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Nora Thompson on Eiko’s work in The Value of Sanctuary | Eiko + Koma
Nora Thompson on Eiko’s work in The Value of Sanctuary

Nora Thompson on Eiko’s work in The Value of Sanctuary (February 2019)

Eiko is one of thirty-seven artists featured in the Cathedral of St. John the Divine’s exhibit, “The Value of Sanctuary.” The space is overwhelming on its own - high and vaulted and solemn and full of detail. But with the seemingly endless works of art hanging from the ceilings, tucked into the nooks and crannies, and quietly projected onto the walls, the Cathedral felt even more expansive, multiplicitous, and packed with tiny worlds to explore.

I only had half an hour to see what I could see, meaning I couldn’t see it all. To walk from one end of the Cathedral to the other and back without stopping to look at a photograph or read a poem takes a full ten minutes. Still, the question posed by the exhibit introduction sign, “How do we build a house without walls?” was clearly asked over and over by each artist whose work I was able to experience.

Building a home without walls is to find refuge, safety, and shelter within space and time, not necessarily within a particular place. Many artists emphasized human connection (Jacob Hessler’s poem about immigrants crossing the border repeated “I see you. I see you. I see you.” in its last line), mutable safe space (Michael Rakowitz’s blow up tent for the homeless sat across the way from Adam Kuby’s large scale lean-to), and assertions for the future (Alisha Wormsley’s work stood out--a whole wall proclaimed “THERE ARE BLACK PEOPLE IN THE FUTURE”). Artists imagined countries without borders, safety without stagnancy, and futures free of oppression.

Eiko and DonChristian, her much younger, multi-talented collaborator (he raps, paints, films, and performs) contributed their film SOAK to this eclectic mix of works. The short video was projected onto a single stone on the wall of the Cathedral, the size of a television set, as well as onto the opposite wall on a much larger scale, the light diffuse and giant and almost imperceptible. Eiko and DonChristian’s bodies float in chlorinated water, in and out of the frame. DonChristian gently cradles Eiko’s body, she floats away, we are left with just the lapping pool water. Peering into this world of support and softness, we get to see a young black man and an older asian woman learn from each other wordlessly, handling each other with the utmost care. We get to see connection, safety, and a new kind of future, all in one.

The exhibit also sought, as might be expected for an art show within a Cathedral, to “illuminate the intersections between spiritual and social identity.” As a generally non-spiritual person myself, I knew the obvious, that I was in a religious space, but I didn’t see how the collection of works could be considered spiritual. I saw many creations that were affecting and thoughtful, but didn’t really transcend reality. I resigned myself to just “not getting it,” rushing to leave to make my next appointment on time.

Sitting on the subway, reading through the program of artists, I realized that I had missed a second work by Eiko, a Louise Bourgeois sculpture, and a Robert Longo work. The exhibit was so impressively, amazingly multiplicitous, that I had passed much of it by. So much was enclosed in side chapels, hung unassumingly, placed out of sight. Like Eiko’s large scale projection, the exhibit was diffuse and subtle, washing over the walls of the Cathedral. When conceived this way, I almost liked that there were still some mysteries I had yet to see. I began to see this multiplicity itself as a spiritual notion. Sanctuary becomes spiritual not when it manifests in a simple set of walls, visible and clear like a church or cathedral, but rather when it spreads, floating and borderless across distance and time, like an older woman in a pool. I found that the possibility of sanctuary, with its endless permutations, could be all-encompassing and magical. Sanctuary, in its most spiritual sense that I can muster, is possibility itself.