line between artist and star becomes less tidy when you consider the other diva in the spotlight at this year's Luminato: Marina Abramovic, the self-flagellating, self-proclaimed "grandmother of performance art."

Who is behind her recent transformation from artist to star? Herself, or her disciples?

The Life and Death of Marina Abramovic is an evening of worship put together by American avant-garde director Robert Wilson. It is a Passion play of sorts that festishizes Abramovic's suffering in the name of love and art. The Belgrade-born performance artist has been complicit in the show's creation – and she also stars in it, playing her hard, face-slapping mother in the first act; and a Christ-like version of herself, providing the roof for a house and floating above her followers, in the second.

The hymns for the service are provided by two composers, who also appear on stage to sing them. Antony Hegarty, the ethereal, androgynous singer from Antony and the Johnsons, delivers stripped-down electronica arias inspired by Abramovic, while Svetlana Spajic and her singers ululate intense, traditional Serbian songs during many of Wilson's striking, slow-motion sequences.

Willem Dafoe, whose career has careened back and forth between experimental theatre and summer blockbusters, is the Mephistophelean minister for the evening – his hair a shock of red, atop a body painted entirely in white like the rest of the cast. He tells parables from the life of Abramovic in the style that Wilson favours – chopped up and recursive, in a series of contorted voices chosen for their musical quality rather than ability to communicate meaning. (In more pop culture terms, Dafoe looks and sounds here like the Green Goblin possessed by The Joker; it's really riveting.)

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Pairing Abramovic and Wilson makes sense in a way. They are both artistic icons who first came to prominence in the 1970s, won Golden Lions at the Venice Biennale in the 1990s, and share a strong interest in durational work (that is, testing an audience's patience).

On a more essential level, however, they are at odds. Abramovic's work is small and intimate and self-centred, while Wilson works on a grand and operatic scale. Her art is obsessed with the physical body, his with transforming human bodies into pasty cartoons. In short, she is a performance artist, while he is uber-theatrical.

As such, the artificiality of Wilson's aesthetic – which, having just seen a revival Einstein on the Beach at last year's Luminato, we can see has evolved little since the 1970s – both swamps the intimacy of Abramovic's and pales in comparison.

The brief excerpts we see of her performance art connects on a more direct and visceral level – for instance, a video, in which she brings a needle dangerously close to the surface of her eye, over and over. Hand Abramovic a microphone and make her sing, however, as Wilson does, and the spell is broken.

Two moments stand out for me, nevertheless, in The Life and Death of Marina Abramovic. They both involve virtuosic performances by Dafoe. In the first, the actor relates two cruel stories about Abramovic's family that explain the emotional history behind her work – a 25th anniversary dinner that ends in shattered glasses, and an aunt's life that is casually destroyed. Dafoe tells these anecdotes without pity, then, having reached the end, repeats the text in the reverse, sentence by sentence, all the way back to the beginning.

In the second, Dafoe sits amid a pile of papers on which are written brief summaries of years in the past two decades of Abramovic's life. He pulls them out them at random and reads them aloud, so we hear what happened to her romantically and professionally, but completely out of order.

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Both of these scenes function as clever rebuttals to the very idea of biography – that a human life has a story that can be told in a clear arc from birth to death; our lives are full of repeats and relapses, and sometimes go nowhere slowly.

By comparison, the scenes where Abramovic is painted as a super-human figure are much less interesting. At one point, Abramovic's recent artistic manifesto is read out loud – including the repeated line that "an artist should not make themselves into an idol." Given that Wilson has essentially put together a rock opera called Marina Abramovic: Superstar, I'm not sure how much irony there is in its inclusion – though I guess she never said that artists should not make other artists into idols.

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About the Author
Theatre critic

J. Kelly Nestruck is The Globe's theatre critic. More

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