Naked Wall Street Journal
photo by Anna Lee Campbell

In a Place of Dreams and Dreamers

  • Wall Street Journal, April 1, 2011
  • Robert Greskovic

For a presentation that could qualify as near-inertia, Eiko and Koma's "Naked: A Living Installation" (at the Baryshnikov Arts Center through April 9) stirs something of a quiet tumult of thoughts and images for onlookers. One might start, for instance, wondering what the art historian Kenneth Clark, whose 1956 book "The Nude" examined the aesthetics of the human figure, would make of the Japanese-born couple's use of the English word "naked" in their title. "To be naked," he wrote, "is to be deprived of our clothes and the word implies some of the embarrassment which most of us feel in that condition. The word nude, on the other hand, carries in educated usage no uncomfortable overtone."

Still, in their unclothed states, delicately dusted with rice powder and slightly smeared with artful streaks of brownish shading, Eiko and Koma—the female and male halves, respectively, of this performing duo that has called the U.S. home since 1976—more likely suggest nudity to Western eyes than nakedness. Their presentation of themselves in the all-together makes art, and no one seems embarrassed in the slightest.

Visitors to the installation, which is free but for which reservations are recommended (info@eikoandkoma.org), find the reclining couple by entering a studio arranged with yellowed canvas drops textured by grainy rice paste and mottled by singed and scorched patches, all haphazardly overrun by mostly black feathers. Before one enters the actual space that encloses the couple, glimpses of the naked twosome can be had through random openings in the hanging canvases. Any museum-goer who has peeped through the eyeholes in the rough wooden-door façade of Marcel Duchamp's "Etant Donnés" (1946-66) and caught sight of that work's sprawling, naked, female mannequin will get a sense of what espying Eiko and Koma feels like.

But unlike Duchamp's work, which might draw titters or guffaws when its bare lady is found lying on the underbrush of its setting, "Naked" presents itself as contemplative and quiet. Except for the both eerie and matter-of-fact sound of dripping water from melting ice suspended from the high ceiling, there is silence in the darkened room of "Naked" as visitors pad in and stop or pass through.