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Naked: New York Times | Eiko + Koma
Naked: New York Times
photo by Anna Lee Campbell

Poetry of Stillness, in a Moment Streached to Infinity

  • The New York Times, April 1, 2011
  • Roslyn Sulcas

A naked man and woman moving with glacial slowness on a mound of earth, feathers, sticks and vegetation doesn’t sound at all like an enthralling theatrical experience. But such is the almost inexplicable magic of “Naked: A Living Installation,” by the Japanese-American duo Eiko and Koma, that watching two bodies inch toward and away from each other in infinitely tiny increments is an utterly absorbing, potent drama of time and space — endless in the moment, over before you know it.
“Naked,” which opened at the Baryshnikov Arts Center on Tuesday, was presented in a somewhat different context at the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis last year as part of a three-year, nationwide retrospective project of the couple’s work. Lucky New York (where Eiko and Koma have lived since 1976) to have “Naked” for almost two weeks, free to whoever wishes to wander in, stay for some or all of the four-hour duration, and emerge with an enlarged world.

As the title indicates, the piece comprises both performance and installation. When audience members arrive on the sixth floor of the center, they can choose to enter one of two spaces. The smaller Studio 6B offers a sculptural centerpiece of postcards, rice paste, salt and wood alongside a video showing the couple’s “Lament” (1985) and “Undertow” (1987), and five waist-high black boxes. Peering down into these you see film of various performances, in which nudity seems to be the common element.
On a table are paper and pencils. “Please take one to draw Eiko and Koma,” an instruction reads. Through another door is a wide passageway, mirrors on one side hung with stiff cream-colored canvas on which black lines and black hair outline human figures and faces. On the other side the same canvas, slightly scorched, punctured with eye-level holes, textured with rice paste and sea salt and encrusted with feathers, hangs from the ceiling in an L shape to create an enclosed space.
Eiko and Koma lie in the center of that space, audience members seated or standing on one side. The performers are on a tiny island of earth, black feathers, vegetation and sticks, surrounded by darkness, water dripping slowly somewhere behind them. Small bundles of dried leaves or paper overhead rustle lightly and cast flickering shadows as the lighting slowly changes, transforming the bodies from bleached wood and marble to rosy flesh and sculptural form.

At first glance it’s shocking how inhuman the bodies appear. As they lie on their sides, an arm wrapped under a waist, a leg angled, part of the body covered by feathers and sticks, their limbs look inanimate, part of the natural detritus around them. Their dark hair flows into the dark feathers; their bodies are smeared with dirt. They seem without sex or individuality, and then, as the lights brighten and dim, we begin to make out their faces and to piece together the contours of their frames.
No sooner is their humanity apparent than other images and ideas emerge: Eiko’s bone-thin, fragile body, never still, yet barely moving, inexorably evokes death, battlefields, natural disasters (how can one not think of Japan’s earthquake?), skeletons slowly decaying into the earth. Komo’s hand, stretching toward her, looks almost grotesquely white and large, a horror-film image of death itself.

But these are just part of the almost infinite narrative of the work. To watch the pair is to marvel at the immense control with which each is almost always moving yet can appear entirely still. Over the four hours they do little more than reach toward each other, occasionally touching and moving away, the mound of leavings gradually molded into a small barrier between them. Yet those small shifts of position provide an intense suspense and drama, as does the occasional sight of a whole face, turned up to the light. Nothing happens exactly, and everything does. They are both human and animal, personal and archetype, alive and dead. In the first half they face away from each other; in the second they curl inward, in fetal position, toward each other. Each of those positions suggests something new, subtly alters the drama.

Part of the pleasure of watching “Naked” is the slow revelation of other sensory aspects of the performance. After a while you begin to hear a low whirring undertone and a repeated sound that is a little like a very far-off foghorn. The irregular drips of water, the rustling papers, the play of light, even the sound of people coming and going: all these expand into an awareness of the bodies before us and our own kinship with those bodies.

The intimate scale of “Naked,” our proximity to Eiko and Koma, is important here. We can see their stomachs and chests moving as they breathe, almost feel the tiny shifts of a finger or a foot. Their lives, their deaths, playing out before us, are absorbed into our bodies, become our own