Marina Abramović Brings Her ‘Method’ to a Younger Generation of Performers in Athens

We caught up with Abramović herself to find out more.

Marina Abramovic in "The Method Space" in Athens
Photo: Panos Kokkinias

The exhibition “As One,” a collaboration between the Marina Abramović Institute (MAI) and nonprofit NEON, opened at the Benaki Museum in Athens this past Thursday. The 29 participating artists- 24 Greek and 5 international, who were selected from over 300 submissions—have been schooled in the Abramović Method.

It’s easy to reach for the satirical pen on seeing Lady Gaga clutching a giant crystal in the foetal position and uttering a primal scream, as featured in a viral video promoting the Abramović Method, but what happens when you apply her principles of meditative thinking and human connection in a context like modern day Athens?

The city bears the scars of the troubles that plague Greece, particularly the financial and migrant crises. Entire blocks of the city lie empty and there are many people sleeping on the streets, but Abramović’s opening is packed and people seem thrilled to see all the performances.

“The mission of our Institute is to promote performance art and NEON, the organisation in Greece, has a very similar mission about public spaces, education, and so on. We’ve spoken for many years about doing a project and now was the right time and place to do to it,” Abramović told artnet News.

Nancy Stamatopoulou White Cave Photo: NataliaTsoukala

Nancy Stamatopoulou performing White Cave (2016).  
Photo: Natalia Tsoukala.

Before entering the “Method space,” in order to prepare myself for the performances, I had to give up my phone and watch and engage in a series of breathing exercises and stretches in silence. Once I was limber and relaxed, I was given a set of noise-cancelling headphones and taken by the hand by a “facilitator” into the space.

Once inside, amid complete silence, I was told to close my eyes and was left standing in the center of the room on a low platform. Around me were people in rapt concentration, fixated on the task at hand, be it counting and separating lentils and rice, staring into another’s eyes, or resting in a small bed.

The atmosphere was one of utter submission and concentration. Everyone was either gazing into a colored sheet of paper, walking incredibly slowly, or—my personal favorite—wandering blindfolded around a soft walled space until you wished to leave.

“I am restricting you in order to give you something else,” Abramović explained. Afterwards, I headed to the performance space to see the artists who trained under her method in a kind of euphoric haze.

Despina Zaharopoulou performing Corner Time Photo: Panos Kokkinias

Despina Zaharopoulou performing Corner Time (2016).
Photo: Panos Kokkinias.

These performances ranged from the endearing to the borderline terrifying, and all of the artists pushed themselves both physically and mentally, like Abramović herself has done throughout her career (although the younger generation stops short of the violence of some of her early performances).

Abramović praised her protégés and said she was looking forward to advising them on how to retain their faculties when pushing themselves to such lengths. For instance, she described the piece Jargon (2016) by Virginia Mastrogiannaki as “a hell,” as the performance sees Mastrogiannaki counting seconds for eight hours a day for the seven weeks that the exhibition is on view, a whopping total of 324 hours.

“It’s one thing to do two days or three days, but when you do seven weeks, my dear, that is unbelievable will power generation. Imagine the difficulty she is going to go through,” Abramović told artnet News. “I am trying this month to always talk to them before they start, not when they finish because they are too tired, to see what they are feeling. Yesterday was only the opening but by the end of the week, I am expecting them to get into difficulties, and I know, because I have done it myself, that I am the best person to help them get over it,” she laughed, referring to her now legendary MoMA performance piece The Artist is Present.

Yota Agryropoulou One Person at a Time Photo: Panos Kokkinias

Yota Agryropoulou performing One Person at a Time (2016).
Photo: Panos Kokkinias

One Person at a Time (2016) by Yota Agryropoulou, one of most popular works, comprises two identical rooms divided by a sheet of glass, one inhabited by the artist and the other by any person who decides to enter the space. The artist then mimicks or interacts with the person who comes into the space until they leave.

“It’s incredible how this piece develops, because sometimes it’s really not great because someone will come in and be tense and sometimes she gets this incredible unity,” Abramović explained. “There was a moment when she put the two tables next to each other this morning that was just beautiful.”

Although Abramović was thrilled to be in Greece, she is also happy to delegate responsibility for the proliferation of her method to her employees at MAI, and she is now focusing on new projects of her own. These include launching her autobiography, which will be published by Penguin in November, with a mysterious three-day event in London.

She is also persuading museum directors to adopt her method for viewing art. Abramović wants to allow members of the public to view masterpieces alone during 15 minutes, wearing sound-cancelling headphones. Who would say no to that?

Thanassis Akokkalidis Performind Don't Look Down Photo: Natalia Tsoukala

Thanassis Akokkalidis performing Don’t Look Down  (2016).
Photo: Natalia Tsoukala.

You get the feeling that the artists taking part in “As One” would have gone to any lengths to make these performances work. Indeed, the performance of Thanassis Akokkalidis, whose piece involves sitting on top of a building opposite the museum, borders on life threatening.

Also, it turns out that some visitors to the Athens show follow the superstar artist from exhibition to exhibition, raising the question, is this the Abramović Method, or the cult of Marina?

“That kind of dedication opens my heart in a way I can’t explain,” Abramović told artnet News, referring to one woman who attends nearly all of her exhibitions. “It’s really incredible because she really understands this. Because it’s really about simplicity and presence and about being there, you know?”

NEON+MAI: As One” is on view at the Benaki Museum, Athens, from March 10-April 24, 2016. 

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