Peeling Back the Layers Of Meaning in 'Stripped'

Melissa Ichiuji, with her dog Sophie, says her performance piece explored desires for connection and privacy.
Melissa Ichiuji, with her dog Sophie, says her performance piece explored desires for connection and privacy. (By Margaret Thomas -- The Washington Post)
By Melissa Ichiuji
Special to The Washington Post
Monday, May 30, 2005

Earlier this month, art student Melissa Ichiuji underwent a 16-week process of systematically depriving herself of daily luxuries that she associated with comfort, security and acceptance. She ended it on a platform in front of the Corcoran College of Art & Design Gallery. Here's what she says she learned:

Nearly three weeks have passed since the final hours of the public installation of "Stripped" in front of the Corcoran Gallery of Art. Since then I have been contacted by many people. Most offer support, some want answers. I will share a little about the last hours of the piece in hopes that it will shed some light on my experience.

Two days before sitting in front of the Corcoran, I decided that I should stop eating solid food to reduce the likelihood of restroom breaks. I arrived at the platform at 5:30 a.m. on May 10. I set out my jars and arranged my drinks on the ground behind me, climbed up on the platform and sat.

As the sun rose, the streets and sidewalks became very busy. By mid-morning the installation was attracting a lot of attention. I decided to stand. The platform was hard, and every bony protrusion on my body felt bruised. Sitting or reclining in almost any position was uncomfortable. So I stood while photographers took pictures, viewers read my journal and the sun moved overhead. I kept standing and kept drinking liquids. Every drop went immediately through me.

People wanted to interact with me. Some yelled out questions or requests. A few people approached the platform to offer me assistance or to give me something. I was overwhelmed by the sudden intimacy. The choice to put myself on display was a masochistic one that relates back to privacy, dignity, irony. Time passed and I continued to alternate between standing and sitting. I tried to keep my mind away from my discomfort and focus on the people who wanted to connect.

I had many lingering exchanges with total strangers. Some returned two and three times throughout the day, and through simple eye contact I experienced some of the most revealing and heartbreaking exchanges I have ever known. A wall had come down; I and the observers became both the viewed and the viewer.

Things started to look blurry. I could not keep any liquids in my body. I was sure that I was going to faint, and a sudden wave of nausea sent me to find a restroom. I had underestimated the effects of the direct sun and, having never fasted before, my insides were in turmoil.

The cold floor of the Corcoran provided a moment of relief. I returned to my platform and tried to stay hydrated. I could not stop shaking and attempted to cool my body off by pouring water over my head. I traced the wood grain of the platform over and over with my finger. I thought about a friend who had passed away a couple of days earlier. I looked across the street at the American flag waving high above the White House.

I thought about freedom and wondered when I'd felt the most free. I decided it must have been during a fit of unbridled laughter between my sister and me. There have been thousands of those, but perhaps the ones from childhood, before we were aware of ourselves, were the purest.

I stayed on the platform and tried to stay focused. I was flooded with self-doubt about my ability to defy nature and my own body. Evening came and went and people kept coming. Once the sun went down, I was very cold. My clothes were wet and I could not stop shaking. A few people who had returned from earlier in the day expressed their concern for my health. A man who announced himself as a doctor asked me questions while I nodded. He did not think I should continue.

I tried to sleep but kept feeling like I might be sick again. In the early hours of May 11 I walked around the Corcoran and entered the building to use the restroom. I was on my fourth day without food and was not doing so well. Though I was very conflicted about stopping the project, I concluded that I had learned what I had set out to discover about my response to public isolation and the loss of real or perceived security. I left around 3:45 a.m. I am a human being and was not out to prove otherwise.

In the final analysis, "Stripped" was indeed a protest against the decadence of our time, against personal fear, against societal expectations (of women) and against forms of advertising that prey on the public's most primitive desire to feel connected. I chose to do the piece publicly because I wanted to reinforce the point that most of us spend our lives looking for a sense of connection.

It is ironic that we live in a society that promotes activities that move us away from a true awareness of our bodies, each other, nature, the globe and humility. To do the piece publicly forced me to deal with my own conflicting desires for connection and privacy. For me the important thing was to become more aware of my motivations to avoid suffering and discomfort and to take a hard look at what I could really count on for security and meaning.

When the project was over, my life did not spring back to its original shape. I have resumed some activities and have remained indifferent to others. The Web site I created to document this process continues to be a place of dialogue for me. From here I have vowed to build a life that better reflects what I value. I am starting small, donating clutter, eating more simply, trying to be kinder and looking into trading in my car for a hybrid. I decided to let go a little and celebrate ends and beginnings. I poured a glass of champagne, got my scissors and set about cutting myself free from one of my last vestiges of vanity, my hair.

To read the Style story on Ichiuji's project, go to

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