Counting the grains for Marina Abramovic's performance piece is boring, bewitching, transportive and hard. Photo: Steven Siewert

The temperature is nine degrees but there are 26 other people counting black lentils and white rice grains at long blonde wood tables in this draughty harbourside pier. We are all wearing black noise-cancelling headphones, all experiencing Marina Abramovic​: In Residence, an austere yet empowering performance art work created by the iconic artist but performed by the public.

"What is the best way to count them?" I think. I cannot hear anything except the thrum of trains on the harbour bridge and Abramovic's​ muffled tones on a far-off video recording. It is 10.05am, or thereabouts, because we have surrendered bags, mobile phones and watches into lockers on arrival.

Sitting at six long table rows, each fixed with black desk lamps spooling light on the piles of mixed grains, a A4 paper sheet and red lead pencils, the counting becomes everything.

"Should I count the black ones or the white ones first?" I think. "Should I make piles or line them up in rows? Why am I so slow at it? Will I be able to finish this?"

No, is the answer. This preview is timed but, when Marina Abramovic: In Residence opens on Wednesday, visitors can stay for seven hours in this Kafkesque room. I decide to "simply" count all the grains. It is boring, bewitching, transportive and hard. I count 3987 grains.

The grain-counting room is patrolled by facilitators, gentle, smiling people in black, who mime what to do upon sitting. One has held my hand, his soft and cold, to walk me slowly and carefully to the chair.

The woman to my left mimes, "Why?" to a facilitator. She smiles and shows her again. Separate, count, write it down. The man to the right is nearly finished. He has two neat round piles of black and white grains. I feel competitive and admiring.

In this silence, distractions are few. I feel calmed. We can leave whenever we want. My breathing slows, as does my heart. Counting the rice and lentils, a methodical, creative difficult endeavour, becomes a vital, repairing balm.

Another balming experience is reached after a long slow walk to the end of the pier. A large area is set with rows of basic camp bed furnished with dark grey blankets and a white pillow. It has the air of a school camp. The facilitator motions me to lie down before tucking the blanket around my entire body. Warm sunlight through a high window rests on my face. How long can I stay here? I want to stay here.

Abramovic​, New York-based and Serbian-born, who began her career in the early 1970s and has become one of the world's most renowned performance artists, tells us later that "Our life is so fast. You have to make art slow."

Participating in the activities, which also include sitting and looking at rectangles of yellow, blue or red paper, standing on low plinths, and sitting and looking at a facilitator sitting directly opposite, will slow us down.

"Your heart slows down, your thinking process slows down, it brings you into a different cosmos," she says. "The only time we don't think, it is scientifically proven, is when we sneeze and when we orgasm."

Marina Abramovic: In Residence, which is free and presented by John Kaldor Public Art Projects, also features 12 Australian artists living upstairs in small wooden bedrooms while conducting their own experiments, and giving talks, under the gaze of the public.

Over the years Abramovic​, who is here, walking and smiling among us in a black quilted jacket, long black coat, her hair pulled back in a low ponytail, has learnt much about human nature.

"Unconditional love is everything," she tells me afterwards. "My purpose is to lift the human spirit."

She also wants, she says, to show people what it is like to not to have a phone for a period of time.

On the trip back, I notice eight people waiting at a city intersection to cross the road. Every one is looking at a mobile phone, heads bowed, eyes and minds hijacked by tiny screens taking them away from themselves, their surrounds, and the sense of life around them.