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AS ONE by Greek photographer Dina Koumpouli

as one neon marina abramovic by dina koumpouli
An exclusive documentation of Marina Abramović Greek performance extravaganza.

AS ONE, a major collaboration of Performance and Immaterial Art in Athens, between NEON and the Marina Abramović Institute (MAI) was recently presented at the Benaki Museum, in Athens, Greece, over a period of seven weeks. It was the largest and most ambitious project dedicated to performance art in Greece to date. Greek photographer Dina Koumpouli, possibly the only visitor to attend 35 out of 37 days of consecutive action, documented the entire process.

The Abramović Method
The Abramović Method is a series of exercises designed over the course of 40 years to explore and push the boundaries of body and mind. It is a public participatory experience for large groups that allows participants to connect to themselves, to the present moment and to each other. In Athens the Method reached a new and more mature phase of its development, offering an open format for participation and rotating exercises and activities.

The Lab presented durational works, conversations, workshops and lectures together with emerging Greek performance artists who were personally selected and trained by the MAI team. The collaboration aimed to help foster a new generation of performance artists in Greece, whilst providing a unique interactive cultural experience for the Greek public.

Marina Abramović stayed in Athens for 3 weeks and was deeply involved in the process,  studying the performers, fine tuning their processes. Dina Koumpouli thought she exuded an air of officialdom, much like a clerical figure would.

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Dina Koumpouli X AS ONE
Koumpouli, although familiar with the work of Marina Abramović, had never witnessed something of this magnitude, as far as duration, scale and intensity go, and was thrilled with the opportunity to witness it in her hometown. It turned out she got more than she bargained for. Initially intending to just attend the introductory ceremony and check out sample manifestations of the project ,she ended up cataloguing the entire process, producing a stunning portfolio of unique shots on the way.

Out of 37 days of performance action Dina only missed 2. Even Abramović team member Paula Garcia, upon noticing that the photographer had been there on a daily basis, suggested she offered her own interpretation of the event. Dina approached the process as a form of meditation, one that instinctively developed into a mantra of sorts. Each day she canvassed the terrain, spending several hours on site, alternating between floors, attending workshops, interacting with both performers and audience. All the while she was fervently snapping away with her lens, trying to capture the spirit of the exercise. She felt the need to change her photographic equipment mid-things, upon realizing the existing one was compromising her vision of things. She learned how to operate the new gear in a flash in order to stand up to the challenge. The editing process presented extreme difficulty. Condensing the experience in a set of select shots was a near-impossible task: the full material was overwhelming.

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As days went by, the endeavour formed into a personal necessity, a point of reference. Familiar and at the same time evolving, the perpetual nature of the exercises started echoing a bizarre deja vu. The emotional reactions she developed were all-encompassing, but the key element was balance, like the sensation you have when you listen to classical music. Some of the performances evolved quickly, others less so. Regardless, evolution was a key element of the process and it was tangible. Together with the performers the audience, always in close interaction with them, evolved as well. There was always something new to discover. Performance, especially such high duration tends to be touch and go. The notion of of repetition, the idea of doing the same thing over and over and its implications, challenged Koumpouli - it was almost like a form of autism. Whenever Dina confronted a work she couldn't help thinking how the entire thing could blow up any given time if you don't support it with all you got. She was amazed by the stamina, concentration and devotion essential in rising to the occasion. She especially noticed how important it is to avoid self-censorship, not to hold back and self-erase yourself. The performers managed to carry it out famously. She realized that in the end everything made sense, but the meaning was added by the audience, the attendees drawing from their own faith.

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The audience
During weekdays and off-peak hours an air of calmness prevailed. The audience was engrossed, the experience reminded that of studying paintings in a museum. Some people stayed for hours, becoming emotional to the point of tears in the process. During busier times Dina moved around the space to capture the vibe. There was a spectrum of reactions, varying from the expected “wtf” to extreme immersion. Some people were mesmerized by the spectacle, while others were perplexed. Some simply couldn't understand, while others were repelled, immediately evacuating the premises.  Some people were attracted by particular performers and decided to follow them exclusively. In the weekends it got really busy.

A lot of the people were not at all open to the experience – on the contrary they were negatively predisposed. The classic “what is this shit” mostly came from the adults, including seasoned figures of the art community. Koumpouli noticed that the younger crowds were significantly more open to the concept than their adult counterparts, their mind operating as a blanc canvas, absorbing the visual info, they enjoyed it more.

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The photographer decided to personally invite people to see the action. In part she did that in order to honour and support the important initiative; mostly however she was interested in gauging their reactions, study the perception of the unseasoned viewer. Among the visitors she brought were her teenage daughter, together with a schoolmate (the girls were astonished and intensely interested. They consecutively returned to further explore on their own), as well as her 82 year old mother in law, who attended twice. When Dina suggested that the participating performers seemed to be bordering on the edge of logic, she calmly suggested they were in fact bordering on the edge of madness.

Dina, who volunteers time to teach photography in a high-school, also brought along a small group of 16 year old students, all of who had no prior experience of performance art. One of them was a muslim girl in a hijab. Abramović singled her out and approached her for a little talk that left the young girl mesmerized. The students decided to come back to visit on their own. The photographer also spotted several actors and dancers closely inspecting the happenings, taking in the method, to create their own interpretations and apply it to their own practices. The average visitors' age was around 35-40. Everyone related to the action in their own way and, regardless of their personal feelings towards it, they all agreed it was an important thing to witness.The final day was buzzing. Participants and audience were emotional, intense feelings the order of the day, the vibes being profound and honest. AS ONE culminated in a grand finale.

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The Takeaway
Aside from being of paramount importance for all the obvious reasons, it turns out that AS ONE made sense. It touched people's lives, gave them things - its takeaway was precious. Koumpouli, oddly, discovered things about herself and realized that what she saw helped her advance with personal decisions. It sounds transcendental but it was in fact practical. Like opening a window or a curtain in a home.

Another interesting by-product of her involvement with AS ONE was becoming a member of a small group of 5 people, who met on the spot and bonded through sharing the experience. A kind of comradeship developed, the type that sounds almost absurd between perfect strangers. This little circle is now sharing a personal code of their own.

Upon the project's completion, she finds herself overflowed with contradicting emotions: a sense of fulfillment coupled with a sense of loss. Fulfillment because she was deeply moved and enriched by the experience. Loss because she thinks that, given more time, she might have reached further inside herself, become even more daring. Nonetheless, she classifies AS ONE as a life changing experience.  

All in all an AA endorsement.

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For further information on AS ONE you can visit NEON's official website.

Browse more photos from Dina Koumpouli's documentation of AS ONE at the Image Gallery below
All photos © Dina Koumpouli

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