Reports from TBA 2019: Eiko Otake
Linda Wysong reviews the performance artist’s long-awaited return to Portland
OCTOBER 1, 2019 // VISUAL ART // OREGON ARTSWATCH

by LINDA WYSONG

Eiko Otake’s return to Portland, after her memorable performance with her longtime partner Koma of Offering at Jamison Square in 2003, has been eagerly awaited. In 2014, Eiko began to create as a solo artist and has developed an impressive body of work in a short time. Her work has been a highlight of the 2019 Portland Institute for Contemporary Art’s Time Based Art Festival (TBA at PICA) and Portlanders have immersed themselves in her powerful visions. Eiko’s Portland schedule included a segment of her ongoing performance series A Body in Places at PNCA on September 5; performances of The Duet Project: Distance is Malleable with Ishmael Houston and Iris MCloughan September 12, 13, and 14; a screening of her film A Body in Fukushima: Reflections on the Nuclear in Everyday Life at the Northwest Film Center on September 9; as well as an ongoing exhibition her prints, photography and videos at the Center for Contemporary Art & Culture at PNCA). The exhibition at PNCA is up through October 24. Additionally PICA arranged a noon-time conversation led by Portland artist Linda K. Johnson on September 13.

TBA19 Artist Eiko Otake in the street with a purple dress on
Eiko Otake, A Body in Fukushima. Yonomori, Tonomori. July 24, 2014. Photo credit: William Johnston

A Body in Places is a series around place with each performance unique in its response to the history and presence of the site. Eiko herself is the continuity and thread that activates and binds each place to the others. At PNCA, she first appeared on the upper balcony with her hair down and dressed in a kimono as she emerged slowly and silently from the folds of a purple futon. Although her slight figure might suggest fragility, Eiko emanates strength and determination. Her movements are not the stock vocabulary of modern dance but spring from the body’s core, as she reaches out and responds to the audience and the architecture. Touch is primary as her body forms both ritual-like shapes and those that evoke investigation and discovery.

Eiko’s vocabulary comes from her body and is often reinforced by a few simple pieces of clothing. The PNCA performance incorporated black and white kimonos, a purple blanket, and a dramatic red cloth. One could be tempted to call these items “props” but somehow that suggests a dusty item from a theater closet. These, instead, are Eiko’s personally resonant mementos. The tattered and patched red cloth that frequently serves as a wrap or foil is a piece of family history made from her grandmother and great grandmother’s kimonos and stitched together by her elderly mother, as she slipped away from this world and into another. This simple piece of fabric ties together four generations of women from Eiko’s family and by extension all women over time. A Body in Places at PNCA was not constructed as a linear composition but as a collection of provisional exploratory actions including plucking books from a library cart and seemingly impulsively sounding a piano. The performance culminated in Eiko fleeing the building entirely, racing out the door and crossing Glisan into the North Park Blocks.

tba19 artist Eiko Otake performing at PNCA
Eiko Otake, A Body in Places. Pacific Northwest College of Art, Portland. September 5, 2019. Photo Credit: Sarah Meadows

The movement vocabulary of A Body in Places: Portland is similar to the artist’s other offerings in Portland in 2019 (The Duet Project: Distance is Malleable and her powerful cycle, A Body in Fukushima: Reflections on the Nuclear in Everyday Life). These contemporary pieces are all remarkably different from the 2003 Jamison Square performance, Offering. Offering connected to the horizontal, non-hierarchical language developed with her collaborator Koma and familiar from previous works such as Fur Seal (1977) and Wallow (1984). In these works, a resonance with plants and animals and an underlying vibration infuses the slow macro movements with a life energy. Offering is performed by humans and for humans but equally refuses the vertical anthropomorphic stance of dominance. Eiko and Koma move in concert with terrestrial and aquatic creatures of the earth as soundless slowly evolving dance sculptures that feel both familiar and other worldly.

In contrast, the newer projects focus on the human experience, particularly loss, destruction and pain. In Eiko’s mainstage performance at PICA, The Duet Project: Distance is Malleable, the audience faced 3 large projections that illuminated and divided the space but equally allowed for the interaction of the three performers. Each of the three dancers, Eiko, Ishmael Houston-Jones and Iris McCloughan each have solo moments but Eiko directs. Houston-Jones wrestles with a cinder block confronting the physical wall as well as the angst of borders and separation. McCloughan moves with and creates text around memory and loss. Eiko screams with rage and sorrow at the death of both her mother and her dear friend, the poet C. D. Wright. The final scene of Distance is Malleable finds Eiko wrapped in fragments of flowers with a printed image of her deceased Mother, crystalizing the all too human experience of death as she mourns for others and contemplates our own.

a still from Eiko Otake film where she drags a long red fabric on a causeway in Japan
Eiko Otake, A Body in Fukushima. Yasawa, Fukushima, No. 451. Summer 2016. Photo credit: William Johnston.

Death is also at the center of the film A Body in Fukushima: Reflections on the Nuclear in Everyday Life. Fukushima was a site of a triple disaster in March 2011: an earthquake, a tsunami and the nuclear meltdown of the Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant. After the tsunami caused by the earthquake, huge explosions sent plumes of radioactive debris into the atmosphere and contaminated all the towns in the wind’s path. It continues to be the worst nuclear disaster in history. The government established a 12-mile excavation zone and removed over 150,000 people from their homes. This regional and global disaster is very personal to the individuals who lost their lives and their homes but warrants attention from everyone who considers the future global consequences. The Daiichi disaster inspired Eiko to study and learn more about nuclear power including co-teaching courses on nuclear and environmental issues at Wesleyan University with William Johnston, a photographer and a specialist in History of Medicine and Public Health with a specialty in Japan and the bombings of Nagasaki and Hiroshima.

A Body in Fukushima: Reflections on the Nuclear in Everyday Life records Eiko’s visits to the evacuation zone and is a living document built on scientific knowledge that speaks from the heart. She first visited this shattered land alone, only five months after the disaster in 2011. Since then she has returned with William Johnston four times, risking the danger of radiation so others can understand the dimensions of the disaster. Returning again and again to the same places, dressed in her kimonos with the purple blanket and the memories of the tattered red cloth, Eiko explores each site as it changes over time. Heroic but futile attempts to restore a land that has been irrevocably altered for millennia are shown against still images filled with beauty, frailty and sorrow. This living document of hubris and hope is now two-and-a-half hours long. An edited version was shown at the NW Film Studies Center. The entire film can be viewed at the Contemporary Center for Art and Culture at PNCA until October 24.

film still from Eiko Otake film
Eiko Otake, A Body in Fukushima. Yaburemachi. August 5, 2016. Photo credit: William Johnston.

Living a long and full life has its satisfactions but it also provides insight into the many destructive behaviors that spring from greed, profit, and short sightedness. Longevity inevitably brings death and loss. With this latest body of work, Eiko Otake courageously confronts these stark truths and invites us to share the beauty and sorrow of her journey.

Linda Wysong is an interdisciplinary visual artist whose work includes sculpture, environmental design and social practice. She has had the privilege of collaborating with a number of Portland dancers, including Linda K. Johnson.