Marina Abramovic, Doug Aitken and Matthew Barney are leading the way in a new kind of theatrical art

"In long, durational performance, you change the performer and the public" says Abramovic

In her 40 years as a performance artist, Marina Abramovic has been no stranger to drama. Yet she has said that she isn’t interested in theatre, because it is too fake. The hardships she creates for herself—cutting a five-pointed star into her abdomen, scrubbing bloody cow bones for hours, fasting for weeks, or sitting in a public arena without moving or speaking for 60 days straight—may not be scripted and rehearsed, but their completion can be as cathartic as Greek tragedy. What’s more, she performs these tasks before audiences who want to be entertained.

On 9 July, when The Life and Death of Marina Abramovic premieres at the 2011 Manchester International Festival, they are likely to get a blockbuster. Always in full control of each moment in her own performances, this time the Serbian-born artist will perform a theatre work created—at her request—by someone else.

The chief architect of this four-hour musical biography is Robert Wilson, a man of the stage and an artist who creates works of extravagant length and startling beauty, often with a large company of players, musicians and dancers he arranges in striking, and almost imperceptibly changing, tableaux. This time, the actor Willem Dafoe and the ethereal singer Antony Hegarty star with Abramovic, who is singing for the first time, and also sharing the stage with a trio of Siberian throat singers and 16 live Doberman Pinschers.

The production follows on the heels of Black Mirror, a 50-minute, multimedia extravaganza by the Los Angeles-based artist Doug Aitken. It premieres on 16 June at the Athens Festival, with a repeat performance on the island of Hydra sponsored, among others, by the collector Dakis Joannou’s Deste Foundation. Staged on a barge floating in the Aegean—audience on board—it includes film projections as well as live action. Chloë Sevigny plays the leading role, supported by two gospel singers, five drummers, four pole dancers, one flamenco dancer, the two-man rock band No Age, and one cowboy snapping a bull whip.

Aitken and Abramovic are not the only visual artists making complex musical theatre out of solo performance art, and doing it on a spectacular scale closer to opera. Even more ambitious is Matthew Barney, whose five “Cremaster” films, 1994-2002, are nothing short of epic. Over the past ten years, he has turned to one-off, live presentations that unfold over many hours in several locations, employ large casts and crews, and require the planning and precision of an army mobilising for war.

In 2008, he chose a defunct car dealership north of Los Angeles to stage Ren, the first of a seven-part series of performances that Barney calls an opera. Based on Ancient Evenings, Norman Mailer’s novel about a dead soul yearning to be free in ancient Egypt, Ren had many musicians and a singer but was not entertainment. Nor did everything go according to plan. The audience endured five hours in the heat as it followed the action, essentially a funeral procession that erupted into a pitched, and rather erotic, battle to the death between a 1967 Chrysler Imperial and an excavator armed with a lethal circular blade. Glass shattered, debris scattered; a couple of people suffered minor injuries. No one regretted being there.

Last autumn in Detroit, Barney topped himself with Khu, the second chapter of his new opus. This one took more than eight hours to achieve in cold, rainy weather, moving from the Detroit Institute of Arts to an abandoned glue factory by the Detroit River (Barney’s Nile), to a barge and finally to an inactive steel mill. There, the driving rain brought an abrupt end to the final scene, where the “soul” of the smashed Chrysler chassis was to rise out of fiery rivers of molten steel in the form of a vulture.

Along the way, there had been references to Harry Houdini, James Lee Byars, Henry Ford, and the “Cremaster” series, among others. An orchestra performed, opera singers sang arias, police boats circled the barge, actors (who included the athlete and model Aimee Mullins) played out a crime scene. And Barney captured all of it on film in one extended, magnificent take.

There are risks to live performances of this magnitude that don’t approach those of an exhibition or a theatre, where artists may gamble with their reputations, but not their lives, or those of others. So why do they take on such challenges in arenas far outside their comfort zones, in theatrical forms for which they have no training?

One answer is, because they can. Another is, because they must.

Some are reacting to the ponderous nature of much small-scale performance art, where “entertainment” was once a dirty word. It isn’t now. Others simply need a bigger stage to realise a vision that two-dimensional media can’t contain. Most of these artists are simply looking for a way to break new ground. But they also want to affect a larger audience.

“A live situation has a very different impact than when you just see pictures,” says Shirin Neshat, who is preparing her second theatre work for this autumn’s Performa biennial in New York. Based on two of her videos, Turbulent, 1998, and The Last Word, 2003, the show combines a concert by two singers with a political trial, and is set in a courtroom where the audience will take part. “It’s not theatre, exactly,” she says. “But it is operatic, because it relies on music as much as speech.”

Roselee Goldberg founded the biennial in 2004 because, she says, “I thought if I heard one more monologue I would scream.” She maintains that performance art is attractive to artists because it invites experimentation, even at the highest level of achievement and polish.

“There are no rules,” she says. “Most of these artists have not done performance before and therefore are free to invent. And it’s the same for the actors who appear in them. It’s exciting to go from sound to image to movement and layer meaning into that. And it’s exciting to produce something. Collectors who commission live works are now producers, and that’s a new relationship. They’re helping to generate ideas.”

Another reason artists are willing to take big risks in public, testing the imagination of the audience and its tolerance for unconventional ideas, is opportunity. Given the right situation, a pot of gold and a large dose of ambition, some artists do rise to the occasion.

The Manchester International Festival presents one of those opportunities. “These are rare occasions where such projects can be realised,” says Hans Ulrich Obrist, the co-director of the Serpentine Gallery in London and an artistic advisor to the festival. “These collaborative projects lead to a kind of Diaghilev moment—[the Ballets Russes founder] which brought together the great artists, composers and dancers through the ballet. Today these artists bring together different practitioners through performance.”

In 2009, when he created “Ballets Russes Italian Style (The Shortest Musical You Will Never See Again)” as the centrepiece of a benefit event for the Los Angeles Museum of Contemporary Art (LA MoCA), Francesco Vezzoli had Diaghilev in mind precisely for that reason. For the 18-minute production, Vezzoli brought in members of the Bolshoi Ballet to perform onstage with himself and the pop star Lady Gaga, who sang one of her hits while playing on a butterfly-festooned pink grand piano painted by Damien Hirst.

“I don’t think as an actor or theatre director,” says Vezzoli, who considers Abramovic a personal hero. “I’m making an artistic gesture—taking someone from one field and putting them in another.”

Aitken, who staged last year’s benefit show at LA MoCA, did something of the same with “The Artist’s Museum Happening”, a sequence of events that began with a mini-concert by Devendra Banhart, Beck and Caetano Veloso, and continued in call-and-response fashion with performances by gospel singers, farm auctioneers, drummers who played Aitken’s Sonic Table, 2007, and the same bull-whipper who dances in Black Mirror.

These spectacles were not quite cut from the same theatrical cloth of the stately Abramovic/Wilson and Barney productions. They came closer to cabaret. Neither had a clear narrative or an extended time frame, nor did they subscribe to the Wagnerian notion of gesamtkunstwerk, the total work of art that embraces all other forms.

If anyone defines that notion today, it is Wilson. Using light and sound as primary elements, he brings both visual and performance art to theatre, and theatre to performance art, and makes architecture of it all. He also slows down the action nearly to the point of stasis, but if you blink you miss an entire passage.

He dates his radical transformation of theatre to an exhibition he saw at the Whitney Museum in 1969, “Anti-Illusion”. “I decided at that time that I was interested in exploring illusion and wanted to see it put in a proscenium frame in a box. My interest in illusion was very counter to what had happened in the 1960s, when performances took place on rooftops, in alleys, parking garages, gymnasiums, etc.”

For Abramovic: “Wilson is the person who invented a new language for theatre. He has a certain style and repeats things, and I’m trying to destroy all that. So there is a lot of healthy tension between us, but he understands contradiction.”

Their collaboration represents the third time Abramovic, 64, has submitted the facts of her life—in the form of letters, photographs, videos, diaries and the documented history of her two marriages—to another’s imagination to shape. The first to tackle the job was the American film-maker Charles Atlas. This was shortly after the breakup of her relationship with her first collaborator, Ulay (Frank Uwe Laysiepen). “I felt a hole in my life and a deep depression,” she says now. “So I felt staging a theatre work about my life was the best way to distance myself from the pain.”

After a trial run with SSS, a five-minute recorded performance in 1989 that contained an image of Abramovic with live snakes crawling around her head, Atlas came up with The Biography, 1992, an hour-long solo performance by Abramovic at the Hebbel Theatre in Berlin. “When I worked with her,” Atlas says, “she really would try anything, which was very brave of her. She didn’t refuse anything and it was all awkward stuff. I made her dance, and she can’t dance, really. But she did.”

Later she played herself in, Delusional, 1994, a biographical film for which Atlas took her to see her parents in the former Yugoslavia at the time of the Serbo-Croatian War. “I wanted to get at the why of the way she is,” he says. “The film wasn’t a performance. It was a portrait of her; a self-portrait with me involved.”

In 2004, Belgian director and choreographer Michael Laub took the helm of The Biography Remix, which Abramovic performed at the Avignon and Roma Europa festivals. Now, after five years in development, it’s Wilson’s turn.

At first he resisted the idea, because he didn’t want to do performance art. But once Abramovic explained that she wanted a theatre piece, Wilson went to work, sketching out an operatic structure and working with her to fill in the story. Unlike the previous two biographies, where her performance work was central, this one only addresses her personal life. “It starts with my funeral,” she says, “goes to my family and my childhood, and ends with the funeral again, the raising of the soul.”

Wilson shares Abramovic’s passion for slowing the pace of the action. He attributes his sense of space to his Texas boyhood. “I always felt from the first time I went to New York and saw theatre that I wanted more space, more time to think. I wanted to escape from the busy life of this city. I was very much influenced by the abstract ballets of George Balanchine and Merce Cunningham. There was so much more freedom both mentally and virtually. My theatre has always been formal. In a formal theatre one needs time for an inner reflection, which ideally reflects a certain truth.”

For Abramovic, the grand scale and especially the duration of the piece is essential. “We live in a channel-surfing culture,” she says. “No one has time to read a book these days. You lose your centre. Art has to be slower. If we accommodate the speed of the audience, we are not changing anything. In long, durational performance, you change the performer and the public. In short duration performances, there isn’t time for this process to take place.”

o The Life and Death of Marina Abramovic has been commissioned by Manchester International Festival and Teatro Real Madrid with Theater Basel, Art Basel, Holland Festival, deSingel and Salford City Council

Originally appeared in The Art Newspaper as 'The epic performance'