Marina Abramović opens two shows in central London this autumn (in Cork Street and Lisson 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. In Cork Street, Abramović exhibits seven alabaster sculptures relating to these lethal vignettes, which are also self-portraits of the artist inhabiting different personae—herself, Callas, the jilted bride or the sacrificial paramour, among others—each facing their own emotional, operatic endings.
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.
For example, instead of being strangled by the hands of Othello, Abramović's Desdemona is throttled by a snake in one scene; Tosca's leap from the castle parapets is relocated to the roof of a skyscraper; and the ritual suicide of Madame Butterfly is replaced with the artist ripping off a hazmat suit and exposing herself to radiation poisoning. The jealous murder of Carmen outside the bullring—from Georges Bizet's famous opera of the same name—is recreated with long-term collaborator, the actor Willem Dafoe, who stabs Abramović violently, despite her appearance in a full traje de luces ('suit of lights') normally worn by the male bull-fighter and Carmen's love interest. This moment of cross-dressing duplicity is also depicted in one of the back-lit self-portrait sculptures carved from alabaster, entitled The Knife, exhibited at Cork Street.
Every dramatic killing is transmitted through the imagery encapsulated in these ethereal alabaster pieces, the photo-realistic forms of which seem to dissolve into abstract peaks and troughs upon closer inspection. They are in fact intricately milled from single, natural blocks of stone, the light suffusing the translucent interiors with distinct, internal, performative lives of their own. The Breath signifies the slow suffocation of the heroine in Verdi's La Traviata; The Mirror represents the all-consuming madness of the haunted and fragile Lucia di Lammermoor and, finally, The Fire recalls the climactic moments as the high priestess Norma submits to the flames, here walking hand-in-hand with Dafoe dressed as a diva. In placing herself at the centre of these traumatic, theatrical outpourings of loss, love and longing, Abramović honours and inhabits the spirit of the virtuoso soloist Callas, also suggesting that these roles can be reversed, re-imagined and renewed by future generations of performers.
These shows and their themes coincide with the tour of Abramović's ambitious live action opera, 7 Deaths of Maria Callas, which is travelling from its delayed 2020 premiere at the Bavarian State Opera in Munich, to the Opéra National de Paris (1–4 September 2021) and then on to the Greek National Opera in Athens (24–29 September), while 2022 dates include the Deutsche Oper Berlin (8–10 April) and Real Teatro San Carlo in Naples in May. Abramović will be the first female artist to exhibit in the Royal Academy's main spaces in 2023, for her major retrospective Afterlife, and will also be showing work across London this autumn, both in an exhibition at Colnaghi and across several public sites throughout the capital.
Press release courtesy Lisson Gallery.