Lisson Gallery

Marina Abramović: Seven Deaths

London, 14 September – 30 October 2021

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Marina Abramović opens two shows in central London this autumn (this one in Lisson Street and another in Cork Street), presenting the culmination of her lifelong passion and empathy for the talented and tragic figure of singer Maria Callas (1923-1977). Abramović has created Seven Deaths, a new, immersive cinematic experience for the main gallery at Lisson Street, based on seven untimely demises she undergoes on screen, set to the moving soundtrack of seven Callas solos.

Abramović has been obsessed with the famous Greek soprano’s music and myth since a youthful encounter with her voice proved culturally formative for the artist, while she also cites Callas’s heart-rending personal life and lonely death as chilling echoes of her own lost loves and near-death experiences. For all of the Seven Deaths in this immersive film installation, Abramović has paired a famous original Callas solo or aria and illustrated it with the theatrical moment of the protagonist’s grisly end, albeit adding a new twist or some fresh interpretation in each case.

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The Snake

The third chapter begins with a slow sequence of winding and unwinding, as Dafoe relieves himself of a giant boa constrictor wrapped around his arms and legs, only to approach Abramović, sat helpless in a throne-like chair, and coil the giant beast around her head and neck. What at first appears a gentle, twisting embrace soon turns into a fully enveloping crush, with only a tiny portion of the artist’s face visible beneath the steadily tightening snake’s seemingly endless form.

Normally Othello is the agent of death, strangling Desdemona in a fit of jealousy at the beginning of act four. Diverging from Shakespeare’s original and Verdi’s opera, this Desdemona is instead locked in a death duel with a snake, itself a symbol of infidelity and danger, but also of femininity, fertility, renewal and energy in many cultures. Of course, the snake is an essential part of Abramović lore, indeed, she first performed with one in 1978, for a work entitled Three, in which Ulay and her attempted to charm or lure this third being towards either one of them. A snake reappears between the duo for one of the Nightsea Crossing performances of the 1980s, one of Abramović’s first long durational pieces. Then in 1990 she performed Dragon Heads at Modern Art Oxford with four pythons, which also informed a series of self-portraits with her draped in coiled snakes.

Marina Abramović: Seven Deaths
Marina Abramović: Seven Deaths

The Mirror

The associations between the figures of Maria/Marina are never stronger than when re-enacting the so-called ‘mad scene’ from a lesser-known opera (Lucia di Lammermoor, by Gaetano Donizetti, 1835) and in the accompanying alabaster, entitled The Mirror (2020-21), which blurs the boundary between self and other. “About a decade ago I began to have long conversations about how to work with sculptural material, but also how to give it some life and have immateriality at the same time… The process of cutting [alabaster] in this certain way allows you to have the image from a distance, but the moment you approach it, the image disappears, literally deteriorates, in front of your eyes – it is actually the non-existence of the image.”

Callas, the quarrelsome yet brilliant singer who was branded as temperamental and difficult by the media – known as the ultimate diva (nicknamed La Divina) – here shows her unmatched tonal range and versatility as a soprano through the full expression of Bel Canto (‘beautiful singing), plunging down through scales and up through to the highest notes with startling ease. Abramović too enacts an emotional outpouring, wordlessly screaming throughout the aria, disgorging her pain in a visceral struggle with a succession of mirrors and ripping a veil from her head in opulent surroundings.

The Fire

The film reaches its climax during one of the finest performances of Bellini’s Norma, sung by Callas more often than any other opera. The interchangeable personae of Maria/Marina are now complicated further with the spectacle of Willem Dafoe dressed in a full-length gold sequin gown, walking hand in hand into the fire, as occurs in the final act, with Abramović switching to the male role. “When she decides to walk into the fire to sacrifice herself, the Roman general looks at this and understands how stupid he is. He still loves her and how incredibly brave this woman is and so he comes to hold her hand in the fire together. So he’s in woman clothes, and she's the warrior.”

This fiery ending also recalls her own brush with self-immolation for Rhythm 5 (1974), in which she surrounded her naked figure with a five-pointed star in flames, which almost suffocated her due to the lack of oxygen. In placing herself at the centre of these traumatic, theatrical outbursts of loss, love and longing, Abramović honours and inhabits not only the spirit of the virtuoso soloist Callas, but also suggests that these roles can be reversed, re-imagined and renewed by future generations of performers.

Marina Abramović: Seven Deaths

The Breath

A dawning realisation, a gust of wind and a raking light disturb the first scene in Marina Abramović’s new film, Seven Deaths (2021), ostensibly set in the bedroom of world-famous soprano Maria Callas who died of a heart attack in 1977, aged just 53. For the full-scale staging of the opera (currently touring from its Munich premiere to Paris, Athens and Berlin) Abramović recreated the final resting place of Callas down to every detail: “…from the paintings, the bedsheets, the Madonna in the front of the bed, even down to the sleeping pills next to her telephone and the flowers she used to have.”

We join Willem Dafoe at the bedside of Maria Callas – as played by Marina Abramović or, perhaps, playing an alternate version of herself – as the singer/artist dies for the first time. One of a pair of lit candles is snuffed out, signalling the death of Willem Dafoe’s lover, who he now begins to mourn, yet the extinguished flame could equally refer to one absent side of the conceptual Callas/Abramović collaboration, or better put, this Maria/Marina duet taking place across time.

In Giuseppe Verdi’s La Traviata, the heroine Violetta dies a slow, painful death from consumption. In this adaptation the artist takes her final breath – captured in the accompanying alabaster, entitled The Breath (2020-21), – just as Callas belts out her final note in the aria, Addio del Passato (Farewell to the Past), moving the scene from light to dark and beginning the film’s succession from life to death.

Marina Abramović: Seven Deaths
Marina Abramović: Seven Deaths

The Leap

The roles reverse in the second act, in which Dafoe appears deceased and is held aloft in Abramović’s arms, in the manner of the Virgin Mary holding the lifeless body of her son. Staring upwards, the female figure of Tosca, played by Abramović, then ascends to the top of a skyscraper, momentarily composing herself on the precipice before plummeting down in slow motion. As we follow the body on its deadly progress – twisting and swaying while the Callas song comes in wave after wave of crescendo – the ground slowly comes into view again, before the climactic moment of impact with a parked car below and a shower of glass.

The staged version of the opera Tosca, by Giacomo Puccini, relies on a suicidal leap off-stage or through a trapdoor after the final notes are sung, whereas here Maria/Marina falls for the duration of a different solo, from act two, entitled Vissi d’arte (I lived for art) which begins: “I lived for art, I lived for love / I never harmed a living soul! / With a discreet hand / I relieved all misfortunes I encountered.”

Of course, this passage could just as easily describe Abramović’s travails as a trailblazing performance artist, as it does the truncated life of Callas. This scene contains further uncanny echoes of Callas herself, who sang Tosca for one of her swansong appearances ​(at Covent Garden in 1965) and would often contort her facial features to the strains of emotion and pain in the music. But Marina is also present: “I really create this mixture, synthesis and symbiosis between her life and my life. We both almost died from a broken heart, but for me, the works really saved me and her work didn’t save her. Actually, in the process, she lost her voice and couldn't sing anymore.”

Marina Abramović: Seven Deaths

The Poison

This scene (from Act III of Puccini’s Madame Butterfly) opens with Abramović traversing a blasted landscape, hand-in-hand with a child clutching a tiny American flag, as Callas launches into the opera’s famous aria, Un bel di, vedremo (One fine day, we’ll see). Both figures on screen are dressed in yellow hazmat suits, matching the yellowish tinge of the putrid air that surrounds them – this is no fine day. Unlike Madame Butterfly, however, it is not the remembrance of her long-lost American husband, who returns having married another woman, which Abramović pines for, but a larger, emotional or ecological crisis. As Dafoe approaches, the heroine turns away and dramatically disrobes, breathing in the irradiated air. She submits her naked torso to the poison, while Callas trills that her love will one day come home.

This dramatic exposure recalls Abramović’s own surrender to atmospheric dangers in her Rhythm series, especially Rhythm 2 (1974) in which she ingested harmful drugs to induce catatonic or hysteric states and Rhythm 10 (1974), her most deadly performance that allowed audience members to act on her using any of the 72 objects she had placed on the table that included a knife, gun and a whip, as well as a lipstick, perfume and flowers. The betrayal of the various heroines in Seven Deaths is mirrored in these historic Abramović works, in which her body was tested or threatened by everything from physical exhaustion through to the potential piercing of an arrow through the heart.

The Knife

For the finale of Georges Bizet’s beloved opera Carmen, the titular character is killed by her rejected lover in front of the bullring in Seville, however the fifth of these Seven Deaths begins with a tug of war between another fictional couple, with the assassin Dafoe in black, wielding a rope and knife, and Abramović dressed in the full traje de luces (suit of lights) as worn by the traditionally male bullfighter, albeit modified and re-designed by Burberry’s principal designer, Riccardo Tisci. In their final embrace, Dafoe indeed plunges the knife into her stomach, as Callas warns all those who profess to love Carmen that they should be on their guard and vice versa – as she is both prey and predator.

“He has played multiple roles: my lover, my father, my killer,” says Abramović of her frequent double act with Willem Dafoe, who here plays the various operatic roles of Alfredo, Cavaradossi, Otello, Pinkerton, José, Edgardo, Pollione, as well as Maria Callas’s husband, Aristotle Onassis. “Working with him was really critical, because he taught me how to act. In the case of Carmen, there is a moment of overpowering – who is taking the rope, him or me? And at the moment of killing, that has to be as real as possible.”

The themes of unrequited love and betrayal are not merely operatic tropes either, but resonate with many solo works by Abramović. Her performance Lips of Thomas (1975), for example, involved her masochistically carving a cross into her own belly in honour of a brief affair with an Austrian artist, while she explores the specific threat of the knife in the 1973 performance of Rhythm 10, a dangerous spin on an old Slavic drinking game in which she attempted to stab the gaps between her splayed fingers using ten different blades.

Marina Abramović: Seven Deaths

Installation views

Marina Abramović: Seven Deaths artwork

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Location

67 Lisson Street
London

Opening Times:
Tuesday – Saturday: 11:00am – 6:00pm

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