EIKO & KOMA, Naked, 2010 performance documentation. Photo by Anna Lee Campbell. Courtesy Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago.

Time is Not Even, Space is Not Empty

Eiko & Koma

Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago
Japan USA
Also available in:  Chinese  Arabic

Spanning the history of the Japanese artists Eiko & Koma through video, photography, costumes, installation and performance, “Time is Not Even, Space is Not Empty,” put emphasis above all on the act of coupling as it has been portrayed, for 40 years, by the world’s preeminent contemporary dance duo. To give an idea of just how strong they are together, American choreographer Anna Halprin writes in the exhibition catalog of her inability to find a place for herself when collaborating with them for the dance Be With (2001); only after splitting them apart did she fit, first dancing a duet with one and then the other.

Organized by the Walker Art Center (WAC) in Minneapolis—and part of a larger retrospective project that the duo began in 2009 to document their performances and installations—this densely packed touring exhibition productively frames and captures the many aspects of Eiko & Koma’s ever-changing collaborative work. In performance, the slow unfolding of their movements has always allotted space for reflection, so the retrospective structure of a survey exhibition proved a natural framework for a full, slow engagement with the pair. And full engagement is important. Conventional wisdom says that dance is fleeting, evanescent: consider the raft of recent articles that have questioned the future of Merce Cunningham’s choreography after his 2009 death, the disbanding of his company and the many dances without fixed choreographic notation. “Time is Not Even, Space is Not Empty” counteracts this passiveness, almost resignation, by proposing that movement can be precisely and evocatively fixed, even felt.

Along the museum’s entryway, a spatially jumbled timeline of pinned or propped photographs, didactic descriptions, posters, programs and books led past the trailer from the Caravan Project (1999) to a table with computer monitors for viewers to explore individual dances. It then continued onto 37 Works (2011), a video edited so compactly that most of the dances are featured barely for a minute, with gestures snapping to focus in quick action shots. The artists disrobe, they age, they hang, they twist, they lose gravity, they mature, they slow, they compete for dominance, they redress, they sink; they stand in black and white, they develop color and surface tension. A rack of costumes and two walls covered with portions of stage sets invited the audience to engage with the textures from their performances. 

The centerpiece of the exhibition was Naked (2010), which the duo created specifically with the retrospective in mind. Large canvas hangings, resembling feather-encrusted hides, flanked a soft pile of leaves, framing the edge of a reflecting pool. Barely audible noises, particularly tiny fans rustling paper draped among dim lights, staged the space as if it were a dense forest alive with minute sounds and movements. For ten days during the exhibition, the couple performed for four to seven hours each day. When not present, a faint video of the couple was projected onto the wall across from the reflecting pool.

The work, while striking to the senses, curiously offered less emotional engagement with the artists’ movements than the timeline of ephemera, 37 Works or the fragments of dress and scenery. The ghostly video projection of Eiko & Koma dancing in their installation acted, literally, as a stand-in for their physical presence in real time, and it lacked feeling for this exact reason. There is, it became clear, no straight substitution for movement that is experienced after the fact; this exhibition insisted, however, that it can be composited, and succeeded on many levels.

Unlike this video projection, Eiko & Koma felt more present in parts of the exhibition that did not attempt to place their physical presence in real time. Naked’s ghostly projection of grasping bodies, by acting as a substitute or literal stand-in, offered infinitely less engagement with their movements than did the timeline of ephemera.

Eiko & Koma are beautiful. Perhaps in this exhibition, their disorienting sensuality was more evident in the still documentation of their performance, their clothing and the canvas wall installation, because the couple is so photogenic. After all, photographs and fabric (not to mention a couple’s flesh) are already surfaces on which we experience varied notions of time and project how we inhabit space.