'Every body is different' - talking to Georgia Sagri on IASI Stage of Recovery at de Appel

Issue no6
Dec - Jan 2021
Vijf interviews - Depot

‘We exhaust ourselves’, says Athens-based artist Georgia Sagri. Her research practice IASI, Greek for ‘healing’ aims at physical recovery through performances, drawings and one-on-one sessions. After sharing IASI in London and Athens, Sagri is now hosted by de Appel in Amsterdam, where she seems to invite us to ‘breath with the historical development of things’.

Over the years, Athens-based artist Georgia Sagri has developed a body of physical techniques based on movement, voice training, and breath as an active agent. Initially, these techniques emerged out of Sagri’s need for self-care and gradually they have turned into the central focus of her research practice which she has come to call IASI – a direct reference to the modern Greek word ίαση, which means recovery or healing. Its capital letters seem to emphasize that IASI is concerned with a specific, physical form of recovery, developed through creative praxis.

IASI has currently taken a form that is threefold: it exists of exhibited works, one-on-one recovery sessions and performances. Three ‘satellite-locations’ have supported Sagri in this process: the project has travelled from the Mimosa House in London to TAVROS in Athens (where I live) and is now on view at De Appel in Amsterdam under the name IASI – Stage of Recovery.

I visit TAVROS, a project-space situated in a quiet neighborhood southwest of Athens’ city center, to see Sagri’s works and to get a feel for the one-on-one sessions Sagri organized, for which the exhibition served as a stage (at least until the sessions were moved online due to Covid-19 during the first lockdown in Greece). Upon entering the exhibition, a stage –even though it is situated in an inconspicuous corner– is the first thing I notice. The stage of recovery is a sculpture that functions as the ‘arena’ for Sagri’s one-to-one sessions with participants. It consists of a simple, wooden structure, topped with pillows with the size of mattresses. It is a modest sculpture, yet it is impressive. Is it because I project the supposed energy of the private sessions on it? Is it because I feel that it is charged with the participants’ pain?

Physical techniques based on movement, voice training, and breath as an active agent –techniques that initially emerged out of Sagri’s need for self-care– have gradually turned into the central focus of her research practice IASI

Georgia Sagri, IASI (Recovery), 2020, Solo show March – July 2020 (extended until October 2020), Exhibition view, TAVROS, Athens. Photo by Stathis Mamalakis  © Georgia Sagri  

Georgia Sagri, IASI (Recovery), 2020, Solo show March – July 2020 (extended until October 2020), Exhibition view, TAVROS, Athens. Photo by Stathis Mamalakis  © Georgia Sagri  

Georgia Sagri, IASI (Recovery), 2020, Solo show March – July 2020 (extended until October 2020), Exhibition view, TAVROS, Athens. Photo by Stathis Mamalakis  © Georgia Sagri

‘At first sight, the participant expects that the stage is soft because the techniques are hard, and therefore there is a need for a soft stage to absorb the tension’ Sagri says in a text that she reads a fragment of during an online briefing at De Appel. ‘But it is the opposite, though’, she continues, ‘the soft stage is there to remind them that there can be a place for them that is easy and soft. A place where, instead of performing a social role, they can release that same role that they constructed for themselves.’ The stage then appears to me as an anti-stage: a place where one is exempted from performing any role. When talking to Sagri however, she argues that this kind of thinking along binaries is exactly what will eventually lead to feeling the need to perform a social role, but I will come back to this later.

‘The soft stage is there to remind participants that there can be a place for them that is easy and soft’

Large drawings that are suspended in the space make up for another element of the exhibition. They show dynamic, human-like shapes in pastel and charcoal and there is a reference to a specific one-to-one session scribbled on their back. Sagri explains that the drawings are a way for her to recall the specific energy of a session, through the training of her own touch. The drawings are also a way to report about her research to the public, when the sessions themselves can only be developed with a protocol of anonymity and confidentiality.

Sagri committed to meeting two or three times per week with participants who have responded to an open call. Each of these sessions have such a different energy, I’ve come to understand, because everybody and moreover every body is different. Sagri makes clear that she does not tell the participants what to do. Not only would she exhaust herself – giving orders is not her nature, she says – but moreover, it would not treat their particular illnesses and conditions. The development of Sagri’s treatment happened inside her territory, her body, but the participants’ treatments need to take place in their territories, their bodies. Her role is not to guide them, since she does not know the way either – but to care. By sharing her techniques with the participants, she helps them to listen to their pain, so they can follow it and develop their self-recovery accordingly.

Georgia Sagri, Breathing (7-1-7) with embryac position _ Windface, performance, 1hr, 24 October 2020, de Appel, Amsterdam. Photo by Vasilis Papageorgiou  © Georgia Sagri

Georgia Sagri, Stage of Recovery, 2020, 250 x 250 x 56cm, wood, cotton fabric, upholstery foam, de Appel, Amsterdam. Photo by Cassander Eeftnick  © Georgia Sagri

Projected as well is a video-registration of Sagri’s performance Breathing (5_1_5) that happened in this same space. In de Appel the performance was later followed up by Breathing (7_1_7) with embryac position / Windface of which I watch a live online screening. Both performances show Sagri in an open space, carrying out various movements and gestures that smoothly flow into each other. Sagri’s movements and vocal sounds seem controlled, but at the same time they do not seem to suggest that there is a fixed choreography behind them. It is difficult to relate it to anything. During my conversation with Sagri I realize why: the process of IASI is inherently dynamic, and therefore it doesn’t represent anything. It simply is, in the same way that we are. Moreover, the premise that ‘we are’ is essentially what IASI invites us to accept, instead of resisting it. Or in Sagri’s own words: ‘entering into the world is a breath.’

‘Why did you feel the need to share your research practice with others, why now?’ I ask Sagri. Even though we both live in Athens, we have arranged for a phone call, because she is staying in Amsterdam for the cycle of sessions at De Appel. Sagri responds by calling to mind a previous work she created in the context of Documenta 14 in 2017, called Dynamis. As part of this work, she gathered a group of performers and invited them to take part in workshops based on the techniques she had been developing, sharing these techniques for the first time. She explains that she wanted to make these performers part of her theorem that there are no borders; something that requires thinking beyond binaries. ‘Borders exist,’ she continues, ‘because we want to realize ourselves through binaries. We want south to exist only as the opposite to the north and vice versa; we want to be privileged, while we create poverty.’

While it was not ‘part of the plan’, several persons told her that they had physically started feeling better throughout the workshops. It made Sagri realize that the training she had been developing for herself could be the starting point for other people’s recovery, too. ‘We exhaust ourselves’, she says. ‘First we create binaries, then categories.’ Consequently, by trying to live up to those categories, by trying to be functional, we are constantly under the stress of having to perform certain roles. The responses also led Sagri to understand what performance means to her: rather than a presentation, it is a way to give insight in how we – ‘and this society that we are building’ – can deal with transformation. It gave her the strength to focus on the practice itself, rather than creating something from the practice. With this in mind, you could say that Sagri is not an artist who makes work, but an artist who works. In her own words: ‘it is not a calling, it is work, a lot of work, it is commitment, it is risk-taking, it is to convince, to believe in the people that are part of it, to be thankful for what is going on, and to try to receive as much as you can give.’

For Sagri, performance is a way to give insight in how we – ‘and this society that we are building’ – can deal with transformation

Sagri continues to discuss that pain is the indicator, or the alarm bell, of how we exhaust ourselves. She goes on to compare our attitude towards pain to how we deal with accidents, which we usually try to control or avoid, resulting in different forms of stagnation: extremes, violence, wars, misery, sickness, etc. However, instead of trying to see accidents as minus, she proposes, try to see them as plus; there is so much information we can take from them. When I say that in that case, I also see her practice as an accident, she laughs and says: ‘exactly, I’m doing my best to be a very fabulous accident’.

Georgia Sagri, Breathing (5-1-5), 2020, performance, 90', 4 June 2020, TAVROS, Athens. Photo by Dimitris Parthimos  © Georgia Sagri 

Georgia Sagri, Breathing (5-1-5), 2020, performance, 90', 4 June 2020, TAVROS, Athens. Photo by Dimitris Parthimos  © Georgia Sagri

Breathing (5_1_5) took place right after the first lockdown in Greece was lifted; the performance, set in a bright sunlit space, carries out positive energy. How different is the feeling I get from watching Breathing (7_1_7) in de Appel. The space is dimly lit while outside the day is slowly getting swallowed by the dark, cold, Dutch autumn night that I know so well. The spectators are online, invisible – ghostly – just like myself. It is probably not a coincidence that my experience is so different, as it seems particularly difficult to breath along with the times right now. The Corona virus is still spreading and the public sphere is being (re)closed as a reaction to it. Moreover, the words “I can’t breath” are still echoing, pointing out exactly how difficult it is to breathe for some.

Bearing this in mind, it is tempting to assign prophetic qualities to Sagri’s work, but as Monika Szewczyk, De Appel’s director and curator of the exhibition puts it at the online briefing: ‘The practice that Georgia has developed over a decade is not a reaction to the current situation, or the moment. […] It’s somehow breathing with the historical development of things.’ Hence, what Sagri’s practice really shows us, is that finding a way to recover and to deal with transformation is crucial.

Georgia Sagri: IASI, Stage of Recovery is on view until January 18th at de Appel, Amsterdam

Frederiek Simons
is an artist and currently lives in Athens

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Metropolis M Magazine for contemporary art No 6 — 2021