Sunday, May 10, 2020

Artists Reach Out: Eiko Otake

Dear friends,

Welcome to Artists Reach Out: reflections in a time of isolation. I dreamed this series of interviews out of grief for my work both as a documenting arts writer and curator of live performance. In this time of social distancing, we are called to responsibly do all we can to safeguard ourselves and our neighbors. It is, literally, a matter of life and death.

But there's no distancing around what we still can share with one another--our experiences, thoughts, wisdom, humor, hearts and spirit. In some ways, there are more opportunities to do so as we pull back from everyday busyness out in the world and have time to honor the call of our inner lives.

So, let me introduce you to some artists I find interesting. I'm glad they're part of our beautiful community, and I'm eager to engage with them again (or for the first time) in years to come.

--Eva Yaa Asantewaa, InfiniteBody


Eiko Otake


Eiko Otake
(photo courtesy of the artist)


Born and raised in Japan and a resident of New York since 1976, Eiko Otake is a movement–based, interdisciplinary artist. She worked for more than 40 years as Eiko & Koma, but since 2014 has been performing her own solo project A Body in Places. In 2017, she launched a multi-year Duet Project that she directs and performs with a diverse range of artists.

After studying with Kazuo Ohno and Tatsumi Hijikata in Japan and Manja Chmiel in Germany, Eiko & Koma created 46 interdisciplinary performance works, two career exhibitions, and numerous media works. Always performing their own choreography, Eiko & Koma usually designed and handcrafted all aspects of their works including sets, costumes, texts, and sound. They presented their works in theaters, universities, museums, galleries, and outdoor sites.

Eiko’s solo project began with a 12-hour performance of A Body in a Station at the Philadelphia Amtrak station. Since then, Eiko has performed variations of the project at over 40 sites. She also collaborates with photographer and historian William Johnston, visiting post-nuclear-meltdown Fukushima several times to create photo exhibitions and video installations, which have been presented in many cities. In the spring of 2016, she was the subject of the 10th annual Danspace Platform, entitled A Body in Places, a month-long curated program that included daily solos, weekly installations, a film series, a book club, discussions, group solo shows, Talking Duets. and a 24-hour photo exhibition of A Body in Fukushima. In November 2017, she performed with seven-hour-long video distillations of William Johnston’s photographs taken in Fukushima at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Cloisters, and the Met Breuer. She was a think tank fellow at Wesleyan University’s College of Environment in 2017-2018.


Eiko Otake performing in Valparaiso, Chile
(photo: William Johnston)

Eiko Otake performing in Hong Kong
(photo: CPAK Studio)


Do you have a current or planned project whose progress is affected by the pandemic?

My spring/summer was densely scheduled with performances and creative residencies. All were cancelled or postponed. I rehearsed until March 12 for a performance scheduled on March 24. That was supposed to be the first public event of my three-year artist residency at the Brooklyn Botanical Garden. Though I spent a long time thinking about possibilities with plants and botanists, now I do not know if the idea will be revived in the future. My July performance in Greenwood Cemetery in Brooklyn is also postponed. Even when it becomes possible to do so, performing in a graveyard will evoke serious associations to the victims of this pandemic, which will require careful and thoughtful planning.

My fall tours of The Duet Project are also postponed. This will oblige me to change how I prepare towards my New York season in the spring of 2021. I had originally counted on these tours and residencies to further develop and experiment on the project. My collaborators live in different states (one in China), and I am now in Japan without knowing when I can return to New York. It is hard to plan rendezvous so I now spend time recalling past encounters.

Briefly, tell me about how you got involved in the arts and in your particular practice.

As a child I was a bookworm and often ill. My father was a Communist but worked in a bank. We moved a lot, so I was always a stranger. As a teen, I was a student activist and wannabe writer in Tokyo. At 19, at the time of political despair, I saw a small strange dance event choreographed by Tatsumi Hijikata. I did not like it, but it made me curious to find what it was that I saw. I went to Hijikata’s studio and lived and worked there for three months. Though I joined rehearsals and performed in his choreography, I never meant to stay there long. I met Koma there, and we left to work together. We also studied with Kazuo Ohno. He was a very different teacher. Every class was improvisation.

When we left Japan for Europe, I was a 20 year old, Political Science major drop out, Koma older but the same. We took many classes in a short period. We traveled and performed. Soon, I began having pain in one foot. An operation did not help. I began moving on the floor. I wanted to feel out New York before I stopped performing. When the Vietnam War ended, we came to New York and later immigrated to the US. I danced seaweed, a seal, amoeba, and slug while slowly recovering from an injury. 

As Eiko & Koma, we created many works. But we had very little formal training on anything. We choreographed, performed, enjoyed making flyers, sets, sound, poems, lights, and projections. We collaborated with other artists but never worked with any director or a choreographer since the three months with Hijikata. We performed naked in many pieces, and that made me want to be naked even when I am clothed. So I am not so much a dancer as a performer who does many other things nakedly.

After 40 years of that, especially after our three-year-long retrospective, I experimented performing alone in public places mostly with free admission and liked it a lot. I was very active for four years as a soloist but rarely performed in theaters. I also edited videos and created installations. I work long hours alone as doing so does not cost me. And I can take time.

Now I work with others. I am deep into my current Duet Project and work with artists of diverse backgrounds. I also collaborate with those who have passed away--poet C.D Wright, my grandfather, my mother, and friend Sam Miller. By dancing with the dead, I continue to converse with them. 

In a more specific way, what are you practicing? And what are you envisioning?

Before these Corona days, I had spent a lot of time out of town. I hope such days will return.

I consider myself a perpetual traveler and immigrant. This life has required constant adjusting. What I  am not willing to adjust is what I need to protect. I practice both being insistent and being flexible.

I do not have daily or weekly routines, and I do not take classes. I had mostly rehearsed/performed on sites rather than moving/dancing routinely in studios. I work where I can, trying to do the task I signed up on. On tour, I am mainly a performer. At home, I am a video editor, communicator, and my own administrator. These two alternating periods complement each other. I can do any of these for a long time excessively and repeatedly. 

Now under the Corona emergency order in Japan, I spend my days working at my mother’s small house that she left me. At the same time, I am at my Virtual Creative Residency hosted by Wesleyan University Center for the Arts. The invitation came a day before I left New York. Unlike travelling to residencies with a set project and working in facilities provided, I took time to imagine what I wanted to do virtually and how. During the required quarantine, I built the architecture of a virtual studio, with different rooms.  I have worked on various short pieces, dialogues, writings, and experiments, taking as much time at each as needed.

Off my laptop, I take walks, cook, sleep, read, listen, watch and take baths, all longer than usual. I think a lot about New York and friends who are there. Not sure which I call practice and which not. Many I call work, even when I talk to friends. When my mind is in the details is when I feel I am working.

Days and weeks pass somehow faster with my calendar blank. I have been in Japan for seven weeks with nowhere to go but this neighborhood and this virtual studio. Imagination can travel, however. And I have many memories to taste.

I believe I am shaping my “later work.” I want to articulate better with or without words. I observe not only my body but also other beings move. Time and landscape are moving. Visibly. There are often earthquakes here. Japan’s spring is windy. Plants grow rapidly. Society is moving. The virus is moving. Some bodies get ill. That is movement, too, sadly.

Socially and politically, are we moving or being shuffled? Sometimes, I hurry to pick what is being pushed away. In that, I practice, rather consciously, how to resist momentum. The momentum is often dangerous because risk-taking becomes pleasure. From time to time, I practice sabotage, trying to devolve to the time when nights were dark, when our bodies crawled on the floor. I was awake all night until I saw morning light. 

What am I envisioning? Long ago, I decided I do not end a writing or speech with a question. It sounds too smart to be me. Instead, I try to answer my own question. They are clumsy and temporary. I do not have to laugh or smile but I want to have an inner grin. I want to grapple with things, taking necessary time. I want to remember I do things that way.

My mother had a good death. I hope to die a good death, a personal death. I wish no one is deprived of a good death but many people are.

I will remember this sadness.
The morning light in a small garden.

How does your practice and your visioning align with what you most care about?

I have a hard time answering “what is most” questions. It is hard to prioritize what I care about. Various matters I care about are connected in the bottom. Islands are not actually separated. They are branches of a tree.

An answer seems to change depending on where and when and what I am capable of doing and inclined to do. I often do things I can only do then and there. I would rather regret doing things rather than regret not doing things. That is effortful. I want to make myself available for that effort. To become trusted, I need to trust myself. I love performing because I make many decisions while performing. I betray my preparations and choreography. By doing that, I learn to trust myself.

I do not choreograph in studios. Going to places is my choreography.  A resolve to go and a promise to dance. Being in Fukushima or Death Valley informs what I do in these places.

How does your practice function within the world we have now?

I really do not know how it functions if “function” implies being useful. Since I came to Japan seven weeks ago, I have edited several short video works. Most are the footage shot some time ago but, because I am editing them now, my choices reflect my current mood and needs. A friend said she played my video on her cell phone screen. She felt it was like seeing a bird sitting on her palm. That surprised and pleased me. I make things without really knowing how they might function.

While editing, I make many small decisions. It is a dance. From time to time, I find possibilities of beauty that are not pretty. I am aware that many people continue to be busy during the pandemic. Friends send each other digital offerings. I do some of that because I want to share, but I am also hesitant. That is why instead of reaching out often and wide, I created a virtual studio where those who want are invited to visit now or later.

I am not making things only to share virtually. I eagerly wait for the time we can gather. I imagine showing the works in a real place. People then might notice I made these during the pandemic. They remember the time. I also experiment with tools we use such as Zoom. They have default settings with default choices. That are not real choices. I try to ignore or stretch “the look” of technology even a little bit, but I realize perhaps it's better to learn how and when not to use it.

In all, I am practicing self-curation. By selecting collaborators, learning places, and working candidly with others, self-curation becomes actually a series of co-curation. And that I think remains important for many of us, perhaps increasingly so now.

Please visit me at my Virtual Studio at https://www.eikootake.org/virtual-studio now or later.

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DISCLAIMER: In addition to my work on InfiniteBody, I serve as Senior Curatorial Director of Gibney. The postings on this site are my own and do not necessarily reflect the views, strategies or opinions of Gibney.

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