On Performativity


Walker Living Collections Catalogue

Kinetic Observation

Viewing Eiko & Koma’s Naked

Kinetic Observation

Viewing Eiko & Koma’s Naked


In 2008, renowned Japanese movement artists Eiko & Koma presented Naked, a month-long “living” installation commissioned by the Walker Art Center and created specifically for its galleries. Offering an inside look at the work’s complicated process of realization as well as its reception, curator Bartholomew Ryan expounds on its universal themes of nakedness, desire, and death. “Eiko & Koma,” he writes “locate the body as concrete—lingering, perhaps, and contingent—but essential in its presence and absence.”

Ryan, Bartholomew. “Kinetic Observation: Viewing Eiko & Koma’s Naked.” In On Performativity, edited by Elizabeth Carpenter. Vol. 1 of Living Collections Catalogue. Minneapolis: Walker Art Center, 2014. http://walkerart.org/collections/publications/performativity/eiko-koma.
Walker Art Center ©2014
Eiko & Koma, Naked, Walker Art Center, November 2010. Photos: Cameron Wittig.

In 2008, the Walker Art Center began to prepare a new collection exhibition for its main galleries, concentrating on art from the late 1950s that engaged various reevaluations of the terms of medium specificity, by way of performative, conceptual, and other strategies. The desire was to speak more fully within a gallery context to the legacy of the Walker’s history as a multidisciplinary arts center, and to network—in an associative, nonhierarchical manner—various points of convergence and divergence among artists within the broad history of artistic practice over the past fifty years. The exhibition Event Horizon continued the Walker’s desire to frame within its understanding of the collection ephemeral, performance-based works. If the Walker commissioned projects by artists such as Merce Cunningham, Jason Moran, or Meredith Monk, could it not also claim that these should be considered part of the institution’s collection and afford them the respect of such an assignation? After all, the work had entered the collective memory of Twin Cities audiences; had resulted from deep collaboration between the artists, curators, and Walker support staff; and had lingered materially by way of the documentation, ephemera, and other content that made its way to the Walker’s archives. That so many of the performing artists who have worked with the Walker have returned numerous times makes them part of the institutional, but also metropolitan, memory bank.

It was in this context that Japanese American choreographers Eiko & Koma were invited to make a piece for the exhibition Event Horizon. Ultimately titled Naked, the monthlong “living installation” debuted in the Walker galleries in November 2010.1Eiko & Koma had enjoyed a long history at the Walker, where they had performed twelve separate pieces over the twenty-seven years since their first outing with the institution for the 1981 New American Dance Festival. That involvement had included numerous residencies and six commissions. Their work, emerging from an early training in Japanese butoh and German expressionist dance, has developed over the years into a deeply subjective visual/movement philosophy among the most distinctive in US dance, and is perhaps impossible to categorize outside of the evolving terms that they themselves have established around it. The core of the work is the body stripped bare, metaphorically and often physically reduced to its basic state, and from that tabula rasa exploring its position within the organic and social world. In an era dominated by digital networks of information and communication, where human consciousness is so often dispersed along virtual flows of information, Eiko & Koma locate the body as concrete—lingering, perhaps, and contingent—but essential in its presence and absence. They often draw on mythic narratives of life and nature by way of the particularized gestures of their own forms in space. Some of their works’ titles—Wind (1993), River (1995), Land (1991), Hunger (2008), Grain (2007), Lament (1985)—convey the determinant forces of geography, the elements, and the will to live that act as artistic collaborators in their elaboration of the human condition. Earning many accolades over the years—including a 1985 Guggenheim Fellowship, a 1996 MacArthur Foundation Fellowship Award, and a 2006 United States Artist Fellowship—the artists also found sustenance in the twin influences of the avant-garde anti-art movements in 1960s Tokyo, and the heterogeneous, individuated, post-formal approaches to performance of 1970s New York.

In spring 2009, longtime friend and dance advocate Sam Miller invited the artists to consider a Retrospective Project, which he would produce. He was motivated in part by a strong desire to preserve and contextualize the work with a project that was both reflective and generative.2 In April of 2009, thirty-nine arts presenters from more than twelve institutions, many of whom had working relationships with the artists, gathered at Wesleyan University to develop and conceptualize the three-year project. They decided to approach the idea of the retrospective with a broad scope that would allow multiple points of entry to the artist’s oeuvre. Naked, a living installation already in development, emerged as a key component of the project, a new work that would embody, as much as any could, the themes and approaches that have inspired Eiko & Koma since they first met in a studio in Tokyo in 1971.3

Eiko & Koma had invested deeply in gallery-based work before—Breath (1998) at the Whitney Museum of American Art set an important precedent for Naked. Eiko & Koma were invited to the museum by associate curator of film and video Matthew Yokobosky, who was attracted to the artists for the sculptural qualities they brought to movement and the aesthetic program that had been such a fundamental aspect of their development. He termed their work, “movement as installation,” making concrete its relation to the history of contemporary art by reference to the immersive environments of installation art. As dance theorist André Lepecki points out, the term fuses “a spatial and a kinetic dimension,” thereby confirming Eiko & Koma’s “fundamental concern in leveling all compositional elements on a non-hierarchical, non-vertical distribution of the sensible.”4 For Breath, Eiko & Koma designed an intricately detailed environment, using tea-stained, hand-sewn silk and thousands of dried leaves in autumnal colors to create a cavelike space. The work included three silent black-and-white videos of the dancers shot from multiple perspectives, which they projected to macroscopic proportions within the gallery; electric fans; and lighting shifts on a 90-minute loop.5 Performed seven hours a day during gallery hours for a full month (May 28 through June 21, 1998), the work concentrated on time and the mutable power of image-making, whether projected or found in the live micro-movements of the dancers.

Similarly, Naked took place in an area of the second gallery of the Walker’s 1971 Edward Larrabee Barnes–designed building, an elegant modernist tower with a series of seven galleries spiraling up its interior. Initially, the artists wished to make use of the potential for flow between their space and the other galleries; their thinking was to create an installation that would be visible and open from each of its two approaches, because they felt a strong desire to be in direct dialogue or even conflict with many of the static works on view. An early model for the project, composed in the artists’ New York apartment in the spring of 2010, featured a scaled-down version of a monumental worm, fish, or phalluslike object that they planned to build out of plastic inflatables wrapped in canvas. They wanted to cover it with an orange/red, scorched rice paste representing welts and cankers bespeaking plague or other unspeakable (atomic?) traumas.6 Other materials included a series of large vertical canvases designed to operate as movable screens, which would again be covered with rice paste and salt particles; but these would also contain human hair arranged by Koma into expressionistic sketches of shadowy people, mouths agape, caught in a harrowing moment of figuration. At the time, they discussed ways that the cankerous fish could serve as their bed and shelter that would periodically be dragged, flaking and grotesque, into the wider gallery, where they would remain with it potentially for many hours on any given day. At this point, they were also intending to use video projections, as with Breath, recorded sound effects, and various other external devices to compose the gallery experience.

Meanwhile, it was not yet defined whether the title would be a literal as well as metaphorical description of their presence. For a new work and the anchor of their Retrospective Project, it seemed that Naked had to meet the twin tasks of being alive to the new while remaining a conduit to their past. The naked body has that power to evoke birth and death, to demonstrate the bare life of a transitory humanity; ultimately, the simplicity of this analogy drove the direction of the installation and choreography in the ensuing months. In a 1984 interview, Eiko said of their process, “We don’t want to hunt for the dance, we want to distill to the dance.”7 The physical and mental stamina required for the project, particularly for two aging dancers, began to weigh on their minds. How to explore the terrain that seemed to be emerging as vital, and do so consistently for a grueling monthlong installation? They realized that they wished to avoid creating a hierarchy of experience in which different visitors at different parts of the day would encounter more or less dramatic moments.8

By the summer of 2010, the artists had distilled to the dance on a vastly simplified environment that they could control through lighting and other effects. A fortuitous three-month residency at the Park Avenue Armory, beginning in July of that year, gave them a chance to create a to-scale version of their installation, initiating probably their most productive period in the lead-up to Naked.9 At this stage, the Residency Project had been running for more than a year. Eiko described its influence thus: “The archiving effort also made us see several continuous desires we have carried for decades, which have influenced Naked.… This set carries various memories and smells from our ancient past, as well as visual motifs from our artistic history together.”10 An ongoing aspect of Eiko & Koma’s working method has been to take scenes, materials, movements, and phrases from previous works and build them into new projects. On one hand, this is a practical measure, as the artists often present several shorter works to make an evening-length program, which necessitates some through line of sets and materials. On the other hand, it is also related to their ongoing obsession with a few key themes. Their way of working rewards those with a long initiation into their practice, where it becomes possible to observe and track the new iterations of old devices in the pair’s ever-evolving vocabulary.11 For example, one of the cornerstones of the Retrospective Project is Raven (2010).12 Designed to be mobile and flexible, performed outdoors or in a theater or in galleries, it borrowed the motif of the raven from Hunger (2008), where it appeared both as an embodied physical gesture and as a motif in the monumental action painting of two young Cambodian dancers with whom Eiko & Koma collaborated.13 Raven also reprised music from Land, a 1991 performance with composition and live music by Robert Mirabal. If Raven borrowed from Hunger or Land, those pieces had borrowed from previous performances, and so the cycle continues. Raven’s scorched canvas flooring covered in rice paste, black avian feathers, and large sea-salt crystals would reappear as part of the Naked mise en scène.14 As Miller noted, Naked was “born from Breath and Raven,” by which he meant in part that it took the materials of the latter and combined it with the gallery-based ontology of the former—the lack of a definitive dramatic arc together with the ability of the audience to come and go at will.15

Naked’s threshold was marked by two giant, perpendicular canvas drops swathed in rice paste, black feathers, and large particles of sea salt. The hanging drops were dappled with scorched holes through which those outside could see in, and from which the lighting, smells, and aura on the interior could leak out into the surrounding gallery. Entering Naked meant passing through two main access points, crossing from gallery terrazzo to seared canvas flooring. Inside, facing into the space, were two long, low raw-plywood benches with black cushions. To either side there were also benches, so at any one time about twenty people could sit in the space and another ten or so stand behind the main benches or in the entrance corners. The canvas flooring, which determined the limit of the viewer’s reach, extended a few feet in front of the seating before forming a ragged coastline from which a wide sea of damp earth receded into the darkness covering most of the space in the environment. A few feet into the soil was a mound composed of burnt and crumpled canvas, straw, and a mass of feathers. It was here that Eiko & Koma lay, naked and on view. Any sound was generated within the environment itself, by way of the humming of twenty-odd electrical fans, which also created a gentle breeze that blew the feathers on the drops and elsewhere; and also a random dripping of water onto the soil that came by way of six plastic bottles of frozen water hung from the rigging so that their open caps faced the ground.16 For the viewer, the source of the drips was unknown, and was often a cause of fascination, creating a sometimes eerie accompaniment to the moving bodies of the dancers.

For six hours a day, six days a week, from November 2 through 30, 2010 (with a break on Thanksgiving Day), Eiko & Koma were present together in Naked. A viewer who entered the space at any time would see Koma lying, often in fetal position, on the right of the mound, and Eiko to the left, her body largely parallel to his. Both lay with their heads toward the audience. Where Koma was something of an anchor, rarely moving his entire body out of his initial position, though often turning his head backwards so his eyes roamed over the audience, Eiko would move more readily, sometimes rolling gradually away from the island, or lying on her back, legs searching out Koma’s or stretching across the soil. Often she would press her feet into the ground and push her body up into the air where it would roll gradually through space before allowing itself the respite of the ground again. She, like Koma, would also tilt her head toward the viewers, her eyes a key affective aspect of the viewer’s experience though nevertheless difficult to define, agonized perhaps, or preoccupied. Their bodies, covered entirely with white makeup, were slim and toned, but also aging and tired. Meanwhile, the lighting moved from warm to cold on the mound itself, accentuating shadows, muscle tone, and the eyes to different degrees during its 30-minute looped cycle. An emphasis was also put on the canvas drops, lit from the outside but also from within, with all-over floods, or subtle accentuations of various parts. Indeed, the area where the audience sat was not dark, but also became organically connected to the rest of the environment, likewise rising and falling in luminosity. The general effect was one in which exterior and interior, soil and canvas flooring, benches and raft, viewers and dancers, seemed to live within one complex ecosystem.

What became apparent shortly after the piece opened was that people took the work very seriously. While they were free to come and go as they pleased, many stayed for longer periods, at least fifteen minutes and in many instances more than an hour; and others returned several times on the same visit or over the month of the installation. The space was very warm, generally more than 75 degrees, kept at that temperature so that the artists, who were nude and fairly static, would not catch cold. In entering the world of Eiko & Koma, therefore, the audience made a commitment to a climate that was not directed toward their own comfort, but to the artists’, who in return were putting their naked bodies on display. This may seem trivial, but the response to Naked demonstrated a deeply felt contract between the dancers and the public. And here we linger in terminology that seems wholly inappropriate to the event: descriptive terms such as “performance” and “dance” become inadequate to the experience of a piece that did not map neatly onto any of those precedents. Rather, “living installation,” in which there is no distinct hierarchy between any element of the environment, from viewers to organic materials to Eiko & Koma, seems the best descriptor of the event. In an interview with Philip Bither, William and Nadine McGuire Senior Curator of Performing Arts at the Walker, in advance of Naked, Eiko said: “At the Walker, our bodies are available all the time. Movement occurs without serving the time-structure of a work. In a gallery installation, we spend the real time being there and people will see us for differing durations of time—like in a hospital, where a patient spends many hours observing and noticing how clouds move outside a window, or at the same time family members observe a patient is getting stronger or weaker. We will be a part of the installation; we will also be seeing, breathing, and hearing. That kind of body is not a dancer’s body.”17

The analogy of patient and family members gives some sense of the intimacy of the contract with the viewer that Eiko & Koma were conceptualizing. The response was one in which many seemed implicitly to understand that there was a generosity in the piece to which they were invited to respond, and the way they could most concretely do so was to remain, to give time to the work, to, in Eiko’s formulation, “Linger, stay here with your eyes, live and kinetically observe how our bodies move toward death.”18

Where Eiko & Koma acted as a locus for the living installation, much of the choreography involved the coming and going of the viewers themselves, the “kinetic observation” that was less voyeurism than an embodied negotiation of the terms of one’s own involvement in relation to (all) the other individuals in the space. Each person’s choreographic contribution was driven by some of the following questions: Is it easier to leave when others remain? What is it like to be alone with Eiko & Koma? To leave them when they’re alone with no one else to witness? To witness with your child? With a stranger? With a parent who is aging? To be that aging parent looking at a body a few feet from yours that is aging too? How does the piece relate to one’s own suffering: the pain of living, the person whom you have lost or who has been drifting away? What would it mean to have a companion like this? To be so intimately conscious and unconscious alongside? What is it to depart into the bright lights of the Walker galleries, the artworks unpopulated, static remnants of some past practice? Is it to lose something very unusual, and maybe even longed for?

In discussing some of the ideas or mind pictures that helped shape Naked, Eiko & Koma have referred, among other sources, to shinjū, the double suicide of lovers that is a key theme in Japanese mythology.19 Frequently, such relationships were doomed by distinctions of class, age, or clan, and the bond considered so shameful that the corpses would be denied funeral rites and left to decompose on the banks of a river. Lepecki writes about the artists’ relationship to the ground, so vital to so many of their works: “On the ground, their embrace of the horizontal is rather the activation of a necessary regime of quietness in which the body must become a conduit for micro-movements and align itself with a temporality that approximates it to a time-image; and with a horizontality that approximates it to the forces of the earth, turning a body into a kind of thing.”20 That Lepecki concentrates on the horizontal is appropriate, as few other terms can arrive at the key position, both literal and metaphorical, that the artists have occupied deliberately for so long. In turning the body into a kind of thing, they open it to many possibilities, and neutralize the socialized hierarchies that would otherwise beset it.

The grim end that the double suicide implies is infused with the ameliorating spirit of Eiko & Koma’s white dance when one considers the horizonal ethos that has driven them to consider it. In love, they bypass human prejudice and see each other as equals. Love’s horizontality allows them to make that greatest affirmation of life: the choice to leave it. In decomposing on the riverbanks, they may not enjoy human death rites, but these rites themselves have already been called into question, part of a social sphere that has made their love impossible. They have become “a kind of thing” on the banks of a river, and in this sense they are no better or worse than all the other kinds of things that populate the Earth. This horizontality is an assumption, through love, of passage between states, an acceptance of and veneration for the primordial generative status of atoms and cells, and the cycles of dissolution and revolution that drive them. It is the same horizontality that transforms the “audience” into the family member, and the “performer” into the patient who is being cared for by them, looking out the window at the clouds.

Bartholomew Ryan is an assistant curator at the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis, where he has been on staff since 2009. In 2013 he curated 9 Artists, a multigenerational group exhibition (with catalogue) that considers the changing role of the artist in contemporary culture, which opened at the Walker and traveled to the MIT’s List Visual Arts Center. Prior to that, Ryan co-curated Painter Painter (2013; publication); Pedro Reyes’ Baby Marx (2011); Goshka Macuga: It Broke from Within (2010; publication); and Eiko & Koma’s Naked (2010). Forthcoming projects for which he will serve on the curatorial team include Ralph Lemon’s Scaffold Room (2014) and International Pop (2015). Ryan holds an MA from the Center for Curatorial Studies at Bard College (2009) and has contributed to international publications such as Metropolis M, Kaleidoscope, and Artforum.