Artist Conversation: transcript of Eiko at Wesleyan University
photo by William Johnston

Artist Conversation: transcript of Eiko at Wesleyan University

  • Wesleyan University, February 2014

This is the transcript of Eiko's responses in the one-hour interview that was a part of the A Body in Fukushima exhibition at Wesleyan University, produced by Patrick Dowdey of the College of East Asian Studies.

Original video of the interview

One of the things that we heard while talking with the workers was, “Oh, you guys come for a week and go back to your safe haven.” It is so true. But I ask: is it better that I don’t come at all?  I’m not contributing in a way that makes this situation less of a disaster or addresses how to make sure that it never happens again. I’m not sure how the project could contribute politically. It’s more for my sake as an artist who also happens to teach in a college about the Atomic Bomb and hopefully to extend that to include topics of nuclear energy.

How do I feel in Fukushima and how does that make me commit to the subject differently, by visiting and dancing there? In Fukushima, Bill and I sometimes cried. Being there, the sense of devastation eats at every cell of one’s body. If you’re looking at something awful on TV, you can go to the bathroom or have a snack. These distractions help you recognize that you are at a distance, you are in control. Whereas, in the Fukushima evacuation zone, we cannot help asking: What is this? How has this come about? Where is this going? What and how do I see, smell, and feel? And how does being in Fukushima affect my thinking on environment, nuclear energy, and humanity? How do I memorize this smell, or the fear, or the shiver? One knows with certain things, at certain points, and in certain places in life, and says, “I will NOT forget this. If I forget this, I will no longer be me."

And it is those things that I’ve always looked for in my life, those deeply memorable things I’ve learned from certain persons or places that becomes the core of who I am as a human and as an artist. How do you make the distance to a certain subject or a place so close that it becomes a part of your life, a part of your body, so that when you start to forget something, there is an INNER voice to bring you back. It’s not somebody else who can advise you.  It’s yourself who brings you back to the very thing you decided that you did not want to forget.

In the fall of 2013, I sat in a waiting room of the 30th Street Station for Amtrak in Philadelphia, and I was about to meet Harry Philbrick, the director of the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, America’s oldest museum and art school. He had this crazy idea that we, Eiko & Koma, should perform in the station where he had done an art installation before. But exhibiting a large sculpture, in this case, a blow up figure is different from placing a performer in public.  So I was thinking how to perform in the station and how I can talk about it in the approaching meeting.  I was looking at people, and so many people were wearing dark colored business suits. Do they need Eiko & Koma here? Do they need drama here? Everybody’s busy with his or her business. The train is expensive; one does not ride without a purpose. I thought, “What could I bring that’s not here, but important and is somehow related to here?”
I then remembered how I had visited Fukushima in the summer of 2011, 6 months after the nuclear disaster.  There I saw these old train stations.  I thought, “The train is never going to run here. People are never going to wait for trains here. People are not going to come back here.” 

I imagined: what if I dig a hole into this marble floor as if digging a well for water, and that hole reaches to Fukushima: then it is like a hole that is the passage to another world in Alice’s Wonderland.
I thought of revisiting Fukushima, to somehow absorb these abandoned train stations and bring them back with me to Philadelphia. I thought about taking some photos of the stations in Fukushima with me and without me, then showing them in Philadelphia station. I will somehow connect Fukushima and Philadelphia using my body. My body will carry a piece of Fukushima and the people in Philadelphia can perhaps feel a bit of that very different place, Fukushima, residing in me.
When Harry arrived moments later, I expected he would ask me lots of questions and perhaps show his concerns for this idea. But all he said was, “OK.”  So it is a go, my journey starting. My first solo project after 40 years of Eiko & Koma started with that “OK.”

The next thing to do was to call Bill Johnston. As Eiko & Koma we usually created all it takes to make a performance: choreography, set, sound, and text, etc., and we have collaborated with many artists over the years.  So I know it is crucial that collaborators like each other, or at least have an instinct to like each other. And it has to be a good time for each artist. Good intention alone doesn’t do it, talent alone doesn’t do it. A combination of capacity, liking, and timing creates a satisfying result. I never wanted to go to Fukushima with someone whom I don’t want to have a long meal with.  Also, Fukushima is about radiation. Bill taught a course on the Atomic Bomb with me.  He is a professor of not only of Japanese history but also of Science in Society. His research specialty is public health matters in Japan. 

I was extremely aware that it is our generation, some a bit older or younger, that has been at the core of and behind the decisions about running the nuclear plants.  In addition, one of my deep regrets was that I had been teaching about the atomic bomb and radiation but why did I not know more deeply and engage myself more in the nuclear plants issues? I had been very clear in my opinion: I was against relying on nuclear plants. I had never liked nuclear plants. But it’s one of those things: I’m against it, but I just sat on that. But this person, who had been teaching and dealing with the atomic bomb issues, did not even spend time thinking about the clear danger of nuclear plant explosions. Just like many other people I do not respect for the very reason that they ignored the danger. We have totally ignored the clear science of probabilities.  I just felt … STUPID.  And I KNEW Bill had similar feelings. Bill was a very clear choice as photographer for this project, in fact to the point that if he was not going, I probably would not have done this as a photography project at all.

I never wanted to be a solo dancer. In fact, every time I look at a great, amazing female solo dance concert, there is a deep feeling in me, that I’m so glad I’m not doing that. I really enjoy collaborating where “I” get a little bit less and “we” create an area for reflections.  “We” is two or more people, so then our common concerns become bigger than my own concerns. So I was very nervous that I decided to dance in Philadelphia’s 30th Street Station alone. But thinking of the people I saw there and thinking of Fukushima, I wanted to perform alone so that I would be standing alone in front of the world, this world, with a deep recognition of what the world currently is. That is for me what being a contemporary artist is.

Before our trip together, I looked for information about the train stations in Fukushima so that by the time Bill arrived in Japan, I had planned out getting the rental car, researched which stations we would be allowed to visit, the places to stay, and what to bring. That’s all I knew. I did not know anything beyond that.  I have never done a photography project of my own initiative.  In the first few days, wandering around high radiation area, I really questioned, “What am I doing here?” and that question lingered throughout the winter visit: “What am I doing here?” 

It was helpful, in fact necessary, that every night, we looked at all the photos we took that day, though I never could answer my question “What am I doing here?”  but at least I was not leaving it as an abstract question. I was trying to answer it using my own body and in retrospect throughout the post production period, which continues till now, I have been trying to answer this question on my own way. Looking at the photos of a day’s shooting, it was as if I got two days out of one day. During daytime we wandered around, I moved, and Bill shot photos. At night we looked back and saw all the photos that captured the places we went and all the things we did. And again, it was important that the two of us were there, that it was not me alone, so that we could talk about what we saw and what we did. After all, in the evacuation zone, there was hardly anybody else. Dancing in Fukushima was a very naked experience.

It was one thing to be in the area severely affected by the tsunami. We saw the physical damage caused by the power of the tsunami. It was, however, another to walk through the streets far from the seashore. Some houses were half broken by an earthquake, but some of the houses were intact because they were well and newly built. But there is NO ONE there. So-- absolutely NO ONE around. 

Being there, I was full of remorse and anger, but perhaps more importantly, I realized that I had always been interested in the kinds of places my mind does not know how to deal with. In Fukushima I was at a loss, and that being at a lost was a profoundly real experience. I was confronted by the kinds of deep problems I don’t have an answer to.  And feeling so lost, and agitated, I realized why I am the kind of artist that I am. I am not a writer, I’m not a choreographer, I’m not necessarily a “dancer,” but I wanted to deal with THIS  situation, my being at a loss, agitated throughout my body. It was very clear to me, even though I had no idea what I was doing, that I wanted to be there and I wanted to work, and I wanted to bring some visual remains back to Philadelphia and beyond.

One of the ways I prepared myself was that my mother and I took a long time to sew together pieces of red silk fabrics that were inside the liner of my grandmother’s and my mother’s kimonos. My 90-year-old mother has near zero short-term memory, so it is hard to have a conversation, but she still is great at sewing by hand. The cloth is very old worn out silk, and the dye is also very old.. If I cry over the cloth, or the cloth gets wet, the red color stains everything else. But it was a particular shade of red that comes from old kimono linings. And having that red cloth, and having brought Bill with me, made me realize that I didn’t come here to Fukushima only to cry and get red stains all over me. The old silk is already very fragile, so if I stretch it carelessly and strongly, the cloth tears easily. That affected my movement with it, First I was careful and hesitant.  But in dancing with hesitation, my emotions get stronger as if toughened by resistance, and at some points ride over my hesitation.  So I did tear the cloth badly, Fukushima tear.  After each trip, my mother and I sewed the linings back together by hand, each of us remembering very different memories with the pieces of old red silk.

There is this seemingly empty space around and that is unusual in Japanese landscape that for generations have used every usable space. But these spaces carried so much residue of people who had lived, who had died, and who had fled. With radiation, there would be no factories, stores, houses, vegetable gardens, or rice fields.

In Fukushima my body shook. I cried with my remorse. While Bill was taking photos of the scenes, I often literally sat there, immobile. After some time, I told myself: I could not just be and leave the area like a cry-baby; I had sewn my costumes, red fabric and Futon; I brought Bill with his camera. I had to do something.  I blew my nose, picked up a costume, and changed. I took off my shoes and had a moment of hesitation, “This is high radiation and I am barefoot.” But I had to be barefoot. Many months later I still ask myself the same question and keep realizing I HAD TO be barefoot to be connected to the land. 
Once moving, I realized I was not moving alone, but the wind was moving also. I took off the futon in which I was covered and my skin felt the wind.  I need to hold onto the red silk fabric so it will not be blown away. By doing so the red becomes my intestine, an intestine tormented by the grief of human failure. However, that existential weight does not bring my psyche down as the red is moved by the wind.  I am not only feeling the wind, but I am SEEING the wind. This contaminated land IS living, moving. I AM living with the wind.  Living with time. And living with the memories of people, pets, laundries, cars, TVs, telephones, and toys. So I think that being with the wind in bare skin and being cold were helpful. I’m glad I was cold because it made me accept that to a very, very small degree, I was in the same coldness that the things and beings left after people evacuated are in. And if no one meets her neighbor in the morning exchanging “Samuidesune”, (“oh, today is a cold day”) it is because people are GONE,  I was there then saying to myself and to the field “it is cold.”  So being cold there made me feel, that’s what I came for: to greet the land, other beings and residue of those who left. Because I had decided and prepared and brought Bill with me, I had to do something, though not knowing then why, how, and what. Those are the questions Bill and I carried throughout the post production.

When the first journey ended I was extremely nervous, thinking, “Oh my god, what did I do?” I was just my body with my emotionally twisted face irradiated. I am nothing, helping no one, hurting myself. With that heavy thought, Bill and I took a train directly from Fukushima, passing Tokyo, to Zushi, 1-hour train ride to west of Tokyo. That is where Kyoko Hayashi lives, a dear friend and a writer, whose work From Trinity to Trinity I had translated. She is an 84–year-old Nagasaki atomic bomb survivor.
I was very nervous. She was exposed to the atomic bomb in Nagasaki on August 9th, 1945.  In the train, I chose no more than 15 pictures to show her.  I respect and love Hayashi and her work so deeply. Hayashi looked at those pictures in my computer and said, “Because you are in these pictures, I see each picture for a much longer time.  Seeing photos, I wonder why Eiko-san is here, how she decided to be in this particular place in this particular way. Then. I see more in detail in the land, I notice many things that I would not have otherwise. I saw many photos and TV images from Fukushima but here I see Fukushima all the more deeply...“ Hearing Hayashi, I just knew that, though I could not articulate my desire or purpose, what she said was exactly what I had wanted to do by going and dancing in Fukushima , I was just so grateful to Hayashi. She turned to me and said, “oh, now you were exposed to the radiation, too. It was not enough for you to follow me. You wanted to be the one with radiation.” Though it was not my intention to harm myself, there is some truth in that I wanted to be where radiation was a real threat, thus making the distance to contamination malleable.

One of the things I teach my students in the atomic bomb course is that it’s a lie that the Japanese are the only people exposed to the atomic bomb, it’s a flat lie.  The truth is only people who were in Hiroshima and Nagasaki were exposed. Otherwise, there is no explanation why there was so much prejudice to hibakusha (as the survivors are called in Japanese), who did not get help for a very long time, and why in Japan, with frequent earth quakes, so many nuclear plants were built. 
After Fukushima, more people felt much more concerned about the radiation, including people in Tokyo, including those young mothers whose children get milk in with their school lunch. But then again, why is Japan restarting a nuclear plant now? If we ignore the science of probabilities, we are literally taking away our capacity to hesitate and to prepare for the disaster. Hayashi said, ”When the nuclear radiation from Fukushima had become very clearly dangerous, the government told people to stay in their houses, shut windows tight, and wash their hair. I shivered with anger upon hearing this. I remember being told the same thing in 1945, and, after 66 years, if the people who were exposed to the radiation were only told again “Stay in the house and wash your hair,” if that’s all that the government is capable of telling the people, how could they build nuclear plants? I now feel it is as though I have lived the life of a hibakusha in vain.”

Then it was my turn to shiver. I was just so mentally and physically exhausted while in Fukushima that, though I took a bath, I didn’t have the energy to wash my hair. I came to Hayashi to learn why I had gone to Fukushima and yet how unprepared I was to fully engage with irradiated Fukushima.
For our second trip, Bill and I had both a hard time with schedules, and almost gave up going back in the summer. And how glad I am that I didn’t have to coax Bill toward our second trip and that he called to say, “We MUST go.”
In my way of doing something, thinking or without thinking, I sometimes don’t know how to articulate my thoughts in words. But with certain prompts, I learn my thoughts. When Bill and Patrick, the curator of the College of the East Asian Studies gallery here at Wesleyan suggested that the title of the entire photo show be “Mourning in Fukushima,” I was fiercely against it. I was strangely fierce in not wanting to be a part of this chorus of sorrow. Yes, we are sad, everybody is sad. Nobody is not sad.  I am sad about the earthquake and tsunami, but, as far as the nuclear plants explosions are concerned, I’m angry. Yet, this anger is not only directed to others who were responsible for these particular explosions. What I really feel is a remorse. I look at all of those TEPCO people and the government people on TV and see that those in power to make decisions are my generation. These are the people who were and are making poor and wrong judgments.  It is not about young people who know or don’t know. If young people don’t know, and they are not coming to the demonstrations, that is partly because we didn’t address effectively the damage nuclear melt downs cause.  I am a part of this generation that made this mess.  So, “Mourning in Fukushima” did not do it for me. The curatorial team was worried “A Body in Fukushima” makes people think of a corpse. But I’m presenting my live flesh, not a corpse, and it should be apparent in any photo or poster.  Once you look at this live body, a viewer notices other things, the sky, the sun, and the broken houses and the people who used to be there.  I have named my solo project as A Body in Places and the Fukushima photo project as A Body in Fukushima. Everywhere I go with that project, performing in a station, a library, a hospital—wherever, I will bring the photo exhibition of  A Body in Fukushima.