Image of Eiko Otake standing in an anbandoned bathroom with peeling paint on walls. She is in a yellow gown holding a dark cloak.
Eiko Otake Credit: William Johnston

In performance, Eiko Otake frequently manifests as a ghost: wailing and yelping, biting at the leaves of plants and knocking fences to the ground, staggering and distressed by the contours of what detail, dust, or detritus she encounters, an insolent energy that demands attention, even as she is able to recede into weightless relation with wind and water, shadows and moths. A solo artist since 2014, after a 41-year career in partnership with Takashi Koma Otake as performers Eiko & Koma, Eiko Otake returns to Chicago for consecutive engagements at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago and the Dance Center at Columbia College that reflect on time, place, and memory through video and site-specific performance. Here she discusses life, death, and a lifetime of inviting herself to create. 

I don’t have an artist studio. I create on the site. I can’t set up a performance in my everyday life. That has to come with the presenters and the curators. What I can do when I’m not performing is edit videos. I have 48 external drives. It’s a lot, right? 

I used to call [creating work on video] my unemployment project. [Performers] don’t have much control. Our schedule works by invitation. If we get invited, we create our own project. Sometimes we invited ourselves to make a video, because in the 80s [the National Endowment for the Arts began] a program called Dance on Camera. So we got a series of grants, $5,000, $3,000, just enough to pay our living, and we created those pieces. I also did lectures. Especially with my language skill, I don’t want to compose only by speaking. I would ask how long? Fifty minutes? I would create a 50-minute video that composes my point of view. I didn’t want to pay $50 an hour for hiring an editor, so I’ve learned how to do it. In the middle of the night, I can be doing this for many hours without paying myself or paying anyone else. 

I Invited Myself, Vol. 1
Through 2/3 SAIC community only; public hours, 2/4-2/5, 11 AM-5 PM, SAIC Galleries, 33 E. Washington, saic.edu, free
The Duet Project: Distance is Malleable
Fri-Sat 2/11-2/12, 7:30 PM, Dance Center of Columbia College, 1306 S. Michigan, 312-369-8330, dance.colum.edu, $30 ($15 industry, $10 students)

Originally this was just a teaching residency. But what do I do with all the footage in the drives? If I have a dinner guest, I want to show some of them, but of course it’s kind of an imposition. That was why I said to the school, “Your gallery is open at the beginning of the semester—the students haven’t created any work to show. So instead of going to the classrooms and giving speeches, can I be in the gallery? I will bring all my drives and [the SAIC] have lots of projectors—it’s a resource I don’t have. And students can come in here.”

I’m trying to create a window in the gallery because that gallery is windowless. In the gallery, usually you put this on this wall, that on that wall—usually you try to make the focus good, the placement good. But what if I disturb that? I can shift the projector so the video breaks to the next room. The focus gets blurred. I can go into the projection. I’m using my being in the gallery to disrupt the gallery-ness. I only have ten days’ residency; the show will not stay. So why would I make something so perfect? I’m just trying to explore, and I’m going to create a video of how I disrupt that space. The first thing I want to do when I arrive is to shoot me, with a projector. So I will record empty gallery-ness. And I may use that video also in the exhibition. 

I’m calling this the beginning of my ten-year project. I’m becoming 70 on February 14. This is an age I am still healthy and can still perform. But at 70, you never know how long. And I never wanted to perform just for the sake of performing. 

Not everything is to remain. I can project it instead of waiting for someone to see it and go, “Oh those are amazing works!” That’s just waiting to be discovered. I have never done that. You can wait for a museum curator to knock on your door, or you can just go ahead and do it yourself. So I am choosing the latter, because I never waited for an important person to come; I’ve always shown our work. I was just in Stockholm, and somebody took my class in 1973. She must be at least as old as I am—I was only 21, it was the first class I ever taught! It was not in my thinking—master class? Who? But it was [an] invitation, so I did it, and one person remembers. 

Certain artists have a value that can add to people’s communicable ideas. When we talk about Steve Paxton or Anna Halprin, we know what we are talking about. I admire that. Becoming age 70, I should not be worried about what’s the next piece. I should be tending to my trajectory, selecting what’s in this world. I want to have older pieces be a part of other people’s experience. My experience is, if I show the work, somebody takes note. This is my attitude to life. 

In The Duet Project, from the beginning, I thought not only would I work with people who are living, I would continue to work with [the] dead, including my grandfather, whom I never met. He was a painter. To work with his work, I get to know him and his work much better, just as with living people. I have two friends who died, then my mother died a few years ago. Some people I don’t just let disappear from my life—I work with their life.

[Among the living], I bring [choreographer, performer, teacher, and curator] Ishmael Houston-Jones: similar age, different colors, we both improvise. And I have two young people, [trans artist, performer, and writer] Iris McCloughan and [interdisciplinary artist, singer/songwriter, and producer] DonChristian Jones. Both of them used to be my students. The first time I did my solo, I hired Iris as my dramaturg because I didn’t have anybody to talk to. Iris knew Eiko & Koma’s history and also what I do as a soloist. So Iris has become important to me because they have been almost everywhere I have been as a soloist. This time they said, “I don’t want to be just a dramaturg, I want to perform with you!” So they made themselves my duet partner. 

I brought [DonChristian Jones] to the Rauschenberg residency, which usually has an older crowd—this skinny, African American person, so much younger than the more established artists. I know his history, he knows my history. They are people I trust. I have had honest, even difficult conversations with each one. I got to know each person more, and by doing so, I got to know myself. 

The themes of The Duet Project are time and differences: age, race, upbringing, gender. Dead people don’t talk back. Living people talk back. And the kind of people I work with do talk back. This project is a way of living: How do you make a friend? What does it mean to be friendly? And how do you treat collaborators with respect?