James Westcott, “When Marina Abramović Dies” (Book Review)

When Marina Abramović Dies : A Biography. James Westcott.  Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2010. 326pp.

James Westcott, an art critic and former assistant to Marina Abramović, released his first book, When Marina Abramović Dies, earlier this year. Subtitled, A Biography, Westcott draws heavily on interviews with the Serbian performance artist and her extensive archives to pen a biography of Abramović, from her childhood to her sixties.  The publisher of the book, the MIT press, a prominent publisher of modernist, art-historical literature, very carefully qualified Westcott’s project by labeling it a biography rather than a monograph.  Interestingly, some of the strongest and weakest areas of the book originate with this distinction and Westcott’s status as a non-academic.

At just over three-hundred pages, Westcott’s biography is a lucid, enjoyable narrative thattraces the birth, growth, and maturation of Marina Abramović, the self-proclaimed “grandmother of performance art.”  Westcott admits in his introductory remarks that a great deal of the the material he uses in the book came from interviews with the artist and her family, who recounted various familial anecdotes.  His book is not a monographic discourse on Abramović, at least in the academic sense of the term.  Westcott puts forth no argument, nor does he make any attempt at positing some sort of thesis.  Rather the book is structured as a chronological narrative that traces the artist’s life from the earliest moments of her career through every major moment and project.  While it is richly erudite and written in a playful, comfortable style which constantly lauds the artist without sounding too sycophantic, When Marina Abramović Dies is far from a critical, academic inquiry into the artist or her work.  Yet it should not be criticized too much for this shortcoming.  After all, the author clearly recognizes the limitations of his work when he explicitly characterizes the project as a biography, and not as something more.

Because of the absence of a sustained argument When Marina Abramović Dies often devolves into little more than a thoroughly researched litany of Abramović’s artworks.  At times, the author’s heavy reliance on interviews with Abramović and her relaying of anecdotes makes the book read like a memoir written by a third party.  Additionally, when one considers that Marina Abramović has been very actively involved in managing her own legacy, her own heavy involvement in this project becomes a little suspect.  Westcott, however, glosses over any potential ulterior motives his former employer may have had in helping him.

Abramović has a well-publicized interest in preserving the medium of performance art, and in 2006 she established the Marina Abramović Institute—a museum intended to do just this.  Unfortunately, Westcott’s unrelenting biographical approach did not allow for any probing questions to be asked concerning the conceptual and theoretical implications of this undertaking.  He similarly avoids any critical inquiry into the related issue of “re-performance,” the idea that performance functions like a musical score whose repetition never ceases to produce originals. The issue of re-performance, which is crucial for Abramović, fills several chapters at the end of Westcott’s biography. However, instead of analyzing or critiquing the issue, Westcott gives the reader a lengthy history of what pieces Abramović performed and when she performed them.  This is clearly one of the most disappointing sections in the book. Additionally, the author decided to bookend his biography with an opening and a concluding chapter which focus on his personal involvement with the artist as her assistant and his memories of their time together.  This only reinforces the casual and anecdotal nature of his book.

But are these shortcomings indicative of an unsuccessful project?  The book, while it does have a few weak spots, is still informative.  Westcott’s expositions on the personal life of Abramović are without equal within current art historical literature, and his writing style is clear and comprehensible.  While this lucidity may come at the cost of a more complex analysis of some the theoretical and conceptual issues at play in Abramović’s work, the lack of academic jargon is nevertheless refreshing.  The book does not contain any prolix footnotes the reader has to brave, nor is it rife with gratuitous references to en vogue theorists.  This more casual approach made the work not only easily digestible but also a pleasure to read.

My own disappointment with the lack of critical discussion of works such as Imponderablia is tempered by the simultaneous, indulgent glee I experienced when I read one of the richest  anecdotes uncovered by Westcott. It involves Ulay, Abramović’s partner, storming naked into the curator’s office demanding their money. The sight of this naked man arguing with him about money was too much for the curator, and Ulay was paid.  Having no pockets to stow away the cash, Ulay hid the money in a bathroom above the toilet until after the performance. Taken with a grain of salt, this and other anecdotes help create a remarkable and original portrait of Abramović.  When the book is taken for the straight-forward biography that it really is, then When Marina Abramović Dies emerges as a rich, stimulating text.  Despite its defects, it remains a useful story about one of the most important artists of the second half of the twentieth century.