The dirt on the Walker's 'Naked' exhibit

Eiko & Koma
Eiko & Koma performance at the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis.
Walker Art Center Photo: Anna Lee Campbell

For the next month veteran Japanese movement artists Eiko and Koma will perform in the Walker Art Center galleries for six hours a day, six days a week -- completely nude.

The piece, titled "Naked" is challenging - but perhaps not in the way you might expect.

This is what it looks like: in a corner of the Walkers long standing "Event Horizon" exhibit canvas curtains, covered in feathers, block off a small area. As you get closer you find the cloth is covered in crude peepholes, allowing you to squint inside.

From this voyeuristic point you can see the performers Eiko and Koma (with the feathers and the straw) lying on a huge pile of dirt, completely naked. Beyond them in the half light, people sit on benches, watching their every move.

From those benches it's easier to see the constantly changing light, and to hear the constant dripping of water from the roof -- a dripping which occasionally becomes a torrent.

"It may take a few seconds to settle in the room, but I am kind of confident that people will find the entire experience more beautiful than scary," said Eiko.

Performance view
The performance area is hidden behind canvas curtains which have been scorched and covered in feathers. People outside can peek through the holes to see what is happening inside.
MPR photo/Euan Kerr

Speaking a few hours before a preview of "Naked" Eiko, and her husband Koma, took a break from their preparations to talk about their work.

Now 58 and 61 respectively, they have been performing together for almost 40 years. They have appeared more than a dozen times at the Walker since 1980. But those other shows were on a stage of some kind. This is in a gallery, where people can come and go as they wish.

"The clearest difference is there is no beginning, no middle and no end, because we don't control how people come in," Eiko said.

However, as Koma points out, when people do come in they are inside an artwork and very close to them as performers.

"It's almost about 4 feet away from where the audience is sitting, so the audience might feel that if they wanted they could almost touch us, a touchable distance," he said.

"But please don't touch," Eiko said with smile.

Watching 'Naked'
Seen through a hole in the outside curtains audience members watch "Naked."
MPR photo/Euan Kerr

With the feathers, the water, and even the small of the scorched canvas, watching "Naked" is a sensuous, but not sexual experience. Depending on who you ask, it could be a meditation on aging, feebleness, the beauty of the human body.

Audience members sit quietly, rarely talking, sometime looking at each other for cues as to how to react. Eiko and Koma just keep moving, slowly, slowly, their bodies twisting under the ever changing light.

The Walker's Performing Arts Curator Phillip Bither said there are many levels to "Naked."

"Your sense of time alters dramatically," he said.

Bither who has worked with Eiko and Koma for many years at different institutions, said they are hard to define.

"They come out of the dance world, but in my mind they are as much performance artists and visual artists as dancers and choreographers," he said.

Curator Philip Bither
Philip Bither is performing arts curator at the Walker Art Center.
Photo courtesty of the Walker Art Center

When asked whether this is exactly the kind of modern art which turns people off, Bither admits he can understand that reaction.

"You hear the description: 'Why would people want to be naked? Why would I want to watch that? Why does moving slowly in a gallery appeal to anyone?'" he said.

But he hopes people will come to take a look.

"You step from the fairly clean, artwork-hung-on-gallery walls into this other universe and you really feel transported," he said.

Creating that world has been a challenge. Two tons of dirt cover the floor, with a pile of straw and feathers on top. That amount of organic material is far from standard in a gallery feet away from valuable artworks. As a result the dirt had to be fumigated to remove any rotting material and bugs.

Visitors at the preview seemed to appreciate it all. Emmett Ramstad said he found himself taking in the details.

"Hair, skin, relationship to each other, dirtiness," he said. "So I think if anything, and being in Minnesota, I think that being intimate with people is uncomfortable."

Which Emmett feels is not necessarily a bad thing.

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