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 (illustrated above). 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.
Every dramatic killing is transmitted through the imagery encapsulated in an ethereal alabaster portrait, the photo-realistic features of which seem to dissolve into abstract peaks and troughs upon closer inspection. “The results are amazing because you have this feeling that you can touch it, you can feel the skin of the snake, you have this tactile sense. And then everything disappears in nothingness when you have a close view of the pieces.”