Internationally known performance artist Marina Abramovic believes that part of the artist's job is to think about death and prepare for it, which is why her production The Life and Death of Marina Abramovic begins with her own funeral.

The piece has its North American premiere at the Luminato Festival in Toronto on Friday.

Abramovic reached art superstar status when she attracted one million people to New York's Museum of Modern Art for The Artist is Present, in which she spent 90 days staring into the eyes of strangers.

The performance art that has made her famous began back in 1989 with the piece Lovers — the Great Wall Walk, in which she and romantic partner Uwe Laysiepen walked from opposite ends of the Great Wall of China to meet in the middle, at which point they said "Goodbye" to one another.

'Happiness comes from the full understanding of your own being. This is such a long journey and all these things, at least in my work I’ve been doing, have been going toward this kind of transformation' —Marina Abramovic

"I felt ugly and horrible and unwanted. I could not feel and I could not go back to my own work," Abramovic says of the period following that piece, in an interview with CBC’s Q cultural affairs show.

"So, I thought of doing something radically different something I wanted to do all my life  and this [meant] go back to theatre, because I could in theatre stage my life and make the separation from the pain I felt and I could play my own self."

She calls The Life and Death of Marina Abramovic her sixth autobiographical work, since she has been performing her own life with various directors and herself as the star for years. For this latest incarnation of her life story, she approached stage veteran Robert Wilson, who she’s known since the 1970s, to direct.

"He looked at everything  and said ‘I’m not interested in your art… I’m interested in your life. You have so many tragic stories and there is so much humour in them,’" Abramovic recalled.

"He said 'If you present tragic stories on stage as tragedy, it is kitsch. But if you make slapstick humour out of them, then you have a chance to reach people.'"


Marina Abramovic sought to return to theatre in her work. (Luminato)

Abramovic’s tragedy began during her upbringing in the former Yugoslavia, with her emotionally distant, but controlling mother. Much of her early art involved cutting or burning herself. Her relationship with Laysiepen was also a painful period.

"When I started this production, it was hard for me. Every single production, I cried from beginning to end because it was so painful to revisit this whole thing and…share it with the public," Abramovic said.

'Better than psychotherapy'

However, working through her past experiences onstage and casting them as humorous has been cathartic, she says.

"It’s better than 60 years of psychotherapy."

It has also given her a measure of peace.

"Happiness comes from the full understanding of your own being. This is such a long journey and all these things, at least in my work I’ve been doing, have been going toward this kind of transformation," she said.

In The Life and Death of Marina Abramovic, she shares the stage with Hollywood actor Willem Dafoe. The artist said she wanted to confront her own death head-on in the production, because she believes it is important to her understanding of herself.

"From the moment you are born, you could die. I think as an artist it is important to meditate on that," she said.

The Life and Death of Marina Abramovic will be staged Friday through Monday at the Bluma Appel Theatre in Toronto.

Abramovic's installation, MAI – Prototype will be on display at Trinity Bellwoods Park from Friday through June 23. She will also give a lecture titled The Past, The Present, and The Future of Performance Art on June 18.