As fearless and ferociously talented as she is seductive and passionate, iconic performance artist Marina Abramović has spent more than forty years challenging herself and engaging audiences with her work. As a pioneer of performance art, she has created some of the most vital early works of the movement, putting her mind and body at the forefront as the medium, and offering herself to her audience no matter the danger. When we spoke to Abramović back in 2012 for the release of The Artist is Present—a documentary chronicling her seminal performance exhibition at MoMA—she told us:
I don’t have any personal life so it was not complicated, everything is public and all my work is available to everybody. I show all aspects of myself—fragile, strange, dramatic, kitschy, whatever. And I think being vulnerable, the public can also project their own vulnerability into my persona, which makes them closer to me and I’m closer to them.
And as her most personal work to date, Robert Wilson’s viscerally and visually stunning The Life and Death of Marina Abramović (now onstage at the Park Avenue Armory), re-imagines her remarkable life—from the tortured Yugoslavian childhood of her past and her decades of work as a performance artist to her love affairs and what the future will inevitably bring. Starring Abramović as both herself and her mother, she performs alongside an incredibly athletic Willem Dafoe and bellowing Antony Hegarty. Amalgamating music, theater, sound, design, physical performance, and visual art, the “quasi-opera” encompasses all facets of performance, bringing the audience on a fragmented and abstract immersion into the emotional and psychological landscape of the artist’s extraordinary life.
From the early beginnings of her career, Abramović has used her body as a vehicle for expression—and Wilson’s show, in which she gave him complete freedom to tell her story, is no exception. With her art, she creates a unique dialogue between herself and audience, asking the public to watch as she tests the mental and physical limitations of the human body. She solicits the viewer to participate in the experience, creating a conversation and critique of social norms and boundaries of everyday actions and interactions. Having been raised in former Yugoslavia to militant parents, her childhood was imbued with an incredible sense of discipline and structure which has fueled her abilities as an artist, but also created an extreme emotional distance that has created a deep yearning to love and be loved. And in that great expression of physicality in her work, she manipulates our conception of time, slowing down the clock to embody the notion of time’s illusion to inhabit an eternal moment.
And if there’s any other artist whose work echoes that temporal element, it’s avant-garde electronic composer and master of brilliant sound William Basinski—who collaborated with Wilson, Abramović, and Hegarty to create the powerful music for The Life and Death of Marina Abramović. As one of the most fascinating composers in the world, he too has been perfecting his craft for decades now. After being greatly inspired by Brian Eno’s melancholic Music for Airports and the work of Steve Reich, Basinski began experimenting, investigating just how far he could go with the tape loops that have now gone on to garner him both the acclaim and following that has been slowly building for over twenty years. His immersive soundscapes drone on and on, shifting your consciousness—stripping bare the artifice of time and allowing you to inhabit that eternal moment. From his early work to The Disintegration Loops and now his work with Abramović, his music lives in an ineffable realm that’s as delicate as it is harrowing and extremely powerful in its absolute beauty—especially heard here upon the stage.
“In the concerts, I usually do one long set because the whole point is to try and get out of this body and this worry and this nonsense and just take a little vacation, fall in. And forty minutes can go by and it feels like five, so that’s the ideal situation. It’s like meditation, you have some relief, you sort of go back into the womb,” he once told me. And although having never met previously to the collaborative experience of the show, Abramović have fallen into a natural simpatico, both in their work and personally.
Now one of the most revered and legendary artists—with a show that immortalizes her career— Abramović took some time while getting her stage makeup done to talk to her dear friend Basinski to discuss the physical and mental limits of expression, inhabiting an eternal moment, and the state of the art world today through their seasoned eyes.
Check back here for Part II of Marina and William’s conversation tomorrow.