New York

Marina Abramović

Marina Abramović’s The House with the Ocean View, 2002, may well be one of the most important live artworks of the decade, but not for obvious reasons. Not only because the artist produced an elegant work that continues themes from a thirty-year career that has included performances of extreme endurance. Nor because she connected with her audience at a time when intimacy between artist and viewer is rare in immaculate Chelsea galleries. But because House is a work of pure theater. Without a single word, and with a minimum of means, Abramović created a deeply existential drama on the nature of living in the “here and now,” as she refers to the present tense.

For twelve days and nights, and in full view of audiences during gallery hours, Abramović theatricalized the rituals of daily life: sleeping, drinking, going to the bathroom. Dressed in a tunic and pants reminiscent of Alexander Rodchenko’s Constructivist uniforms (a fresh color for each day), she composed a series of slow gestures and deliberate turns that transformed her activities into somber ceremonies: removing clothes, folding each garment, stepping into the shower, opening the faucet. Each action was constructed to produce an indelible picture of the grace of ordinary acts. Some movements recalled figures from art-historical tradition, such as bathers, when she draped a large bath towel across her body following a shower.

The stage set for this drama took the form of a diagram of domestic essentials; “bedroom,” “bathroom,” and “living room” occupied three cantilevered platforms set six feet off the ground. But the words in the title, house and ocean view, made this simple elevation into an architectural alcazar of the imagination, suggesting a narrative for a structure that was not really there. The fact that Abramović remained alone each night in her self-imposed confinement made palpable the watchfulness of buildings left empty; four walls, generic furniture, light fixtures, a drywall floor, kept Abramović company as she continued her private theater without anyone there.

Abramović’s script, composed of only a set of restrictions—no food, no talking, no reading, no writing—was posted on the wall at the gallery entrance and executed with the concentration of a religious acolyte. The cast, on the other hand, was entirely unexpected: Random members of the crowd became spontaneous players in the work, taking part in improvised exchanges with the artist. For instance, one man, almost entirely alone in the gallery, stared up at Abramović, and she down at him, for a quarter of an hour. Only the tick tock of a metronome punctuated the intensive activity—the business of their thinking—that was the subtext to this scene. If indeed the eyes are windows to the soul, Abramović’s eye contact with so many viewers easily crashed through the intractable third wall of theatrical tradition.

The finale on the twelfth day was a directorial feat. The gallery was crowded to capacity with mesmerized followers sitting on the floor. What would happen at six? At ten minutes to the hour, gallery assistants gestured to the audience to stand; two hundred upturned faces watched Abramović intently. At 6:05 PM, she changed out of her clothes into a pristine bathrobe and slippers and descended the ladder that had been brought to her. “This work is as much you as it is me,” she told her audience. Her audience, now performers all, applauded in gratitude.

RoseLee Goldberg