The Argument: Why we can’t stop gawking at Marina Abramović’s pain

The Argument: Why we can’t stop gawking at Marina Abramović’s pain

Abramović became a performance art superstar by torturing herself and daring us to look away. Why we can’t stop watching

Marina Abramović
(Photo: Fabrizio Maltese/Contour by Getty Images)

In 2010 the Museum of Modern Art mounted a retrospective of the hardcore Serbian performance artist Marina Abramović. Young, naked artists recreated some of her most provocative pieces, while grainy video from the ’70s and ’80s projected Abramović’s greatest hits—the time she drove a van in circles for 16 hours straight, or carved a Yugoslavian red star into her stomach, whipped her back raw and lay on a crucifix made of ice.

In the museum’s atrium, Abramović performed a new work called “The Artist Is Present.” For more than seven hours a day, six days a week over three months, she sat completely still in a wooden chair as disciples, tourists and celebrities such as Lady Gaga and Lou Reed sat across from her for as long as they liked, and she held their gaze. Some lasted hours, others less than a minute. Some attempted their own amateur performance art: one person came dressed as her look-alike; another was escorted out when she stripped down before taking her place across from the artist. Hundreds of people broke into tears, inspiring a “Marina Abramović Made Me Cry” Tumblr. (The artist herself welled up when Ulay, her estranged artistic collaborator and ex-lover, sat down in the chair across from her.) Before long, people were camping out overnight for the chance to engage her in an epic staring contest. By the end of the run, 850,000 people had visited the exhibit, turning it into something between a highbrow freak show—which was declared obscene by the professional scolds at Fox News—and a mass self-help workshop.

The MoMA show helped transform Abramović into the world’s first and only performance art celebrity. Limited-edition photographs of her early performances now go for between $25,000 and $50,000. She has partnered with the architect Rem Koolhaus to design an $8-million Centre for the Preservation of Performance Art in Hudson, New York, and she recently signed on to direct a biopic about the actor James Franco, whose whole career seems to be one big smirking performance (he once sold air for $10,000, calling it “invisible art”). She also posed, along with Kate Moss, in the spring ad campaign by couture house Givenchy, solidifying her crossover from avant-garde curiosity to genuine pop culture phenomenon.

This month, as part of the Luminato festival, Abramović stars in the North American premiere of The Life and Death of Marina Abramović, a grandiose biopera dramatizing her Belgrade childhood under the strict supervision of her communist parents—a story she tells over and over in her work, like a modern-day Ancient Mariner with a cutting problem. The production was masterminded by the experimental stage director Robert Wilson, whose monumental Einstein on the Beach opened last year’s festival. Wilson wrote the opera, drawing on her letters, her diaries and her body of work. At least nine different people play the artist, including Abramović herself and a chorus of mustachioed men dressed up in cartoonish little girl costumes. Abramović also takes on the role of her mother, a Serbian communist party official so crazy and controlling she makes Joan Crawford look downright nurturing.

Wilson’s slow-motion choreography nudges the plot through formative childhood moments, like the time little Marina tried to break her own nose to force her parents into paying for plastic surgery, and played Russian roulette with her mother’s pistol, and covered her bedroom walls in brown shoe polish—you know, the usual childhood shenanigans. The songs are composed and performed by Antony Hegarty, the moon-faced lead singer of Antony and the Johnsons, whose eccentric androgy­nous warble is a perfect match for the dark subject matter. Willem Dafoe narrates the drama like a gravelly voiced cabaret host, his head ablaze in a red bouffant and his angular face painted with joker makeup. Nearly every scene in the production is an insane surrealist tableau.

At Luminato’s press announcement in April, artistic director Jorn Weisbrodt called Abramović the “gravitational centre, or mother, of this year’s festival.” In addition to the opera, she will be staging an elaborate installation in Trinity Bellwoods Park consisting of seven interconnected tents. This time, the artist won’t be present. Instead, she’s inviting the public to become her: participants don white lab coats (one of her favourite costumes) and headphones through which they receive instructions for re-creating some of her performances. The whole thing will be live-streamed online and broadcast on screens set up at Pearson’s Terminal 1. Afterward, each faux-bramović receives a certificate signed by the artist—a sort of “I Survived the Marina Ride” souvenir.

Abramović is the only performance artist with the mass appeal to pull off such a circus. Her weird, often baffling pieces make perfect sense to a handful of art insiders who nod knowingly at their conceptual heft. (When, for example, she scrubbed clean 1,500 bloody, maggot-infested cow bones, it was to explore the complexities of war guilt, and brushing her hair until her scalp bled was a way of challenging conventional notions of beauty.) But for the rest of us, the real draw is more visceral: her work is gory, suspenseful and melodramatic, like a high-tension horror movie we watch through parted fingers. Only with Abra­mović , the blood is real—like the time she repeatedly stabbed her own hand during a high-speed game of five-finger fillet in the early ’70s. She serves up pity and fear with real-life stakes, all in a high-minded package that makes us feel okay about gawking at her pain.

In a climactic moment of The Life and Death of Marina Abramović, an anemic-looking man is wrapped in a live snake, another man in a corset and garters does somersaults—backwards in slow motion—and a woman perches on a plinth in a three-metre-long sapphire dress. All the while the artist sits motionless, holding a glass of water. It’s an undeniably striking image, even if you don’t understand the bizarre assemblage of references. Like so much of Abramović’s art, it gets you, even if you don’t get it.

The Life and Death of Marina Abramović
June 14 to 17