A visual artist and a choreographer come together for an Aug. 9 performance work that bears witness to the annihilation of two entire cities and the complex Japanese and American narratives therein.
Seventy-two years ago, American pilots dropped atomic bombs on the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. To this day, historians debate whether, as the U.S. maintained, the bombings were necessary to end World War II in the Pacific Theater, or whether, as some critics hold, they constituted war crimes.
Visual artist Yukiyo Kawano and choreographer Meshi Chavez are the creators of “Suspended Moment,” a multidisciplinary performance work they developed with composer Lisa DeGrace, videographer Stephen A. Miller, and poet Allison Cobb.
Kawano is from Hiroshima; Chavez grew up in Albuquerque — close enough to the Manhattan Project to have a feel for the American side of this history. They've performed this work in places with strong ties to atomic history, like Los Alamos, New Mexico, the Hanford Site, and are now bringing it to Portland for a fifth incarnation.
Chavez’s practice is based in the Japanese performance style butoh. You may have seen it performed by dancers in white makeup, moving with infinitesimal slowness. But Chavez’s style is something more kinetic and stately. In some sequences, he puts himself through organic contortions, twisting and spinning almost out of control. Others are direct references to everyday activities on either side of the Pacific.
Here are some highlights of our conversation.
Q&A with Yukiyo Kawano and Meshi Chavez
April Baer: Yuki, you grew up in Hiroshima. What kind of city it had become by the time you were living there?
Yukiyo Kawano: So I grew up in the '70s and '80s. There [had been] huge economic growth in the city. The Japanese government wants to adapt American ways of thinking about the war and the history of Hiroshima. They added this title, "Peace City." But there is always this hidden sentiment, the silent voice. That's definitely there.
Baer: Are war experiences something people talk about with their children and grandchildren?
Kawano: My grandfather was 2,000 feet away from ground zero when the bomb hit. When he was still alive I asked him if he could talk about it. He said, "There's nothing to talk about, because you won't understand." I think that's the common way the first generation will talk to children and grandchildren.
Baer: The performance space for “Suspended Moment” is dominated by these two sculptures you made, Yuki. They’re imposing but also translucent, taking on different qualities. They’re models of the bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. How did you make them?
Kawano: During my graduate school I had this dialogue, asking myself where my art comes from. I had my grandmother's kimono hanging in my bedroom. I was curious what kind of feeling and image I'd gain by dismantling the kimono. It was hand-stitched — kimonos are all hand-stitched. I had a seam ripper —
Baer: What did that feel like, to dismantle the kimono?
Kawano: It was very poetic, very zen.
Baer: It sounds like it could have been very traumatic.
Kawano: Well, the history is traumatic. The seam ripper in my hand made it less traumatic, and more personal. Within that activity I had this notion that I'm in a good place to talk about Hiroshima, and then the bomb [sculpture] image naturally came up.
Baer: You used these kimonos from your grandmother’s generation to cover the bomb structures. Did you do anything to prepare them?
Kawano: I tried to age the fabric. I used the natural dye, kakishibu — it means fermented persimmons. It has this rusted look on the fabric.
Baer: Meshi, why was butoh a natural form to try to address things like Hiroshima and Nagasaki, experiences for which language can fall short?
Meshi Chavez: I always talk about it in terms of hierarchy. We've been taught this hierarchy within our bodies. We have a certain set of propaganda we've been told about our bodies.
Baer: You mean how we’re supposed to move and hold ourselves?
Chavez: Exactly and we believe these narratives. Butoh can teach people how to remove that propaganda.
Baer: Your physical language for this seems very much in the grip of something. Bodies have been overwhelmed. What are you holding in your mind as you move?
Chavez: I've been really interested in what I'm calling daily gestures. I'm really interested in human activity. Butoh is about having tasks but they're very simple tasks. In choreographing the piece I've stayed away from any narrative around Hiroshima and Nagasaki. It would be very easy for us to create something very preachy or very destination-oriented.
Baer: So it’s not, “First we’re going to dance the prelude, and then we’re going to dance the firestorm, and then we dance the aftermath ... ”
Chavez: No, in the recent version there's a section where I'm a person fishing, I'm children playing hopscotch, I'm a woman combing her hair. People were really affected by it. What they saw was a woman brushing her hair when the bomb dropped. What I was trying to do was say, "Here we are. Here's humanity."
Baer: Were there ways you tried to keep the project from becoming too alien in the depth of suffering you needed to communicate?
Chavez: Yeah. And I think as the different renditions of the piece evolved, I'm interested in more and more of that.
Kawano: Our goal is bringing history in the present moment. And I think a lot of people in Fukushima and Chernobyl are thinking this way — that the future is really unpredictable.
Baer: Can you say a few words about how you worked together?
Chavez: Yuki and I met through a mutual artist friend, Joaquin Lopez. For Words That Burn, he asked us to work together. Yuki and I — all I knew she was a sculptural artist; she knew I was a Butoh choreographer. We sat there and jammed for 2 1/2 hours. For whatever reason, I think we really understand each other. I think what brought us together was not the subject of the work but the approach.
Kawano: Should I talk about the intransitive verb? So I always find in our conversations this particular language structure. In Japanese language, we have this intransitive verb. It's the verb that basically means, it happens itself. In haiku poems, people use intransitive verb …
Baer: What’s the analogue in English?
Chavez: I don't think we have the same concept.
Kawano: So, for example, in English we would say, "The baby spilled the milk." In Japanese we say, "The milk spilled."
Baer: So there’s a disconnect between subject and object?
Kawano: Right. Saying, "The baby spilled the milk," for Japanese, it feels like it's too harsh — blaming the baby, without good reason for it!
Baer: So causality is more of a thing in English? There’s more openness in Japanese to interpretation? How is that related to your process?
Chavez: So Butoh is all about verbs. We're not there to dance. We're there to perform tasks. And verbs are perfect ways to do that: sit, stand, walk. This intransitive verb — it suggests these objects and things and tasks have a secret life of their own. I think both of us believe part of our job is to let the secret lives of those objects speak for themselves.