The modernist lineage of experimental strands of Contemporary Art has long been magnetized by the volatile category of bodily performance. Performing ‘the body’ has provided a secure base for gender politics (fuelling chauvinist piercing and feminist flaying). It has also consistently queried the fixity of object, form and space confined in and by the white elephant of the white cube. Yet like so much modernist and experimental strategies, the liquidity of bodily performance is dependant on the rigidity of the gallery environment to highlight these schisms. The dialectical theatre formed by the gallery space heightens, frames and ultimately mummifies all gesture, providing bodily performance a clear target in the museum’s ossifying impulse to document and objectify. Through fey rebelliousness and self-serving intervention, performance art in the gallery context thus often dances around self-generated and short-circuiting problematics.
The 5th Tokyo Art Meeting staged at the prestigious Museum of Modern Art, Tokyo, is a welcome shock to the normative art discourses which purport to radicalise bodily performance. But to support this claim, some careful critical unpacking is required. First: the curatorial context. The Tokyo Art Meetings are annual curatorial events which, in their words, “present a range of possibilities for new art by facilitating encounters between various genres of expression, mainly in the field of contemporary art but also including design, architecture and other specialist fields”. The 5th TAM is titled “Seeking New Genealogies: Bodies / Leaps / Traces”. As with most Tokyo Art Meetings, it is ‘advised’ (essentially, curated) by someone outside of art, but connected to art and artists. This TAM is by Mansai Nomura – a renowned performer of the 600 year-old form of theatre/dance kyogen. Mansai studied under his father Mansaku II and his late grandfather Manzo VI (both Living National Treasures); as a Noh performer, he has been designated as an Important Intangible Cultural Property.
Second: the originating form. Kyogen floats like a corporeal mist around Noh’s internalised ritualisation of mannered presentation, and the bodily inscription of gestural energy evident equally in Kabuki and Bunraku. These three dominant forms of Japanese physical theatre have over centuries inscrutably digested the spectrum of bodily energies in order to strike poses, balance shapes and articulate spatio-temporal habitation. The palpable result is to experience the body rendered as an immaterial cypher which paradoxically expresses sublime performative control. Japanese traditional theatre embraces costumes, masks and dolls as material embodiments of performative energy, and in doing so heightens the precision, frailty and dynamism of bodily mechanics. In its adherence to spatial protocol, gestural stricture and refined momentum, Kyogen especially forwards this sensibility, resulting in rituals which enact a meta-figuration, which declares these perspectives through a demonstrative solo dance choreographed to variants of traditional gagaku court music accompaniment.
Third: the perceptual through-line. Nomura’s subtitle “Bodies / Leaps / Traces” encapsulates how he perceives bodily energy lines as a performer, and how he detects a similar perception in a range of performative artists. Essentially, all the works in this large exhibition are concerned with intersections between moving bodies, the costumes which enhance their movement, and the space articulated by that conjoined movement. In traditional western Modernist terms, we would be talking about the mixed-media fusions typified by Merce Cunningham and Robert Rauschenberg – key figures in blurring the distinction between theatre and art, dancing and moving, choreography and painting. But what’s fascinating about Nomura’s TAM is how a parallel radicalism is apparent in the comparatively ancient form of kyogen. And here’s where “Bodies / Leaps / Traces” completely diverges from all Eurocentric notions of theatre lineage: Nomura’s own body is perceived as the divining rod for tracking the genealogies of bodily performance presented in the exhibition. According to the spiritual notion of isshouden, the physical memory of the past line of kyogen masters has been literally (not metaphorically) transferred to and installed in Nomura’s master. As the programme note calmly points out: “in 2014, his body carries the same ‘presence’ as when it existed in the space and time of 600 years ago”.
What a refreshing way to approach the proscriptive, rationalizing compulsions behind so much thematic curation of Contemporary Art! In its resolute acceptance of mystical inheritance, Nomura’s TAM links forbearers to their progeny by accepting the inevitability of kyogen’s trans-historical status. His curation was not a binary assertion of traditionalism against modernism: it swept the two away like vaporous interference to kyogen’s formal continuity. This was clearest in one of the major works in the exhibition, Dumb Type’s 4K 8-screen 7.1 audio presentation Memorandum OR Voyage (2014), which tracked and marked how their collective bodies moved through space in their live works Memorandum (1999), OR (1997) and Voyage (2002). Here was incontrovertible evidence of how thoroughly Dumb Type have subsumed traditional forms of bodily performance into a panoramic deconstruction of mediarised images which simultaneously create the space for their performance and transmute their bodies into a screenic dimension. Their work in TAM operated like an exegesis of how their oeuvre equally presented screens in a live setting and performed bodies in an installation format. The Europeans labelled this ‘image theatre’ back in the 80s, but the term completely missed how Dumb Type were harbingers of celebrating corporeal presence by nullifying humanist centrality.
Elsewhere, bodily transcription was investigated as a harsh clinical methodology by Ka Fai Choy. As part of his Prospectus For A Future Body (commenced in 2011) he analysed video documentation of Tasumi Hijikata's Butoh performance A Summer Storm (1973), charted his bodily movements, then programmed a sequence of electrode triggers to involuntarily twitch and flick a performer’s muscles like a controlled mannequin mimicking the original performance. Forwarding a new approach to ‘performance art documentation’, Choy’s electronic take on isshouden suggests that the body itself is the best medium for transcribing bodily performance. Performance group chelfitsch (with director Toshiki Okada) explored a different mode of transference in their work 4 Little Things That Always Happen At Train Stations (2014). 4 separate vertical life-size screens showed dancers interpreting discrete short narratives about oddly banal observations of people doing simple things on a crowded train platform. One heard the story being told via overhead speakers while watching the dancers improvise an ‘anti-dance’ concatenation of chopped gestures and poses. Their bodies started to resemble a plastic bag tossed around in the wind, continually changing shape through ungainly contortions.
Along with performers Denstu Lab Tokyo, Jiro Yoshihara, and Guttai action painters Atsuko Tanaka, Saburo Murakami and Kazuo Shiraga, Nomura channelled this Japanese stream of performers into a parallel irrigation system alongside a European grouping of artists, taking in the markings of Henri Matisse, Cy Twombly, Jackson Pollock & Ernesto Neto, and the motion experiments of Noa Eshkol & the Avshalom Pollak Dance Company among others. Amazingly, every work in the exhibition echoed, reinforced or simulated Nomura’s thesis of bodily transference: “Through performance, our bodies are fermented, transformed, and can become the foundation for new cultural creation.” The design of the space was as considered as the strict zoning of space upon the kyogen platform, and the time it took to move from one artist’s work to the next generated an elegant series of temporal transitions. The final work in the exhibition was a video documentation of Nomura himself performing a kyogen piece (filmed onsite for an earlier performance). But instead of faithfully presenting the work at human scale, it was projected onto a 20m high screen. At first, this imposing scale seemed to trivialise the work’s delicate aura of fabric swishing, ko and shou frequencies, and the tantalising floor stomps typical of kyogen dances. But after watching the video for nearly an hour, I felt like I was watching all the previously encountered works in the exhibition laid on top of Nomura’s projected body: this was a genealogy defined by simultaneity, not linearity. If there is a nexus between the intangibility of live bodily performance and the intangibility of Japanese traditional culture, I certainly felt it there in that space.