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  • Marina Abramovic's The House with the Ocean ViewThe View of the House from Some Drops in the Ocean
  • James Westcott (bio)

The conditions of entry to Marina Abramovic's living installation, The House with the Ocean View, are: (1) No talking; (2) Establish energy dialogue with artist. Abramovic needs the silent support of the audience because she has some difficult rules of her own to follow: No eating and no speaking for 12 days, while living on a platform of three open-faced rooms fixed to the back wall of the gallery, five feet above the ground, with nothing to amuse herself except a metronome. There is a white line in front of the platform which nobody is allowed to cross. Abramovic is trying to purify herself by stripping away the extraneous and by ritualizing the simplest acts.

For such an ascetic experiment, Abramovic's living space is suitably sparse: a room with toilet and shower, a room with chair and table, a bedroom with a wooden bed (no mattress), a little sink, and shelves containing a different color pair of pajamas for each day. Between each room there is a gap of about two feet. All the walls are pure white; the furniture is in warm wooden tones with hard edges; the plumbing is matte stainless steel. It's an Ikea minimalist wet dream—all except for the three ladders with upturned butchers' knives as rungs, which descend to floor level and offer the illusion of an exit from each room.

Abramovic is 56 but looks much younger. She has called herself the grandmother of performance art. On the face of it, this performance at the Sean Kelly Gallery in the Chelsea section of New York City does not seem to be her most dangerous or grueling in 30 years of using her body as an artistic medium. In Rhythm 5 (1973/74) Abramovic lay down inside the blazing frame of a wooden star. With her oxygen supply depleted by the fire, she lost consciousness and had to be rescued by concerned onlookers. In Rhythm 0 (1973/74), she invited her audience to do whatever they wanted to her using any of the 72 items she provided, which included a pen, scissors, chains, an axe, and a loaded pistol. In Three (1978), lying face to face with a starving python for four hours, she finally out-stared it. In 1988 she walked halfway across the Great [End Page 129] Wall of China to meet her former partner, Ulay, in the middle. At the Venice Biennale in 1997, Abramovic won the best artist award for a performance that involved sitting for hours among a pile of animal bones and scrubbing them with disinfectant. She was representing her home country, Yugoslavia, and its responsibility for the Balkan wars. After the performance, she said: "I'm only interested in an art which can change the ideology of society. [...] Art which is only committed to aesthetic values is incomplete" (New School Online University 1997).

My Day 1 / Marina's Day 8

Abramovic takes a shower soon after I walk into the Sean Kelly gallery for the first time. She stands with her arms outstretched, and lets out a silent scream. After a very long and very slow drying procedure, she takes a pee. I get a bit embarrassed, and worry that she's going to take a shit too but then I realize this is unlikely: she hasn't eaten in seven days.

Marina, you look so sad. Dehumanized. Why do you need to purify yourself? Utterly pure, methodical, you are a machine, not human.

Abramovic moves agonizingly slowly. The slightest movement is deliberate: picking up her hair band, turning on the tap, turning the table upside down. She could be in a trance, meditating, or just insanely bored. After 168 hours of this, Abramovic looks like she is dying up there.

There is a shimmer of a tear in her eye when I look through the telescope at her. (Everyone is meant to look through the telescope, which is at the back of the gallery. Often Abramovic stares at the lens rather than at anyone directly.) I willed the tear...