The Art of Nothing

Tourists are drawn to Melissa Ichiuji as she meditates on the trappings of life in her
Tourists are drawn to Melissa Ichiuji as she meditates on the trappings of life in her "non-performance" piece at the Corcoran Gallery of Art. (By Lucian Perkins -- The Washington Post)
By Lonnae O'Neal Parker
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, May 11, 2005

There is a woman silently sitting on a platform in front of the Corcoran Gallery of Art. She's wearing thin white drawstring pants and a white sports bra, and she's barefoot. She looks exposed. She looks vulnerable. She looks like she might be making a statement about one of those causes that typically cause you to look away.

Next to her platform is a row of clear glass jars, some empty, some filled with urine, that she has been using as a bathroom since 6 o'clock yesterday morning. It all makes her a bit suspect to the lunchtime crowd in downtown Washington. But it turns out she's neither a crackpot nor an extremist in a town that can sometimes bend toward both.

She's just a performance artist in the final 36 hours of "Stripped," her performance piece (or "non-performance" piece, as she calls it). It is the last leg of a month-long journey toward little and less, and, in these final hours, public privation.

Curious passersby don't know what to make of Melissa Ichiuji's silence and serenity on a downtown corner. And, although she is discreet, pulling the ends of her white blanket fully around her form, they are quite thrown by the public urination.

The whole spectacle is arresting. "I came to see the tourist sights but this is the most compelling thing I've seen," says Ray Wollaston, a Seattle graphic designer.

The piece began in January when Ichiuji -- a married third-year Corcoran student in her late thirties from Front Royal, Va. -- started giving up things: coffee, television, soda and medication, followed in February by fast food and alcohol. As the seasons changed, she gave up cosmetics and chocolate, meat and magazines. Since the beginning of May, she's had: no newspapers, no music, no mirrors, no cell phone, no e-mail, no driving, no sex, no books, no family or friends or running water. No appliances, no speech, no clocks, no shoes, no food, no shelter. The idea is to let go of things that matter to the woman as a meditation on what matters most to the artist and, by extension, the audience.

"How much would you have to lose to appreciate what you have?" ask the postcards in front of her display.

"I decided that for 16 weeks I would try to do something that I thought I couldn't. I wanted to stop being so dependent on external things for comfort and security," reads a statement given out by Corcoran staff. "I wanted to break patterns of behavior, attachment and consumption that, over the years, had become automatic responses to anxiety and boredom."

Anthony Cervino, the Corcoran's director of college exhibition, says Ichiuji approached him last year about doing the piece. She was questioning her nice house and nice swimming pool and relative comfort. "She was interested as an artist in where comfort becomes discomfort," Cervino says. "She wanted to find her point of personal sacrifice. . . . How far beyond our needs do we need to go before it's egregious or wasteful?"

"As the project progressed, I decided that I would see how far I could simplify," Ichiuji wrote. "I wanted to face my biggest fears concerning isolation and poverty."

Shaun English, a graphic designer for the nearby Red Cross, heard co-workers talking about the silent woman on the corner and he came to check it out. He's intrigued: "She's not exposing herself; it's more like sacrifice," he says.

A jogger runs by. Then stops. She stares at Ichiuji. Her T-shirt says "Run Against Bush."

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