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On the phone from Germany last month, Marina Abramovic declared that The House With the Ocean View would be the hardest piece she's ever attempted. But the morning of the opening at Sean Kelly Gallery on November 15, she was joking about it: "You're going to envy me. Now I will have time. Plenty of it."
Halfway up the wall were three open platforms where she intended to livewithout eating, without speakingfor 12 days. She would have no privacy. Not only were the rooms open, but spectators would be invited to observe the artist through a high-powered telescope. And she would have no escape. The ladders leaning against bedroom, sitting room, and bathroom had rungs made of large butcher knives. She pointed to the gap of about 18 inches separating the three spaces. Falling would be possible, especially after she'd grown weak and dizzy from lack of food. She intended this; danger would help her to focus.
The piece began abruptly. One moment, Abramovic was her vivacious social self, almost giddy as she greeted friends, clad in black jacket and Issey Miyake skirt. Then everyone exited to the lobby for 15 minutes and returned to find the artist in white shirt and pants, seated on the oak chair in her new home, staring out impassively. A metronome ticked out the seconds.
"I am not preparing," she told me a few days before the performance began. "I just get in, and that's it." But of course, she's been preparing for this sort of thing all her life. Many old themes would manifest here, right through the last excruciating hour on day 12.
Throughout her 30-year career, Abramovic has used the body in extremis as a gate into altered consciousness, often putting herself in great physical peril. Some early solo performances in her native Belgrade seemed set up to create fear in the audience about the artist's safety. In one, she announced that she would be a passive object for six hours and laid out 72 objects spectators could use on her, including a loaded gun. In brief: A fight broke out in the audience when someone tried to use it.
In 1978, she and her then partner, Ulay (Uwe Laysiepen), crawled on their stomachs with a python that hadn't eaten in two weeks. Both artists made sound vibrations to attract it, but the snake went straight to Abramovic and followed her for four hours as she slowly backed away. When it broke eye contact, they declared the piece over.
Abramovic and Ulay created many tough and now classic body art pieces, like colliding with each other, naked, at top speed. During the '80s, they did Nightsea Crossing, sitting motionless for seven hours at either end of a long table, trying not even to blink. They presented this 90 times, usually in three-day increments during which they fasted and did not speak. Then in 1988, Abramovic and Ulay crossed the Great Wall of China, starting at opposite ends and walking until they met in the middle. She had the eastern, more difficult half, where the Wall runs through the mountains and is in serious disrepair. She had to concentrate on every step to avoid falls or avalanches. In terms of its length and its difficulty and her need to stay "in the moment," she thought Ocean View would be most like walking the Wall. So Abramovic mounted the platforms wearing the old hiking boots she wore in China.
Ocean View also relates to Nightsea Crossing in that it is really about consciousness. Abramovic has long been interested in the way spiritual practitioners develop themselves through fasting, silence, and ritual. While the content of Nightsea Crossing was the artists' inner lives, she wanted to explore whether a piece could include the inner lives of the audience. Ocean View was an experiment: "If I purify myself, can I change the energy in the space and the energy in the audience?"
Abramovic has long held the belief that the ideal art is this transmission of energy between artist and observer. No objects necessary. But while in China, she developed an interest in minerals. Legends describe the Wall as the body of a sleeping dragon. In the eastern mountains, site of many earthquakes, Abramovic began to encounter "energy spots"like acupuncture points along the dragon's spinewhere the locals had tried to control the creature's energy by placing copper pots and covering them with heaps of stone. She always stopped and spent time at these places, to absorb the energy.
"Crystals are the simplified computers of our planet," she says. "They collect energy, they collect electricity, they collect light." The very uncomfortable-looking bed and chair in her Ocean View installation had a crystal pillow and headrest, respectively. Then her shirts and pants, dyed seven different colors, contained magnets. "All these devices I like to use, they only work if you really don't eat and if you become very sensitive."
During the first days of Ocean View, Abramovic seemed restless, moving around, no doubt, so she would not drift mentally. She had to stay "present." She knew she would face this. First the boredom, then the pain. She had turned her most banal activities into rituals: showering, peeing, drinking water. By day three, she had taken to standing for long periods at the edge of the center platform, right behind the knife ladder. She looked shaky, vulnerable, like a person on a tightrope. By day five, her energy had changed, as if she'd sunk very deep into her great store of willpower. She spent time focused on certain observers. On day seven, a woman came forward to engage her in staring. Abramovic put her palms out away from her body. The woman stepped out of her shoes. Somehow it was very dramatic. Certain people were coming every day.
By day nine, all her movements looked heavy, even turning her head. She had begun using the table or chair to block her entrance into the other rooms, forcing herself to climb over them along the edge. Later she would tell me, "It was all to stay focused." On day 11, she was clearly suffering, expending great effort just to stand up. Many in the audience moved up closer than usual. She explained later that she was just unbelievably dizzy.
On day 12, the space began to fill an hour before the 6 p.m. closing. She moved around more than she had in days, clearly energized by the spectators. She kept attempting to stand right at the edge behind the knife ladder. Kept catching herself, steadying herself against the table she'd overturned. Then she'd step back. She'd tremble. She'd pant. And try again as the room filled wall to wall.
She ended the piece by turning off the metronome, then removing that day's uniform of orange-red and putting on a bathrobe. A real ladder had appeared, and she climbed down. The first thing she said was a joke: "I know I disappoint you because I didn't come down the knife ladder." Back in the gallery's offices, drinking a glass of carrot juice, she reported that her experiment worked. "I became so hypersensitive, I could absolutely pick up everything in the space. I picked up the aurasfor me it was like an ocean of minds there. I could see everybody's light."
Abramovic's installation remains on view through December 21 at Sean Kelly Gallery, 528 West 29th Street.