The Life and Death of Marina Abramovic, the musical work dedicated to the Serbian performance artist at this year’s Manchester International Festival, opens with a gruesome coup de théâtre: the artist’s own funeral. The scene requires her to lie in a coffin while the audience at the Lowry theatre are taking their seats. That would faze a lot of people, I say to her, this rehearsal of your own death.
Her eyes light up and she leans forward. “But death is part of life! The Sufis said ‘Life is a dream and death is waking up.’ We have to think about how precious this life is, and how we spend it in the most insane way. Without focus!” And then she confesses: “It is scary. But the feeling is incredible.”
Focus, and death, and incredible feelings: all are major themes in Abramovic’s passionate and always extreme art. New York is still buzzing with memories of her performance “The Artist is Present”, which played alongside last year’s retrospective of her work at the Museum of Modern Art. For the work, she sat motionless in a chair all day, and stared into the eyes of any visitor who cared to sit opposite her.
There was no shortage of volunteers: Abramovic spent 736 hours gazing wordlessly into strangers’ faces, in the meantime creating one of the most intense pieces I have ever encountered in any temple of art. I tell her I was too nervous to volunteer when I saw the piece last year. “You should have,” she admonishes sternly. “Always the British are so ridiculous.”
She says she sees people in the street of New York and instantly recognises if they were sitters. “The intimacy was so much stronger than if we had used words. One man came and sat for seven hours. He came 21 times, and now he has a ‘21’ tattooed on his arm. We have become friends. But at first we couldn’t talk. We had seen each other’s inner being.”
Abramovic talks fast, fluently and wittily. The language of transcendental matters comes easily to her, but she more often than not turns its weighty themes into a joke. Her extraordinary life – raised by Communist official parents who treated her with near-military harshness – is recounted with plentiful helpings of surrealistic humour. It is like listening to a northern stand-up comic reciting a magical realist novel.
Here she is, for example, on facing death. “One of my grandmothers was 103. And her mother was 116. So she spent her last 40 years planning her own funeral. And the clothes, always black, were constantly changed according to the fashions of the time. And that is where I got the idea, that preparing for death was a way of enjoying life more. Cutting all the bullshit out.”
The Manchester work owes its genesis to the artist’s macabre preoccupation with her own demise. Abramovic, who turns 65 this year, asked the American avant-garde theatre director Robert Wilson to design her funeral (to consist of three bodies, among them hers, to take place in three venues, and to indulge in a “huge celebration of life”). He agreed, but only if he could make it part of a work that would be performed, with her in the title role.
The musician Antony Hegarty, of Antony and the Johnsons, and the actor Willem Dafoe were roped into the production. Abramovic, who has spent a life pushing against the limits of her own physical and mental powers, was forced to cede control of the work to her new collaborators. She handed over diaries containing her “most intimate stories” to Wilson, and let him remix them as he willed.
“My life looks new to me,” she says of the results. “The stories are so tragic. The first weeks of rehearsal I cried from morning to evening. But it was the best therapy. As we kept repeating and repeating them, they became almost slapstick.”
By way of illustration, she segues into another tragi-comic episode from her childhood: “My mother never let me out of the house after 10pm, until I was 29. So one day while I was doing a performance at a museum, she received a call telling her, ‘Your daughter is hanging naked on the wall.’ I knew nothing about the call, got home and it was completely dark.
“When I switched the light on, my mother was sitting fully dressed, with all her medals, and came out with that line from Taras Bulba [the 19th-century Ukrainian novel by Nikolai Gogol]: ‘I gave you life, I will take it from you.’ She threw a crystal ashtray at me. I thought of not moving my head so it would smash my brains and she would be arrested and go to prison. But I moved my head. And then I left home.”
Abramovic has had to overcome her own resistance to all things theatrical while preparing for Life and Death. “I hated theatre. If you are a performance artist, it is the opposite of everything you do. A stupid black box, people in the dark, a knife is not a knife, blood is not blood. Everything is fake. Everything is an illusion.
“There is a scene where I sit on a cube of ice, and I thought, finally, something real. But the cube arrives [in rehearsal] and it is fake. Where is my ice? And Bob Wilson says, ‘Are you out of your mind? It is theatre. It is illusion. And you would get your dress wet.’”
“It is our big difference,” says Wilson drily when I talk to him later in his dressing room at the Lowry. But he says he made his collaboration conditional on doing things his way. “On a proscenium stage, with an orchestra pit, and musicians you do not see. It is something new for her. At first, she was too natural. To be in a theatrical work and think you are being natural is a lie. To be on stage is artificial. These are things she had never thought about before.”
I ask Abramovic how it felt finally to let someone else take control of one of her projects and she lets out a deep sigh of satisfaction. “God, it was liberating. I am a happy person. I don’t have to make any decisions!” She says it has helped her come out of a “very painful” phase of her life that has seen her turn to psychoanalysis for the first time. “I wanted to understand the patterns in my life,” she says simply. “To understand what it meant that my mother never kissed me in my life.”
Another therapeutic development has been her work on two notable legacy projects, helping to establish institutions in New York and Montenegro that will bear her name and be dedicated to the teaching and practice of performance art. Of particular interest to her is the long-duration art which she has performed throughout her life with such resilience. The experience in New York, she says, convinced her that this was the most “transformative” of all the arts, for both performer and audience. “Life is so short. We have to make art longer and longer.”
The resurgence of interest in her work has, she says, been because of the increasing commodification of art over the past couple of decades. “It is harder than ever to be an artist now. When I started working there was never the slightest idea that I would sell anything. It was like breathing. I had to do it. Now it is a way to become rich and famous. It is a very vulgar way of thinking about art.” The MoMA show, which received 850,000 visitors, finally converted performance art from an alternative art form to a mainstream one, which she cites as one of her proudest achievements. “All my life I fought for this.”
The show was also an inspiration for Hegarty, who has composed the music for the Manchester work (not an opera, he says firmly, “because it is not in an operatic tradition.”). He says he found it interesting that Abramovic chose a group of men to tell the story of her life, “because I can’t personally separate her story as a woman from her trajectory as an artist.”
Hegarty, who is as guarded as Abramovic is expansive, says he feels a sense of responsibility in telling the artist’s story, but is also unafraid to add some of his own concerns to the mix. He talks of his “dream” that the world may be moving “towards a more feminine paradigm, circular and open, away from the patriarchal vision of creative expression.” He calls the collaboration of talents a “collision, but a good collision that has to be very carefully curated”.
Leave aside lying in a coffin: the most traumatic part of Life and Death for Abramovic is that she has to play the part of her own mother, at Wilson’s insistence. The woman who has broken her own nose, scarred herself with knives, torn her own hair out, scrubbed the flesh off animal bones and walked half the length of the Great Wall of China to mark the end of a relationship, gives a shiver of distaste.
“That,” she says, “is absolute hell.”
‘The Life and Death of Marina Abramovic’ is at The Lowry, Manchester, part of the Manchester International Festival, July 9-16. www.mif.co.uk