Tuesday, April 5th, 2011

A Seamless Part of the Landscape: Eiko & Koma

Eiko & Koma: Naked at the Baryshnikov Arts Center

March 29 – April 9, 2011
450 West 37th Street, east of 10th Avenue,
New York City, (646) 731-3200

Eiko & Koma: Naked, a performance, photographed by Anna Lee Campbell, courtesy of the artists.
Eiko & Koma: Naked, a performance, photographed by Anna Lee Campbell, courtesy of the artists.

Eiko & Koma’s Naked, at Baryshnikov Arts Center (BAC) through April 9th, is a living installation accompanied, in a neighboring room, by videos of historical performances; it  is the current installment of the three-year Retrospective Project highlighting the 40-year career of this artist duo. The durational performance, which inhabits a small, enclosed, nest-like area where viewers can either sit and stay or browse for a minute and move on, was designed for and originally installed last November in a gallery at the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis. Despite the fact that Eiko & Koma have a long history as dance artists, the piece seems out of place at the destination theatre and dance venue of BAC. Installation in the 6th floor studios is not ideal for the work, which is a pocket of man-made nature more effectively stumbled upon than ticketed and controlled as in traditional theater. But the artists have done their best with this location; the work is free and open to the public any time and reservations are not absolutely necessary. You can enter and leave, at your leisure, a still space where the quiet, subtly painted naked bodies of a husband and wife barely touch, barely move, and yet pack a lifetime of craft, energy, and artistry into thoughtfully designed and extended moments.

Floor to ceiling canvas walls create a break between the entrance to studio 6A and Eiko & Koma’s bodies, which lie on the floor atop a messy swirl of leaves, twigs and black bird feathers. Holes in the canvas walls create little frames you can peer through to see the two of them, seemingly alone in the space. The small holes in the canvas, which itself is pasted with feathers and black marks as if intentionally dirtied by some natural habitat, creates a sense of distance between viewer and performer. Once around the corner and inside the small enclosure with the artists as well as the sometimes fully packed rows of floor and bench seating, this distance is completely gone. The artists’ two bodies were lying on their sides, facing one another, when I first entered. During the time I sat still and watched, there was no real change in their physical location, but there was an ever present tension of muscle, and ever-so-slight twists of each body open, exposing skin stretched tight over ribs, breath lifting bellies. After some time, the bodies closed into hiding, softly quivering fetal positions. The two did not move in unison, but played off of one another, appearing to sense and respond to the slight movements and occasional, always tender touches of their partner. One wonders how much of this action was planned and how much happened in the moment, and, after so many years of moving at glacial speed next to the same person, whether there is really any significant difference between planning and improvisation in their action.

Despite the nakedness of this performance, like Anna Halprin’s approach to nudity, the work is not sexual. The bodies on view are not specifically desexualized, but the actions themselves are already so fallen, closer to being of nature in the nearly dead sense than in the procreative animal sense—a seamless part of the landscape rather than an insertion onto landscape. There is no power struggle between the two bodies or with the bodies and the environment, which feels damp, like a cave; the only acoustics are random drips of water that fall from the ceiling and the rustling of dried leaves that hang in bunches from the overhead lights. Watching this nearly still tableau is unexpectedly riveting: time flies. In the next room, viewers are meant to understand the history of Eiko and Koma’s nakedness and its connection to the natural world, and how their work arrived at this point. Videos on display show works from the last 40 years in which the artists perform with nothing on. This room serves as an unintentional argument for the necessity of live performance—the performance documents, even the video installation that includes an underwater screen showing the couple’s Lament (1985) and Undertow (1987), clearly lack the moment-by-moment power of the living installation.

But the element of continuity and history that the accompanying videos bring into the work is the principal reason that Eiko & Koma are performing this week. Retrospective Project (2009-2012), of which Naked is a part, is designed after the museum-model concept for retrospectives: a visual art formula adapted and applied to performing artists. A large exhibition of the duo’s work will open at the Chicago Museum of Contemporary Art this summer, accompanied by a comprehensive 288-page monograph published by the Walker Art Center. With living performance artists, the video and ephemera based retrospective is a worthy accompaniment to an opportunity to see the real works, or at least the really interesting and exciting works, which are the new live performances by these artists. This was the case with Marina Abramovic’s retrospective at MoMA and it is certainly true for at least this portion of Eiko & Koma’s tour. Whether or not this model of performance artist as museum object can be sustained after the inevitable absence of the artist him/herself is a question curators will certainly be addressing in coming years as they rush to figure out ways to maintain famous but ephemeral works by canonized 20th-century artistic bodies-as-icons.  For now, at least, Eiko & Koma themselves are on the 6th floor at BAC, laying in a nest of sticks and leaves, slowly moving their aging, breathing bodies with what is transmitted as a feeling of complete acceptance of the viewers’ intimate gaze. If you sit for long enough, you’ll notice that sometimes, they even look back.

Eiko & Koma: Naked, a performance, photographed by Anna Lee Campbell, courtesy of the artists.
click to enlarge

Eiko & Koma: Naked, a performance, photographed by Anna Lee Campbell, courtesy of the artists.