The time I wore a Teletubbie suit and slept in a coffin

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Most everything Marina Abramović does is uncomfortable.  Sleeping in a wooden box can hardly be considered cozy, yet according to Marina it’s a splendid way to perceive your dreams better.  A night in Abramović-Technicolor is not for the cowardly.

 

The Japanese hinterlands of Niigata are hopelessly depopulated, littered with abandoned houses and perfectly enticing to art aficionados.  They flock here, mostly from Tokyo, to visit the Echigo Tsumari Art Field, a triennial also comprised of permanent works, created by art world heavy-hitters, in empty homes, expired schools, and barren farmsteads.  Marina Abramović’s interactive installation Dream House (2000) is one of these.  

 

Getting here isn’t for the cowardly either.  You need patience and a GPS to make this pilgrimage.  A couple of train rides that turn Tokyo’s urban porridge into alpine-crisp savories, a rental car drive on winding country roads.  And maybe, if sign language isn’t your thing, a Japanese speaking friend.  Past proud hinoki cypresses and rice fields tilled by crimped old women, up a steep hill, beyond hot springs and an emaciated, ancient temple, that’s where you’ll find Dream House.  It’s a handsome, century-old minka, a home traditionally inhabited by craftspeople and farmers.  A kitchen with a sunken irori hearth in  the floor, a tatami-clad living room, a bathroom and a sizeable tokonoma alcove, anxiously graffiti-painted with Marina’s own dreams, occupy the ground floor.  One flight up, under sturdy, exposed rafters are four ascetic rooms, their colored windows 

bleed eerie light over uncomfortable, rectangular wooden coffins; meaty red in one, icy lavender in the next, green and blue in the other two.  It’s monastically minimalist, funereal and achingly rigid.  24 glasses with precisely the same amount of water are lined up on the living room’s sole furnishing, a square, low- slung table.  Don’t ask, there’s no explanation for this oddity.  We’re not here to have fun, we’re here to contribute to an art project.  The rules are countless, as are the instructions.  We are told to follow a ritual, like brainwashed members of some obscure art-worshipping sect.  All to experience better, clearer, more erudite dreams.

 

Marina’s art is a constant exploration of the body’s physical and mental limitations.  She sat silently, stock still for 736 hours in The Artist is Present, 2010, the legendary performance piece that lasted almost three months during her MoMA retrospective.  She has submitted herself to excruciating experiments, she has flirted with self-mutilation, taken psychoactive drugs, carved stars on her bare stomach, danced naked until she collapsed and howled until she lost her voice.  She has also always had a special relationship to dreams.

 

“My dreams are a great source of inspiration, I dream constantly, sometimes very prophetic and meaningful dreams that I write down,” Marina once told me in an interview for a Swedish art publication.  At Dream House she expects her guests to explore and recount their own dreams with the same diligence. In the austere coffin that would be my bed for a night there is only an obsidian neck pillow and a little slot with a leather-bound dream book.  

 

Emiko Takahashi, the dream dwelling’s efficient matron, greets us with a mix of motherly warmth and old fashioned, finger wagging-strictness.  We are four art nerds who listen intently to her militaristic, matter of fact speech.  

     

Start with deciding which rooms you will sleep in.  There are two copper tubs in the bathroom, you will shower in the right one, put the herbs I picked behind the house in the left one, and soak for exactly 15 minutes.  Soap and shampoo are not allowed.  After this you will dress in the overalls that correspond to the colors of your rooms.  You will each receive 12 magnets, put them in the strategically placed overall pockets, around your heads, over the heart, and so on.  Together with the obsidian pillow they create a force field that encourages the dream process.  Put on the CD players’ headphones and listen carefully to Marina’s instructions. When you wake in the morning you will write down your dreams in the dream book.  Do not speak to each other, eat breakfast in silence.  Leave your overalls folded on the floor where you found them.

 

Takahashi-san bids us farewell and leaves us in a house that breathes, groans, and could be inhabited by the same tiny, sooty sprites that play wicked tricks in the movie Totoro.  

 

As the sun slides off the sky, a cranky toad choir chants a litany across the rice fields.  A befuddled moth flutters around the ceiling lamp’s weary glow.  Darkness is a quavering lump of uncertainty.  There are futons and down comforters in the bedroom closets, for the lightweight cowards who can’t take a night of sarcophagus-sleep.  My friend Mieko shrugs her shoulders at the rules and uses them to make a cocoon for herself.  We bathe, dress in the teletubbie-suits and giggle like schoolgirls.  Our fellow art disciples disappear into the shadows.  The stillness is so palpable that we do the same.  Of course I follow Marina’s instructions slavishly.  With earphones on I lay my head on the cruel neck pillow, I listen to the artist’s in-ex-pli-ca-bly slow, hypnotizing voice while the wooden box begins to be exactly as uncomfortable as she had hoped.  The down-filled overall is pleasant enough but in the chill of the unheated room I soon become cold, I put on my mittens and pull the hood closer to my head, I shift in one direction, then the other, I close my eyes and shift about again.  It’s impossible not to taste the hard flavor of wood against my backbone.  I concentrate on Marina’s Balkan-broken words and suddenly I’m levitating.  A bizarre heat spreads through my body, my pulse is a pinball on a collision course, my heart is flashing tilt-tilt-tilt, I’m present but my subconscious is running a euphoric victory lap, dancing an LSD psychedelic, out-of-body foxtrot. Shortly thereafter I fall asleep faster than I can say oyasumi nasai, good night.  It doesn’t take long, however, before I wake up freezing.   The night progresses in a fitful fog of desperation, curiosity, and art-submission.  I don’t dream, but I see feelings, perfectly aligned in surreal tableaux, I can touch fear, euphoria, and abstract thoughts.  It’s as close to synesthesia as I’ll ever get.

 

Many slow hours later morning tiptoes out above the treetops, the sun sheds a listless red tone across my room.  Despite the lack of sleep I am not tired, perhaps not completely alert either, but still, peculiarly harmonious.  And very much in need of a bathroom.  Nothing Marina Abramović does is comfortable.  It’s fascinating and sometimes painfully ostentatious, but never boring.  

 
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