The average audience member accustomed to the safety and predictability of the proscenium stage experience often meets the phrase “performance installation” with cringes. The phrase is so vague. Neither “performance” nor “installation” explicate anything beyond someone does something somewhere. This open-endedness frequently breeds heavy-handedness on grand topics; with few boundaries it is easy to lose focus both as an artist and as an audience. This is not performance installation specific, but it is more prevalent in the genre. Fortunately, when a performance installation is successful in maintaining a focus and creating its own boundaries the effects are startling and profound. This was the case with the presentation of Eiko and Koma’s Fragile at the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts. The Japanese husband and wife duo accomplished the creation of a microcosm that while founded in the simplicity of two human bodies in repose became complex in its investigation of the body as an historical vessel and the construction of gender.
The physical space created for the performance was textured and organic. Within the walls of the Center’s white box theatre an inner room was delineated with papier-mâché style canvas partitions with black feathers embedded into the material and holes of varying sizes that offered glimpses into the womb-like arena where the performance took place. Within the center of this installation lay Eiko and Koma completely nude and painted an ivory hue, lying atop a bed of black feathers. Behind them sat the Kronos Quartet who accompanied the performance with live music. Upon becoming accustomed to the nuances of the atmosphere created by the installation the focus of the performance was dominated by the infinitesimal subtleties in movement performed by Eiko and Koma. Both performers appeared androgynous, equally hairless and covered in paint, transcending the cultural norms of the gendered body on stage. Although the frame and musculature of the two differed, the male’s sex, and front side for that matter, was never completely revealed, creating a complement and counterpoint to the highly exposed female body. With the female body frontally exposed and the male body’s continual posterior presentation, the two were in essence two halves of one whole.
By focusing on the most mundane gestures and slow sustained movement, like the vulnerability of an exposed chest, the intensity of an unblinking gaze, or a gradual reaching, Eiko and Koma remove the illusion of the abiding gendered self and reveal an historical body that reflects the shared acts of gender normativity and continues into the foundation of gender identity. In Fragile the viewer is confronted with bodies void of virtuosity or façade. The performers are not only exposing their bodies to an audience, they are exposing each body in the room. It is this inclusive quality that distinguishes it as a successful use of the installation forum and genre. Throughout the performance the lights continually transition from a focused spot on the two performers to raised house lights that fall on every body in the space, performer and audience member alike. This luminous effect does not allow the audience to become completely lost in the microcosm created by Eiko and Koma, when the lights came up on everyone, the viewer was reminded of their own body, their body’s relationship to the other bodies in the space, and their body’s own gender performance.