Get us in your inbox

Eiko & Koma, The Caravan Project
Photo courtesy of Nathan KeayEiko & Koma, The Caravan Project

EIko and Koma

The revered Japanese artists park their trailer at the Museum of Modern Art with The Caravan Project

Eiko and Koma invade the Museum of Modern Art with a new version of The Caravan Project, which uses a stationary trailer as a performance setting. As part of their Retrospective Project, these Japanese artists transform their bodies into something resembling garbage—yet a spookily beautiful version—as they perform this durational work that will be on view during museum hours. 

Eiko & Koma are starting the year off right: Beginning January 16, this spellbinding pair invades the Museum of Modern Art with The Caravan Project, a new version of their 1999 piece, which uses a stationary trailer as a performance setting. In this transfixing living installation, the Japanese couple performs in conjunction with an exhibition exploring the avant-garde of Tokyo from 1955 to 1970. Featured as part of MoMA’s “Performing Histories: Live Artworks Examining the Past,” Caravan Project, situated in the museum’s entrance, is an endurance work, with performances occurring during museum hours through January 21. Like it or not, everyone—yes, even all those tourists!—must see it twice. Eiko & Koma spoke about the project in their Hell’s Kitchen apartment.

Time Out New York: Will you be set up in the lobby? Where tickets are sold?
No, after that. We’ll be in front of [Rodin’s Monument to] Balzac.
Koma: You know, tickets are very expensive. Twenty-five dollars. If people cannot afford it, I’m telling them that the building is like this: [He draws a diagram showing how the caravan is positioned just beyond the ticket taker.] People enter, buy a ticket, and we dance right here. So if they don’t buy a ticket, they can still see us.
Eiko: They can see we are there, but they can’t see the detail. It’s not a public space. You have to pay to enter. And you get to see other things. There is an exhibition from ’50s Japan, “Tokyo 1955–1970: A New Avant-Garde.” That’s where we come from. So it’s not this question [about whether we are] Butoh or not, because it is looking at a larger scheme of art. Koma was born in ’48; I was born in ’52. This is about us. I think that’s why the curator [Doryun Chong] invited us. He has become  interested in the performing arts over the past five or six years. He wrote an essay in our book [Time Is Not Even, Space Is Not Empty]. So it was a very natural thing for him.
Koma: And we are honored to be a part of it.
Eiko: You know this relationship with Butoh—it’s much more informative having all of those artists in one place. It’s not just a dance. [Butoh founder Tatsumi] Hijikata’s tape is in that exhibition, and I feel very good about it because it’s not singled out as God—it really is a part of many artists’ movement.
Koma: And they all influenced each other.

Time Out New York: How did the opportunity to perform at MoMA occur?
Doryun Chong was at the Walker before he moved to MoMA. This is his research idea: postwar Japan. Visual art in that time was avant-garde and very physicalized. There were also lots of happenings. In the past few years of knowing each other, we’ve talked a lot and I think he came up with an idea: I’ve decided all the visual parts of the exhibition. What can I add? He wrote and said, “I have a few hours in Japan. Shall we meet?” We had a drink together. I was very happy that he asked. And it happened to be in Shunjuku, which is a part of Tokyo which is very much in the center with this avant-garde.

Time Out New York: Why did you originally create The Caravan Project in 1999?
At the time, our main engagements were in the theater. We covered most of the American big cities, small cities, medium-size cities, but one day I noticed, Oh—maybe we should reach out to people who cannot afford to come or who have no intuition to come to the theater. We thought in that case we should go out to show our art project.
Eiko: That was one of Koma’s ingenious ideas, I have to say.
Koma: Also, in 1976, when I arrived here, I saw Joseph Cornell’s boxes, and that was somehow in my mind, that I could make some box-style artwork. Of course, his work is made of dead wood or pin-up photos—I thought, We could be the live version of the art box. Visually it is very striking. There is no beginning and no ending; we would stay from three to four hours.
Eiko: We toured that quite a bit. It was our main thing to do at the end of the century.
Koma: I have a Jeep Grand Cherokee, and I traveled with it. I was the driver. Often, I would do it in a very mischievous way: People are waiting on Eiko & Koma. Someone says, “Oh, some dance performance is happening” or “Some art piece is coming,” and I drove there in my costume. When we finished, I drove off. Here you cannot do that.
Eiko: So the caravan originally had our Jeep—we would take away the Jeep and have it as an installation. It almost looked like a jewel box, or a music box that you open and the light is coming through. It’s very beautiful. But then we started to use the car itself—we choreographed the movement of the caravan as well as what’s inside. That is new to 2011.

Time Out New York: Can you talk about that?
In 1999, it was just a stationary box as an installation and in 2011 at the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago, we were inside and there were other people driving the caravan. At the Chicago MCA, people sat on the steps. At one point, we get out of the caravan and then the caravan moves away, and we are literally like leftover luggage, like a suitcase or something. We perform a little bit and then we go to the bus stop and wait for a pickup. [Laughs] The car comes up to pick us up and we leave.

Time Out New York: That’s so funny.
That was very, very funny. And this was in connection to an exhibition at the Chicago MCA; we had a trailer as a part of the exhibition on the third floor. So it was kind of a mischievous idea of the precious artwork which is in a museum—we take it out. We take the costume out. We wear it. We perform and we bring it back to the exhibition. Then in 2012, what Koma is talking about is a new version, which is Koma is driving a jeep. And I am inside.
Koma: But often we did those kinds of things.
Eiko: Right. We just changed according to the situation.
Koma: But when we were young, it was guerilla art. I was riding on a motorcycle in the costume. When we were young, instead of a trailer, we had motorcycles. Eiko was behind me. We parked, we were waiting, we danced, and we disappeared.

Time Out New York: Is what you’re doing inside the trailer different from what you were doing before?
This time we have to spend longer hours—eight hours.
Eiko: This piece was usually max for three hours. This always comes to the same question of [our living installations like] Naked or Breath. If we don’t do all the hours, we have to be announcing when we perform, right? So it has to be every hour or every two hours, kind of like feeding time for the animals at the zoo: “Eiko will be here at 2pm.” So it seems like in the museum setting, where paintings and sculptures remain, we might as well too.

Time Out New York: Will you take breaks?
I think one of us should always be there, because it needs one person in it to make its relationship to the body. I think it’s utterly interesting that everybody has to pass as they get in and as they get out. Everybody has to see it twice.
Koma: Even if it’s just a couple of minutes.
Eiko: I think they are eager to get in. If anything, maybe on the way out…. But we don’t expect people to be seeing us like they did in Naked [Walker Art Center in Minneapolis]. Naked was a destination, even in a museum setting. In Chicago, there were people who were passing by, but just as many people who came for it. Here, we don’t think that will be the same.
Koma: But I like that in a way. The museum setting is interesting: You go to see Picasso. “I went to see the Picasso.” That’s it! People don’t ask, “How long?” You can get strongly affected.
Eiko: Koma, or “This is that Van Gogh that we have hanging in the bathroom!” Right?
Koma: That’s what I am saying: Why do people have to see Eiko & Koma for one hour? Maybe two minutes is enough.
Eiko: They’ll still talk about it. They might not mention the name, but “really weird people were there.” Or something.
Koma: How many people go to MoMA? It’s busier than Macy’s.
Eiko: In a way, I imagined us performing on the sixth floor, in the gallery, but Doryun said, “I’m sorry, there is no space.” Then I imagined the second floor [atrium], but there is something else during that time. He said, “Does it work on the first floor?” And at first I felt like it’s a street performance. But then we actually liked it! It’s not as precious. And this piece is not precious.

Time Out New York: It’s adaptable.
Yes. I have asked MoMA specifically to give the information that this Caravan Project is not created for this precious box—it actually has a history of moving around. I want the audience to know that. It just happened to arrive here today. This is not a very expensive art. It just has been our life thing.

Time Out New York: What is performing this over time like for you?
Doing this, slowly we got the idea for Naked, our latest piece.
Eiko: The Caravan Project started when we got kicked out of the Whitney. After being there one month, we were sorry that we had to leave. We liked it in that part of the museum. And that’s why Koma said—
Koma: Moving museum.
Eiko: It’s like a museum on wheels, much like the library on wheels in the Village. And also in the city you have ice-cream trucks. It’s the same idea that you deliver. The Whitney doesn’t need us anymore! Instead of being sad, we did this. In a sense, the Whitney was the beginning.
Koma: At the Whitney, we got 8,000 people or something.
Eiko: We got a lot of attention. But then the [idea of the] living installation was not born. Nobody was doing it yet. So we didn’t get very much attention from the visual art field; it was reviewed only by dance critics; the people in the museum were not doing this yet. It was kind of early for that scene, but now it’s a very big deal, especially at MoMA after Marina [Abramovic]. I think our instinct was always, “Let’s just do it ourselves.” So we created this thing, and I think that continued our interest in using our body as a part of the installation. From there we made When Nights Were Dark, which was very much an environment, and then we started going to Naked. It really gave us the way to think about not a beginning, middle and an end. Even at The Caravan Project in Chicago, people came and went.
Koma: Also, in doing this in The Caravan Project and also experiencing the Whitney, somehow I gained confidence that we can present our pieces without any music. Before, even in the theater, dancing without music, that was an effect. We could dance in silence. But here in a museum or in a public space, we are not using the music, but we have sound and noise. There is constant noise. We don’t need any sound effect. A Picasso painting, Van Gogh, they don’t need any music.
Eiko: This is really true. When we had silent pieces in the theater—Thirst [1985, their first longer piece performed in silence] or Passage [1989, performed to the sound of dripping water]—the silence was very intense because it was a constructed silence. In Chicago or anywhere, silence was not constructed—we just didn’t use any effect, which is very different. We could hear the people. It’s much less theatrical that way because you are not constructing the box. In the theater, silence is very constructed, so it’s a very intense period, whereas I think at the Whitney, one of our friends said, “Gosh, I never noticed, but this is the best way to see you because it’s not intense. People really don’t have a problem of coming or going in a museum setting. More so than when we were doing Breath at BAC [Baryshnikov Arts Center], which was a destination. It was rather intense silence there because I think it was kind of constructed in a way, and we actually played with the sound, but what Koma is probably saying is when you are really outside, or in the museum noise, we actually give away one of our skills. We’re not using our skills, which are to construct some kind of a sound effect to the constructed silence. And it’s funny, you know? Museum people want us to use sound.

Time Out New York: Will you at MoMA?
I don’t think we have made our final judgment on this. I think the reason they want us to use the sound is that they are very used to having performance now.
Koma: Also video installation, Eiko. They usually use a lot of sound.
Eiko: You’re absolutely right. Museums used to be a very quiet place. Now you hear the video installation sound in the next gallery. I find it not fair to the artists. That’s the reason we said to the Whitney, “No, we don’t want to make our sound to accompany Georgia O’Keeffe’s painting.” [Laughs]

Time Out New York: How are you preparing to perform Caravan Project for such a long amount of time?
We talked about falling down. One reason is because I want to go to the bathroom. So how do I get to the bathroom? Falling down from the caravan. That is already one thing that has to happen. It’s a rectangle frame. So in a rectangle frame, as you can see, the body is much more in tune when we are lying down or in a lower position. Standing really breaks the landscape feeling. The rest really is how to accommodate audience, because there will be lots of people passing by and not even looking at us. So how much do we address this?
Koma: I think about abandoned things. The bakery. Baker’s food. At the bakery, you sell the very day or you have to throw the food away on the street, so we are abandoned beings. Or some war happens—you know, in old war movies, a battle happens. Sometimes you carry a body, you carry a friend on the shoulder, but at some point you have to abandon—you have to make a decision! Sorry, I can’t carry you anymore. I’m sure it’s the same thing with a baker. They cannot serve it the next morning, so they abandon it. Throw it on the street. Christmas trees, same thing. It’s sad. The next day they aren’t Christmas trees, they’re just garbage. Baked bread is garbage. The dead soldier is garbage. I used to be the brave soldier. I used to be the delicious bread. It’s that kind of feeling.
Eiko: We are using a little bit of the Breath material. We are not making anything new. So it’s already old material. We are older. So there’s no new guard or new-kids-from-the-block kind of thing. I like the idea that they consider us as almost like we are invading a little bit. I respect art: It gives us lots of our livelihood, but we’re not making plastic art. That can be beautiful art, but it’s not in our vocabulary.

Time Out New York: I’m glad you’re in there the whole day.
It doesn’t make sense otherwise, does it? When the Whitney invited us we thought, Oh my God, they finally recognized our skill to make an environment, but the curator was the first one to say, “Your environment only works as an artwork if your body is in it. So he’s not recognizing our set-making as an independent work—it is in relationship to our body. Which of course it is! That’s a very good notion coming from an outsider. Caravan is an interesting idea only if it includes body. And it’s kind of nice, because it’s not like a big installation for months—it almost creates another sense of a little pocket of time.

Time Out New York: You touched on this, but how aware are you of people in a situation like this?
I think it will be very different at MoMA. People are busy. We behave like we are the art, but for most people probably we are not.
Koma: I imagine people at the ticket gate. The dad and son come through: “What’s that, Dad?” “Dead. Go upstairs!” [Laughs] Or something like that.

Time Out New York: It’s such an in-between space at the museum.
Yes. They haven’t really entered yet, in a way. We are like a gatekeeper, and they have to pass by, so we may be tainting their experience of MoMA. [Laughs] It’s a weird thing they have to pass to get in and get out. Sometimes curators have a very good way of putting things together. Even looking at the Balzac, with its very big standing body by Rodin—it’s an expensive human being sculpting another expensive human being. And we are like this garbage: performing artist garbage.

Time Out New York: What do you think about all this dance in museums again?
Well, I think it’s good to be included—or not. How do you own us? Memory. We’re not writing any script, we are not selling any memento. We don’t even have a drawing to sell. In that way, we are different from some other people now who are collected. Money-wise we have not been collected except that Naked was commissioned as a part of permanent exhibition in the Walker, so since we got paid, this money comes from their budget for permanent collection. What we got paid was really honest work for creating the piece. People could argue, but it’s different: They own the memory. But we haven’t given them anything beyond that. I really like dance in the museum. Sometimes we have a hard time because people are very noisy and on top of us, but I think it’s good training to grapple with this. Who are we? What are we? What are we doing here? At the Walker, when we were performing I could actually see Andy Warhol’s Sixteen Jackies; here, I’m pretty sure I will see Balzac. I’m the live body and he’s the dead sculpted body.
Koma: Again, you can have the show take one hour or the show take only a couple of minutes.
Eiko: It’s like having dinner with Gia or just having a “hi” on the street.
Koma: Yes! Same Gia.
Eiko & Koma perform at the Museum of Modern Art Jan 16–21.

    You may also like