In exploring the human condition, performance artist Marina Abramovic has resorted to everything from self-mutilation to a 736-hour-and-30-minute staring contest. In the North American première of her opera The Life and Death of Marina Abramovic (starring Willem Dafoe as a series of narrators) at Toronto’s Luminato festival this June, Abramovic and director Robert Wilson tackle her own death, which she swears will have audiences in stitches.
Q: How did the collaboration with Robert Wilson come about?
A: I began in 1989 and asked a director to stage my life every six to seven years. I give them materials and let them edit them however they want. In this way, my life will always look fresh to me. I wanted to work with [Wilson] for a long time, because the way he works with time, images and lights is very similar to me.
Q:You’ve said that theater isn’t real compared with performance art, but now that you’ve performed onstage, have your feelings changed?
A: When I was young, I had to hate theater. It’s like hating mother/father in order to grow up. When I first began rehearsing with Willem Dafoe, I told him, “This is not real; it’s all artificial.” Now that I’ve grown up, I’ve realized a way to make theater my own. In performance art the audience can literally kill you, but in theater they do it emotionally.
Q: Much of the first half of the play is devoted to your mother, who has been described as authoritarian and overbearing. Death and mother issues…sounds like a heavy night.
A: You mostly laugh through the whole piece. Wilson took the most tragic moments of my life and made slapstick out of it. You have to make fun out of the tragic, and that’s what makes it most tragic. It’s hilarious. It’s actually very funny, this play.
Q: You’ve made elaborate plans for your funeral. What’s the fun of playing with death?
A: I am 66 and now going through the last stage of my life, and death is part of the happy ending. Death is refreshing. It’s a way of getting rid of a fear of dying and involving yourself in the art of living. Let me ask you, do you think about your own death?
Q: Not really.
A: How old are you?
A: You should—33 is your Christ year.
The Life and Death of Marina Abramovic is playing June 14–17 at the Luminato festival in Toronto, where the artist is also organizing an interactive version of her educational performance-art institute all month. For more details, go to luminato.com.