BY NATHAN CRANFORD
Last weekend at the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, I had the unique opportunity to view a showcase by two of the major figures of contemporary performance art: the husband and wife team Eiko Otake and Takashi Koma Otake, more popularly known simply as Eiko and Koma.
Eiko & Koma, Fragile ‐ Photo by Anna Lee Campbell.
Due to the rather abstract and often disturbing elements of performance art, the art form has never truly gained popularity with the public-at-large, or even with semi-mainstream art enthusiasts. In fact, the art form has its roots in Dadaism and the “cruel” theater of Antonin Artaud in the early 20th Century– both distinctly European vehicles for artistic expression that squarely challenge what connoisseurs should expect from art. The performance art we know of today grew from this earlier tradition (if one can even call it a “tradition”), however, the artists Eiko and Koma have done much over nearly four decades to expand our perception of performance art to include not only their own distinct contributions to the form, but also their experience as Japanese nationals who witnessed some of the most horrific events in world history.
The duo’s performance last weekend was titled Fragile, and rightly so. Everything about the event could be described as “fragile” in some way. Even the room itself had an air of fragility that was often punctuated by long, drawn out silences when the background music provided by the Kronos Quartet would become conspicuously absent. I often had to adjust my way of walking in such a way that would not break the silence permeating the room–giving new meaning to the expression “walking on eggshells.”
Thematically, the concept of the “egg” seemed very apparent, particularly when one considers the fragility associated with the incubation of life before birth, or perhaps more appropriately, rebirth. One could tell that “Fragile” is a continuation of a much larger, overarching narrative that is told at each performance by Eiko and Koma’s artistry– with each performance serving as chapters to a long, tumultuous story with no discernible ending in sight. What I was greeted with once I entered the forum was a huge curtain that blocked off my direct view of the artists and the string quartet within. The curtain seemed oddly “placenta-like,” covered in raven feathers, and spotted with small holes, which invited many (including myself) to act as “voyeurs” in order to get a peek at what was going on within. However, at each corner of the square curtains that surrounded the duo was an opening through which the audience could enter the “egg” and watch the art literally unfold before their eyes.
Eiko and Koma’s performative metaphor for the contemporary history of Japan –marked by tremendous natural and man-made disasters and the persistent need to move on from them somehow– was certainly not lost on me as I attempted to connect intellectually with their work. As many have come to expect from their artistry, Eiko and Koma’s performance art is immediately recognizable by their slow, calculated, and almost fetal movements. The scene of these two humanoid creatures, writhing ever so slowly on a bed of reeds, dirt and raven feathers reminded me, visually and contextually, of an experimental art film by E. Elias Merhige entitled Begotten. Although Eiko and Koma’s Fragile doesn’t attempt to reach the visceral level of Merhige’s masterpiece, its exploration of the darkness that often precedes the genesis of new life certainly makes the two works apt for comparison.
Eiko & Koma, Fragile ‐ Photo by Anna Lee Campbell.
The Kronos String Quartet proved to be a perfect accompaniment to Eiko and Koma’s performance, both sonically and visually. The four musicians played several pieces by several modern and contemporary composers that added a sort of ethereal musical aura to the whole scene. As mentioned earlier, even the drawn-out silences that separate each piece contribute something to the unfolding art work to emphasize the frailty of a world that could suddenly find itself without music or even sound. The music was also accompanied by a tape track that would play sounds from what can only be described as the “real world,” which included rocket lift-off countdowns and speeches by famous world leaders.
Although this was my first experience viewing a performance by the famed artists Eiko and Koma, I must admit my expectations, however limited they were prior to my viewing of their art, were quite fortunately surpassed. Not only was I introduced first hand to the art work of these two internationally prominent performance artists, but I developed an appreciation for an art form I sometimes previously scuttled to the margins of what I considered to be “art.” Indeed, like the European Dadaists of the 20th Century, Eiko and Koma have continued their long tradition of connecting with their audience, not with words, music or color, but with the slow, graceful, and at times, tortured movements of the human body. Their art lives on as a narrative, not only of their own lives and experiences, but also that of their country and this world which we all share.