Counting rice with Marina Abramovic at MONA

The hardest thing is to do something which is close to nothing because it is demanding all of you.

—Marina Abramovic 

In late 2014, my wife and I moved to Hobart for a life reset. She was offered a job at MONA (the Museum of Old and New Art) and I stayed home to look after our one-year-old daughter.

Soon after we moved to Hobart, a performance artist named Marina Abramovic had an exhibition at MONA. At her previous exhibition, in New York City, Marina had simply sat in a chair for eight hours a day, for months on end. Members of the public lined up in droves to sit in the chair opposite her and look into her eyes as she sat silent and still. Some people cried, some smiled, others seemed to have profound out-of-body experiences. Some sat for a few minutes, some stayed all day. All this while Marina simply sat in her chair and looked at them—saying nothing, doing nothing. The performance was called The Artist is Present. I liked this person. A lot.

The big-ticket item at Marina’s MONA exhibition was called Counting the Rice. I’d heard great things about it, and my wife kept encouraging me to go. So when a long-time friend, Amy, visited from Melbourne, we decided to check it out.

The rice-counting room

Before we could enter the rice-counting room, Amy and I were given a white lab coat to wear over our clothes and told to put all our worldly possessions into a small gym locker. On the wall next to the lockers was a list of guidelines, written in large font, explaining what the experience was about. One of the guidelines pointed out that there was no right or wrong way to interact with the rice. 

Once inside, the first thing I noticed was how dark it was. Most of the room was pitch black, except for a very long wooden table with a river of rice running down the middle. The space had been expertly lit so you felt like you’d stepped onto the set of a surrealist movie. A staff member approached me, ushered me to a chair at the table, scooped up some rice and tipped it into a pile in front of me, alongside a pencil and a piece of paper. 

As I sat in my white lab coat, having flashbacks to high-school chemistry classes, I realised that my ‘pile of rice’ was actually a mixture of dry white rice and black lentils. I looked around the room and noticed that everyone at the table was sorting the white rice from the black lentils into two neat piles. Then, using the pencil and paper, they were making a tally of the grains as they went. I looked down at my pile of rice and lentils again and, remembering that this piece was called Counting the Rice, decided to do the same thing.  

Speeding up the process

It was slow going. The pile of rice and lentils hadn’t seemed very big at first—but once I started sorting it, I became aware that I could be there for a very long time. I didn’t want to spend my whole day at MONA counting rice in a dark room, so I tried to think of ways to speed up the process. I saw that some people were using their pencil to ‘flick’ grains to the left or right as they sorted them. This seemed to be more efficient than what I was doing so, again, I followed suit. Once I got into a rhythm and my brain got used to the sorting pattern, I started to make better progress. The sorting was now taking a lot less time. But I still had so many grains to sort. 

After a significant period of frantic grain-flicking, I stopped and put down my pencil. I was not enjoying this activity at all.

Marina’s theory, as explained on the wall outside, was that if you did something very basic and repetitive it would calm your mind and become meditative. But instead of feeling calm, I felt like a rushed factory worker. I had tried to work out how to complete the activity as quickly as possible. And so, it seemed, had everybody else. What good little workers we were. 

Just another exercise in ‘doing’

I gazed around the room at each person busily sorting. And it dawned on me that we had all interpreted a task with no rules (and barely a set of parameters) in exactly the same way. We had turned a pile of rice and lentils into an exercise of speed and wit. Sitting in that room, pondering this fact, I suddenly saw so clearly what we, as humans, had become—not just in this context, but in every aspect of our lives. We had become pathological doers.

A room full of people had turned an interactive, experiential artwork about being meditative into just another exercise in ‘doing’. And if our egos had anything to say about it, an exercise in doing it faster than everyone else! Sorting the rice and lentils had become a silent but very serious competition.

To dust you shall return

I noticed that a man across the table from me had finished sorting his grains into two distinct piles and was writing the final tallies on his piece of paper. He then stood proudly and walked towards the exit. As he left, a staff member collected his pencil and paper and casually pushed his expertly-sorted piles of rice and lentils right back into the river that ran down the centre of the table.

I sighed. What was I doing? To me, the whole experience seemed more about impermanence and meaninglessness than anything else. Because, when you eventually finished separating the grains—perhaps forty-five minutes later—the piles were just mixed back together and returned to where they came from, as if nothing had ever happened. As I watched this play out right before my eyes, a remnant from my Christian high school education popped into my head: For you were made from dust, and to dust you shall return. 

That was enough for me. I gave up on sorting the rice and lentils altogether.

Re-interpreting the rice

If Marina’s intention was to help people enter a meditative state, then I figured I would bypass the sorting exercise (that had somehow become stressful) and actually meditate. I looked at my grains, then pushed all the rice and lentils back into the main pile in front of me. I stared at the black and white grains and had a sudden urge to make a face with them. So, using my pencil, I moved a few bunches of lentils and shaped them into eyes, then I made a nose, and finally a big smiling mouth.

Once I was happy with my face, I put my pencil aside. I placed my hands on my knees, closed my eyes and started meditating.

In the back of my mind, I remembered my wife telling me that there were video cameras in the rice-counting room. And I imagined, for a moment, someone, somewhere, watching me and thinking I was utterly insane: a man meditating in front of a big smiling face of rice and lentils. I laughed to myself, then let the thought go and kept meditating. 

After ten minutes or so I opened my eyes. I turned my piece of paper over and started to write down some of the ideas that had come to me during the meditation: the absurdity of human beings; our uncanny knack for turning even the simplest activity into a challenge; our inability to sit still and do nothing; and our penchant for pathological doing.

I looked over and noticed that Amy had already left the room. So I stood up and started to leave. I handed in my piece of paper and pencil and turned to take one last look at all the people fastidiously sorting rice and lentils before I exited the room. 

My wife was right; I was very glad I had come. 

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