The ancient Greeks had two words for time: “Chronos,” a chronological and sequential series of events, and “Kairos,” an undetermined “space between,” in which something special happens. Eiko and Koma’s Naked, a 10-day living installation and marathon-like live performance at the Baryshnikov Arts Center, epitomized the latter through their signature naturalistic aesthetic, unabashedly unclothed bodies, and snail-like pace of movement. The installation, a component of the couple’s three-year retrospective project (which kicked off in 2009), felt simultaneously uneventful and completely riveting. While I’m still not totally sure how to convey my experience through words, I felt like Naked provided a haunting and generous opportunity for me to slow down and inhabit a physical space where my mind could both wander and remain raptly attuned.
I should first say that I had the privilege of studying with Eiko Otake while she was a visiting artist at Wesleyan University and consider her to be one of my biggest inspirations, though my own artistic interests have little to do with the style of slow, Butoh-like, “delicious movement” that she has developed over four decades of performing with her partner Koma. There’s a dedication and personal integrity to their work that feels immovable and intensely magnetic. Today, I still keep one of her artist manifestos taped to my door, which includes (the aptly put) #11: “Be naked metaphorically and (not or) physically.”
Naked was roughly divided into two rooms. One studio consisted of different video excerpts from previous performances, viewed through watery projections. There were a number of old publicity postcards, warped and drying in a big pile of salt (aged like the performers?) as well as a stack of paper inviting the audience to make their own drawings of the two. This sense of openness and generosity, combined with the placement of chairs and cushions around the studios, seemed to put most people at ease (I watched a man do his crossword there for almost an hour).
Additionally, the long installation hours and free admission created a feeling of gentle curiosity and minimized some of the expectations of entertainment that often creep into theater-based performance (I later learned, through Gia Kourlass’ interview in Time Out New York, that Eiko and Koma had forgone their artist fees to keep the installation free to the public). You could immediately tell that the artists and designers of the space took their work seriously, without necessarily trying to force the audience into having one particular viewing experience.
The other studio in Naked, silent but for the whirring of fans and the drips of melting ice suspended from the ceiling, was divided by the same burnt and feathered canvas used previously in Raven, a 2010 piece that premiered at Danspace, featuring Native American drumming by Robert Mirabal. The canvas created a central space in which the duo performed (with short breaks) for four and five hours at a time. Despite being set on the sixth floor of a modern New York City skyscraper, the environment felt surprisingly naturalistic (a feat unto itself): Eiko and Koma moved unclothed slowly over a nest of straw, feathers, and soil, occasionally opening their eyes or touching one another. Sometimes they seemed human, like a primordial Adam and Eve, molded hastily out of clay, but more often they seemed like ancient, non-living beings, operating more on the scale of floating glaciers and colliding mountains than that of the typical human world.
There was something to that space between human and non-human that felt powerful and original; it allowed my mind to wander from their protruding bones, muscles, and matted hair to whatever else floated into my subconscious. I’ve always found daydreaming while watching moving bodies to be an incredibly powerful and creative state. As my energy and brain slowed down, my mind drifted to places I’d been and people I’d known, and before I realized it, I had spent almost three hours there. When I caught myself in the daydream and returned my attention to the installation, I was drawn anew to the wetness of the soil, feel of the moving air, and slow breathing of the performers. It was like they had disappeared into their work, thereby giving me permission to disappear into my own mind. There seemed to be an awareness on behalf of the artists, even an invitation, perhaps, that such an audience reaction might occur. Perhaps being distracted can truly bring an audience into the present.
As I reflected on my time at Naked, it felt to me like Eiko and Koma were performing long before I arrived and would continue to perform long after I left the space, like I had accidentally stumbled into something timeless and everlasting. Perhaps there’s some sort of bigger truth to that idea; we briefly pop into this human world for a lifetime, only to abruptly depart and disintegrate as it steadily continues onwards. As I look at Eiko’s manifesto again, my eye falls to #7: “Work, rest (not stop), dream, enjoy, and continue to work.” I like that idea a lot.