As Eiko & Koma’s performance of Naked unfolds throughout the month of November in a Walker gallery—six hours a day, six days a week—time takes on new meanings. Visitors are free to watch for a few minutes or a few hours, but whether or not they return to experience this durational “living installation” as it evolves, its dimensions extend beyond the existing gallery space and the immediate moment.
You are invited to join the Walker’s McGuire Senior Curator of Performing Arts, Philip Bither, for an unique conversation with the artists Thursday October 28th to discuss their upcoming performance of Naked, their past work, and their three-year, multi-city retrospective project.
To whet your appetite for what is sure to be a fabulous conversation, here is an excerpt of an interview given earlier this year between Bither and Eiko Otake.
Philip Bither: Naked comes some 12 years after you and Koma performed Breath at the Whitney Museum of American Art, a piece that took place throughout the month of June in 1998. Why did you want to make another “living installation,” and what did you learn from Breath that you will incorporate into Naked?
Eiko Otake: We think that the body offers a radical questioning, particularly in a museum context—not asking questions necessarily, but questioning as a state of being. For us a body, or the acute sense of remains or the lack of a body, is always a part of our artistic pursuit and a larger conception of a possibility for art. It is a frame and a space: A body gives other objects and situations scale and reference. Through other projects during the 12 years since Breath—including large-scale theatrical works, outdoor works, and international and multigenerational collaborations—we have continued our interest in exploring thirst and hunger as bodily needs that correlate with a thirst and hunger for intimacy, relationships, and interactions. By coming back to live and move in a gallery, we hope to collapse the time passed since Breath, a time in which we have lingered as much as we have aged. We are inviting a close look at another one-month period of time in our bodies, saying to our audience: Linger, stay here with your eyes, live and kinetically observe how our bodies move toward death.
Bither: Naked is a part of your three-year Retrospective Project currently underway, which takes you and Koma to numerous cities throughout the United States for performances and residences, and includes a major catalogue published by the Walker. How has all of that impacted the nature and content of Naked?
Eiko: Archiving our work forces us deal with memories, traces, facts, photos, and words. This process has given us a new appetite, a desire for a place that is beyond memory and facts—a no man’s land. The archiving effort also made us see several continuous desires we have carried for decades, which have influenced Naked. Instead of crowding every wall space, we filled one half of the room with scorched material but the other half is left black: barren, like another world. Our bodies exist near what looks like an island or raft, or maybe debris washed up on shore. This set carries various memories and smells from our ancient past, as well as visual motifs from our artistic history together.
Bither: It will also be a part of the exhibition Event Horizon, which showcases artworks from the Walker’s collection. How have those objects affected what you are making or the viewer’s experience?
Eiko: Our work as a living installation walks a fine line between an ephemeral artwork and tangible existence. There are nuances occurring in specific time periods that have the possibility to go beyond that time. The fact that we are in a “permanent collection” at all adds an interesting context; it forces viewers to confront the materiality of what they are seeing.
Bither: How has creating Naked as a Walker commission furthered your practice?
Eiko: Rarely do we have an invitation to literally reside in an environment we create, and to be seen for a length of time. We can fully engage in our kinetic imagination, which includes being there and being gone. Thus we will also reflect on how being there for a month could possibly create remains. Will the tangible object to which we press our bodies retain the traces of our living? Is creating tangible and material art a paradox for dancers who are aging and within decades of dying? The Walker is giving us the opportunity to “linger,” not for eternity but a little bit longer than with our stage works. How this “little bit longer” can relate to eternity is as yet unknown.
Bither: With respect to audiences, how is a durational performance different from presenting a specifically timed work in a theater?
Eiko: In theater, there are set rules of what to see and what not to see, how to behave, and what it is to be an audience. In a theater we serve for a condensed time, so that the audience can go home with some kind of understanding of what happened. However, with Naked, there is no beginning, middle, or ending except a bigger and more common time frame: we were born, are here, and will be gone. 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 how clouds move outside a window, or at the same time family members observe a patient 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.
Bither: Does the close proximity of viewers in a gallery setting change how you and Koma make the work and place yourselves in it?
Eiko: We have always wanted to be naked, sometimes physically but more times metaphorically. Close proximity does bring a nakedness to our human encounters, and it is a singularly important element of this installation. Being seen and seeing is tender, ambiguous, odd—it asks the viewer to observe details. A viewer can see the expanse of the whole body as well as very small parts of it. Each person looks at us and we look at each person and beyond. We offer bodies to be seen, but we also see viewers’ bodies watching us.
Bither: You have said before that even if people only spend a few minutes watching a performance, those minutes may stay with them for years. What does that belief mean for this type of durational performance, when people may watch for varying spans of time?
Eiko: One cannot judge one person’s experience by comparing it to another’s. Nor can the quality of a personal experience be quantified. We hope that people do not go home thinking they did not see enough. We also hope those who stay longer or who come back do not feel that that investment does not bring them more. People sometimes say it is better to send people home feeling that they have not seen enough so they want to come back. Koma and I take a contrary view. Regardless of how short or long an encounter might be, we hope that it is full and stands on its own.
Bither: Have you and Koma done special physical or mental training leading up to this work?
Eiko: We imagine being there and that is our preparation. Fruits, vegetables, and fishes perhaps anticipate being seen and eaten and thus shine.
Bither: How would you describe your relationship or history with the Twin Cities?
Eiko: We appreciate the sense of knowing a place, and us being a part of its history. It is exciting for us to encounter viewers at various points in their lives and ours. There is a sizable audience in the Twin Cities who remember and communicate their experiences of seeing us perform. That time-invested viewership, granted often to writers and filmmakers, is relatively rare for performing artists.
Bither: What are you most looking forward to discovering?
Eiko: We want to go somewhere barren, and we want to see if people would also like to be there with us.
We hope you will join us for this free event Thursday October 28th at 7:00pm in the McGuire Theater. Talking Dance is the only time the artists will speak publicly about their work in the Twin Cities, so be sure not to miss it!