Drama Club

Marina Abramović leads the crowd in a moment of silence. (All photos: Cathryn Drake)

CRISIS DRAWS GAWKERS AS WELL AS REVOLUTIONARIES, but more than anything it really rallies the gurus. To wit, the reigning diva of performance art, Marina Abramović, recently arrived in the birthplace of drama to apply her “method” to its madness.

The exhibition “As One,” a coproduction of the Marina Abramović Institute (MAI) and NEON, a nonprofit founded by collector Dimitris Daskalopoulos, is occupying Athens’s Benaki Museum for seven weeks, taking the form of a scientific performance clinic featuring durational performances by young Greek artists. Yes, the artist is here to discipline the Hellenic thespians (cut to statuesque Serbian with whip in hand).

At the entrance of the MAI laboratory, just inside the museum, black-clad facilitators gently instructed us to shed our possessions in a locker and proceed to a series of three rooms, where we could stay as long we wanted to perform simple breathing and stretching exercises. Arriving in a large open space with various activity stations, I was given noise-canceling headphones and told that no talking was allowed, seemingly the only rule. The first challenge was apparently to walk as slowly as possible toward a white ribbon, and I failed miserably—winning the race! Looking back at my facilitator for feedback, I was met with somber nonexpression, in which I read disappointment. I passed up the area where blindfolded participants wandered aimlessly and spotted the series of beds lined up along the wall. A lovely red-haired woman tucked me in, and I meditated on the overhead lights before closing my eyes for a pleasant nap.

Left: Dealer Gerasimos Kappatos. Right: Artist Yiannis Pappas.

As I rose, a man attempted to steer me back to the blindfold chamber. I shook my head and walked to a table where people sat in front of piles of rice and lentils—signs dictating “Separate and Count”—some recording the task on pieces of paper, others arranging geometric compositions. The fluorescent lights, minimal furniture, and drugged demeanor of the participants evoked a psychiatric ward. Without the guidance of the artist, it was up to you to figure out the rules, or to imitate those around you. The point is that the artist does not need to be present—but you very much do. Your level of participation reflects your level of return, just like in life.

In the café, inspirational videos screened while artist Thodoris Trampis, one of several Greek artists performing eight hours daily, could be heard hammering at a large rock. Upstairs, where artists were confined in individual spaces doing their own things, was very Dogtooth: Nancy Stamatopoulou communed with a turtle, who regarded her from a corner; Yiannis Pappas touched on social exclusion versus self-confinement by breaking through a series of cells, which he would ultimately escape only when a visitor inserted a key to open the final compartment. Special events included Martha Pasakopoulou’s reperformance of the Serbian artist’s indelible Art Must Be Beautiful; Artist Must Be Beautiful. Outside the museum, a hooded Thanassis Akokkalidis sat on a rooftop looking down as if contemplating suicide. “We don’t have a tradition of performance in Greece,” said Abramović’s Greek dealer Gerasimos Kappatos. (The Greeks are very good at making a cup of coffee last for hours, though.)

That evening Abramović was greeted like a rock star by the throngs in the museum courtyard, whom she addressed from both stage and giant video screens. “I feel very emotional to be here tonight. Greeks are passionate and emotional and dedicated, and you have the most difficult names on the planet,” she joked. “How many performance artists does it take to change a lightbulb?” I never found out the answer: as many as possible? After a rousing talk espousing Alexander Dorner’s idea of the museum as a power station—“a place to pump yourself with psychic fuel”—she closed her eyes and led everyone in a moment of silence. “She looks younger than she did in the ’70s,” said a curator. Was it really Abramović standing up there, or was it the artist performing Marina Abramović?

Left: Curator Sotirios Bahtsetzis, artist Georgia Sagri, and curator Alexios Papazacharias. Right: Collector Dimitris Daskalopoulos.

A group of us tripped down the street to a party thrown by artist Greg Haji Joannides, who the night before had confined himself in a blinding-white space for several hours with ex-partner Guillaume, in a performance titled Light and Sound Reaction, at Atopos. “It is the first time we met since our relationship ended more than a year ago,” the artist explained, “and I did not know what to expect.” The palpable tension between the former lovers, both naked, progressively dissolved after the artist bent down to deliver a reassuring caress—a sort of flipside to Abramović and Ulay’s 1978 performance Light/Dark.

In what was scheduled as her farewell appearance, Abramović screened The Space in Between, a film documenting her journey around Brazil to spiritual healers in the hopes of mending a broken heart, to a rapt audience of several hundred. “Unsolved problems become companions that follow us wherever we go,” warns a shaman in the film. Thus we watch Abramović violently expel demons from various orifices after drinking ayahuasca in Chapada Diamantina. We learn that the artist’s constant travel companions are bulbs of garlic and onion, whose healing properties she explains while eating one of each with a humorously pained expression: “The best of the Marina Abramović method!” I watched through my fingers as the artist witnessed a medium at Vale do Amanhecer scrape a man’s eye with a knife, telling us it cured her fear of having her eyes touched, while the woman next to me passed out and slid off her chair onto the floor.

Left: Thanassis Akokkalidis's Don't Look Down. Right: Atopos director Vassilis Zidianakis, writer Clo’e Floirat, and artist Greg Haji Joannides.

Afterward Abramović assured the audience: “I am not a spiritual leader: I am an artist, and performance is my tool.” She is an easy target for criticism, but her presence certainly takes on even more power, has more influence, because of her notoriety. Yet by proscribing our behavior and having others mimic her performances over and over again, has she not perpetuated the legacy of her controlling mother, become her in some sense? If her work is her own therapy, it certainly triggers catharsis in the audience. And I can say that, although I was not the best disciple, performing the communal exercises with strangers did inspire a feeling of elation—perhaps testifying to the fact that, as Susan Sontag said, “Art is a form of consciousness.”

I moved on to the birthday celebration of Greece’s most famous performance artist, Georgia Sagri, at H Ύλη (“Matter”), a new “semipublic, semipersonal” space she runs with a collective of artists, curators, activists, and scientists that could be mistaken for an apartment when not hosting an art exhibition or special guests to talk about their practices. “We are new materialists working with the immaterial,” Sagri quipped. After a few glasses of wine, Sagri described her installation on behavioral currencies for the upcoming Manifesta, for which she is collaborating with a Swiss banker. Curator Sotirios Bahtsetzis interjected with Oscar Wilde’s wisdom: “When bankers get together for dinner, they discuss Art. When artists get together for dinner, they discuss Money.” So what do artists talk about with bankers? I guess we’ll have to go to Zurich in June to find out.

Left: Artist Dora Economou and writer Agnieszka Gratza. Right: Artist Eleni Bagaki and dealer Christina Androulidaki.

Left: Kika Kyriakakou of Atopos and Kosmas Nikolaou of 3137. Right: MAI director Serge Le Borgne and artist Paula Garcia.

Left: Artists Paki Vlassopoulou and Chrysanthi Koumianaki of 3137. Right: NEON director Elina Kountouri with daughter Eva, and MAI managing director Thanos Argyropoulos.