TEXT: LAURA MCINTYRE '17
PHOTOS: WILLIAM JOHNSTOWN
I thought the last time I would ever see Eiko Otake was when she was crawling around in a gauze-covered carriage, in the lobby of the Museum of Modern Art in New York City. She was so slow in her movement it almost looked like she wasn’t moving at all. (I’ve learned that dance, like art, is so open to interpretation these days that lack of movement maybe implies movement, and therefore can be considered dance just as much as the tango can be). Beyond Eiko’s mummy-like dance, and the cocoon box, it was particularly strange because I’d seen her by chance in a dance performance the night before. She and her longtime partner Koma, as they slowly shed more and more clothing, slapped each other with bouquets of flowers and crawled across the stage, their bodies like viscous tubes only willing to inch, slowly, smoothly, towards a destination.
Eiko belied my conceptions of dance. And performance, and space, and beauty, but let’s just keep it simple. I thought it was weird, and I couldn’t take it in. I didn’t think I would see her again.
But Wesleyan seems to attract things and people I once thought “weird”, which has provided on several occasions an opportunity for me to rewrite naive interpretations I once held, thank goodness. I really wasn’t surprised when I saw Eiko on the stage at the artist talk, her body in that distinctive almost-motionless movement. Time makes the heart grow fonder, and, although less commonly noted in inspirational quote books, time also makes the mind more open. I was kind of happy to see her.
Eiko worked with William Johnston, a history professor at Wes, on a photography project, A Body in Fukushima, documenting abandoned areas in Fukushima, Japan. Much of the region remains wrecked in wake of the earthquake and tsunami that hit in March 2011. Radioactivity lies dormant in everything, from grass pastures to otherwise functioning bicycles and washing machines. Explosions at the Daiichi nuclear plant made the area uninhabitable, which, Eiko said, demonstrates the irresponsibility of Japan’s decision to build so many nuclear plants along the coasts in the first place. Eiko approached this project with her art form, but also with a personal tie to the stage on which she would dance. It would not be a theater, but rather the soil and streets of her birthplace.
The photographs from the two trips Eiko and William took to Fukushima, in January and July of 2014, reminded me of playing tennis the morning after my grandfather’s funeral. That’s a jump, but bear with me. There was this knowledge that even the best weather and topspin would be beset by the melancholy of yesterday. It was fun, but not completely. It was distracting, but memories lurked during water breaks. The Fukushima photos felt the same way. They are beautiful in their composition, in their colors, in how Eiko, herself draped in hand-sewn kimono, then drapes her body around objects, along cement blocks, against crumbling columns. But there’s this awareness that such beauty is only possible because destruction preceded it. The content of the photo can only be looked at for so long before you’re forced to remember how that content – heaps of radioactive home appliances, collapsed sea walls, abandoned residential streets – came to be.
The reason the greenery is so lush in one set of train station photos is because train stations are useless if there are no people, as therefore there are no running trains. The tracks are covered in thick layers of vines and leaves from months of no use.
Before Eiko did this project, the Transportation Commissioner of Philadelphia had stopped over at her house and had asked her to do a performance at Philadelphia’s 30th Street Train Station. He didn’t propose an idea; he just wanted her to do something. When she visited the station to figure it out, she noticed, "Everyone was alone, because if you are with two or three people, you take a car. Amtrak is so expensive." Eiko performed a series of pieces to emphasize, in part, how the station enables transitions not only from place to place, but from life stage to life stage, with commuters going from high school to college, or home to work, or job to job, via the train routes.
The vacant train stations of Fukushima became the backdrop for the project’s photos, under the premise that with no people, there is no ability for transition. The stations became symbolic of the region’s halted state in the earthquake’s radioactive wake.
The cover photo for the project sums it up. Eiko, atop a violet blanket, leans off the ledge of a train platform, as if she’s about to fall onto the tracks. If a train passed by, she’d be dead. But there’s the assumption in this photo – and in the conception of this project – that this won't happen. Nothing’s coming to or going from Fukushima. Transition isn’t happening. Dance and photo, though, can capture its stagnation, and render it striking enough to put on a wall, in a gallery. It doesn’t seem weird to see this woman’s body so emotive and contorted amidst industrial ruin. It seems like something she would take part in, by this third encounter with Eiko.