Two days before her BULLETT photo shoot, on a national holiday in Spain, Marina Abramović writes an email from her suite at the Tryp Madrid Ambassador Hotel requesting the following items: “1 oversize white men’s button-up shirt, 1 simple large glass of water, 1 white candle, and 1 very sexy man in a tuxedo (whom I can potentially carry around).” These are, of course, perfectly reasonable requests, but there are more. Abramović would also like “2 ravens and 1 eagle and 1 baby tiger.”
After the shoot, where, by some small miracle, she was greeted with a menagerie of zoo animals and a body-hairless model named Alejandro, she calls during a break from rehearsing for her latest performance, The Life and Death of Marina Abramović, a biographical quasi-opera that premiered last year as part of the 2011 Manchester International Festival. (The Madrid version ran from April 11 to 22.) “The raven is a symbol of bad news and death, the small tiger is an image of strength, and the eagle is an image of power,” she says. “Each of these elements represents the Fall of Man, but everything that is negative has a positive side. Everything that is black is also white. I am so many things at the same time.”
Ravens, an eagle, and a baby tiger all figure into the opera, which is a series of surrealistic vignettes from the Serbia-born artist’s life—and imagined death—that weave together fact and fantasy. As the eccentric narrator, actor Willem Dafoe peppers the story with revelations, while Antony Hegarty, from the ghostly chamber-pop group Antony and the Johnsons, performs the score he wrote specifically for the piece. The Life and Death of Marina Abramović, which opens with her “funeral,” is part of the artist’s attempt to confront her own inevitable demise.
In the opera’s first part, she plays her late mother, a role she was initially hesitant to inhabit. “In the beginning, she was not my favorite person,” Abramović says of her mother, who, along with her father, raised their daughter with an iron fist. According to Abramović, her mother never kissed her, never accepted her performances as art (thinking her nudity was shameful), and once tried to “kill” her by throwing an ashtray at her head. “When Bob [Robert Wilson, the production’s director] said, ‘Play your mother,’ it felt like such an evil thought,” she says, laughing. “But now I’m really enjoying it.”
It’s difficult to reconcile the giggling woman on the other end of the line with the fearless, 65-year-old performance artist who achieved infamy by enduring physical and mental extremities—self-flagellation, self-cutting, and lying on a crucifix made of ice, among many others—in the name of her work. But maybe this is an example of her being so many things at the same time. In the past, Abramović has said that she often feels like there are three Marinas: the daughter of Serbian Partisans; the young girl who, having never received enough love from her mother, continuously searches for it; and the spiritual Marina who rises above it all. Though her performances may seem unnecessarily masochistic, they were designed and enacted in part to help rid herself of her fears, and to understand the limits of her body and mind. Having overcome these challenges, she says her days of cutting, bleeding, and bruising are mostly over.
Today, Abramović is an artist at the top of her game, evidenced by a 2010 retrospective at New York’s Museum of Modern Art, where she sat silently for 700 mystifying hours while guests were allowed to sit across from her for as long as they liked. Elsewhere in the museum, performers restaged her past performances. Earlier this year, it was announced that architecture firm OMA, under the guidance of Rem Koolhaas and Shohei Shigematsu, would design her Center for the Preservation of Performance Art in Hudson, New York. The museum will house performances at least six hours in length, and will double as a training academy. In June, HBO will air filmmaker Matthew Akers’ Marina Abramović: The Artist Is Present, a biographical film about her life and the MoMA retrospective of the same name. But her journey to artistic preeminence was thorny and filled with a kind of pain that tilted toward brutality—just the way she wanted it.
Photography by Xevi Muntané