In 2007, as the story would have it, Marina Abramović, the reigning queen of the durational performance art, phoned the luminary theatre director Robert Wilson, asking him to stage her death. He accepted, on the condition that he could also stage her life. The deal was struck, and, armed with an impressive echelon of co-creators – including the singer/songwriter Antony, the iconic actor Willem Dafoe, the Serbian singer Svetlana Spajic and her group, as well as the artist herself – Wilson concocted the spectacle that is The Life and Death of Marina Abramović, first seen at the 2011 Manchester International Festival, and presented in its U.S. première at the Park Avenue Armory in New York.

In typical Wilson fashion, the show is a feast for the senses, and, along with his collaborators, the director puts on a shimmering spectacle of diaphanous landscapes, elaborate costume, lighting and set changes, large-scale projections, and some incredibly rapt singing. As is also customary for the director, the production is characterized by a surrealistically collaged dramaturgy, rather then being buoyed by a linear narrative, and while it contains a great deal of historical information, it could not – nor should it – be construed as a factual biography. Rather, Wilson zeroes in on his fascination with select people and events from Abramović’s anecdotes, using them as a leaping off point for his idiosyncratically phantasmagoric vision of Abramović’s life.

What those elements are quite evident within the production’s dramaturgy – the artist’s abusive, overbearing mother, impersonated by Abramović herself, dominates the first half of the show, and throughout, the audiovisual landscape of the piece is heavy on the Balkan paraphernalia, communist soldier garb and distinctive Serbian folk singing. Throughout the proceedings, Willem Dafoe’s Mephistophelian narrator figure is a recurring thread through the piece, providing much of the biographical context on Abramović, though, as the script would have it, most of it appears as an avalanche of dates and enumeration of events, delivered rapid-fire, save for a couple of anecdotes that are narrated in vivid detail and relegated to the early part of the show. Dafoe is on stage most of the time, is – as always – compelling to watch, and there is certainly no shortage of prodigious talent to keep him company: Antony’s singing lit up the space (and I am not talking about lighting effects here) during each of his musical interludes, the electronic music duo Matmos created atmospherically charged soundscapes, and Spajic’s Group powerfully evoked the Balkans with mournful traditional polyphonic compositions.

Although individually, most of the elements of The Life and Death of Marina Abramović were delivered with bravura and polish, the sum of the show’s parts did not, in my estimation, ever cohere into as powerful a whole as I would have expected. In 2010, the Museum of Modern Art in New York presented a retrospective of Abramović’s career, aptly titled The Artist Is Present. Puzzlingly enough, in spite of her being the subject matter of tonight’s performance, as well as her clocking in a great deal of its stage time, in The Life and Death of Marina Abramović, the artist was somehow conspicuously not present. Wilson’s oneiric images, though undoubtedly fascinating, are often culled from some deeply personal space that bears very little (if any) connection to Abramović’s life, and his fascination with the artist’s background focuses more on the exoticism of the foreign, rather than its authenticity – which as a Serbian native myself – felt very evident in the use of folkloric visuals and music in this production. Ultimately, the show builds up a certain lore about its subject with a glossy detachment, much like a fashion advertisement would, without ever really allowing me to get to know the real Abramović, except in occasional glimpses. All that glitters, after all, is not gold.