Greek performance art a big hit

In The Micropolitics Of Noise, sound artist and composer Lambros Pigounis (above) spends eight hours a day on a sloped platform under which speakers rumble.
In The Micropolitics Of Noise, sound artist and composer Lambros Pigounis (above) spends eight hours a day on a sloped platform under which speakers rumble.PHOTO: NEW YORK TIMES

Six artists in Athens entrance crowds at their long-duration shows that mirror Greek society in crisis

ATHENS • One artist counts out loud in Greek for eight hours a day, transforming herself into a human metronome. Another subjects himself to intense low-frequency sounds and documents the effects on his mind and body.

A third takes an axe to chip away at a large boulder, then flings plaster on top to build it up again in a loop of destruction and creation.

They are among six Greek artists who are toiling away in long duration performances – eight hours a day for seven weeks, till April 24 – at the Benaki Contemporary Museum here. The show, called As One, has become a hit in a city not known for performance art, drawing more than 22,000 visitors in the first three weeks.

The intensity of the performances and their explorations of time, fear, entrapment, discomfort and control have tapped the emotions of a country grappling with economic hardship and waves of migrants, factors that have caused a feeling of existential crisis.

Ms Iliana Fokianaki, an art critic and gallerist, said: “They’re kind of mirroring Greek society through the work. The fact that we’re the scapegoat of Europe and we are the pariah– these are all emotions most Greeks have. This frustration is manifested through the work.”

The show is a collaboration between the Marina Abramovic Institute, run by the performance artist, and Neon, an Athens-based non-profit arts organisation underwriting the effort.

In his work The Micropolitics Of Noise, Lambros Pigounis, 39, a sound artist and composer, drew on military research into the use of sound as a non-lethal weapon to destabilise populations in conflict situations. He spends eight hours a day on a sloped platform under which speakers rumble.

“My body goes through three stages: fight, flight, freeze,” he said. “Conflict, escape, immobilisation.”

He said some visitors who join him on the platform show fear. “They feel the sound and can’t determine the cause.” Others overcome the fear.

On the room’s walls, the artist writes the effects on his body each day. They include nausea, chest constriction and loss of mental capacity. The work has changed him. “It’s like a shamanic journey,” he said.

In White Cave, artist and dancer Nancy Stamatopoulou, 41, spends much of the day in a tiny white box. Monitors show recordings of the previous week’s performance. Inspired by Plato’s Cave, she wanted visitors to examine the ways they are trapped in their own lives.

For Corner Time, Despina Zacharopoulou, 33, binds and unbinds herself with rope and carries out a series of actions and rituals.

Visitors are entranced. Mr Mike Chatzopoulos, 24, a semi-professional basketball player, said he had rarely been to a museum, but came often to watch Virginia Mastrogiannaki, the human metronome, as she counted out loud, a performance called Jargon.

“She has so much dignity,” he said. “It’s like a movie.You see something different every time.”

The artists were chosen from an open call that drew 320 people. From these, Neon, Abramovic and her institute chose 24 artists from a range of disciplines–the six who do long-duration works and others who perform for shorter periods.

The show is a homecoming for many Greek artists who left to pursue careers abroad.

For the performances, the artists do not take breaks for the entire eight-hour stretch. To prepare themselves mentally, the six long duration artists and two others attended a five-day retreat that called for them not to speak or eat.

Some have found resonances between the art and the refugee crisis. The Kathimerini daily published a cartoon depicting Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras as “Alexis Abramovic”, sitting in a chair and facing a family of refugees, a reference to Abramovic’s 2010 work at the Museum of Modern Art, The Artist Is Present, in which she sat, facing one visitor at a time, for 700hours.

At the end of a long day, she gave the Greek performance artists her comments. She told Stamatopoulou that she was getting too thin. “You need some chicken soup,” she said. She told Thodoris Trampas, who spends the day casting, smashing and recasting plaster for his work Pangaia, that maybe he could incorporate rest into his performance.

The actress Yota Argyropoulou, who passes the hours in a room behind a glass wall separating it from an identical room in which visitors interact with her through the glass, said an angry woman had recently entered, shredded a pillow, then refused to leave. “After that, the energy was very strange, very violent,” Argyropoulou said. “I started throwing things at her.”

Abramovic advised that the best approach was to ignore such people, adding that it was too bad the pillow was synthetic. “If it had been feathers,” she said, “you could have counted them.”


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on April 11, 2016, with the headline 'Greek performance art a big hit'. Print Edition | Subscribe