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Eiko Otake's video installation 'Mother' brings forth bodily experience on mortality

Eiko Otake with her latest artwork Mother at Historic Chapel, Green-Wood Cemetery, New York, drew on the maternal lineage to set the framework of who we are in the present.

by Dilpreet BhullarPublished on : Jun 17, 2023

The movement-based interdisciplinary artist and performance artist Eiko Otake through her five-decade-long career has explored the complexity of the nuanced themes of death, loss and reconciliation. To accept the truth of the body as a site of inevitable decay and invincible mortality is to face the hardest fear of human reality. New York-based Japanese artist Otake, with her latest installation Mother at Historic Chapel, The Green-Wood Cemetery in New York, traced the relationship between body and death through the temporality of the past, which is intrinsically tied to the maternal lineage. After her 2020 performance A Body in a Cemetery, co-presented by Pioneer Works, Otake returned to The Green-Wood Cemetery with Mother. The Green-Wood Cemetery established in 1838 with a wide expanse of open ground and mammoth architecture serves as an outdoor museum, nothing short of rich history. The site-specific video installation and sculpture installation by Otake was an intimate conversation with the artist’s mother who passed away in 2019 as well as a space for introspection on our bodily connection to a mother. 

Performance by Eiko Otake | Mother | STIRworld
Performance by Eiko Otake, 2023, Photograph Image: Aodi Liang

Mother as a piece of artwork is an exception for the artist. Until 2021 when she was commissioned and performed Slow Turn, a full-length monologue to mark the 20 years since the 9/11 attacks, she had rarely spoken in any performances. Since the work is the result of a personal loss, as an artist the key is to maintain a critical distance while making a work of art. In an interview with STIR, Otake noted, “I am an immigrant with a heavy foreign accent. Talking to my mother, for me, was where being personal intersects with commonality as humans across individual differences. To see a mother, the body from which many of us came, die, is a profound experience. Even though some people did not grow up with biological mothers or had difficult relationships with their mothers, the fact is we all have mothers. Without a mother, none of us exist. So, presenting my case, I hope to ring something more universal.” 

Portrait of Eiko Otake | Mother | STIRworld
Portrait of Eiko Otake Image: William Johnston

From traversing the remnants of irradiated Fukushima to practicing her death, encountering the impermanence of life is a way to initiate an acquaintance with the physical as well as the emotional experiences of the person of the past. Mother drew a lineage across the past with the present, where memory is replete with future possibilities. As a part of the artwork, an image of her mother on a creased and wrinkled paper, which has also been used as a troupe in performances before, transmuted to be a “metaphor for a body.” The photograph immortalised the deceased in their memory. Otake is acutely aware of the complacent, complicated, and cordial relationship everyone shares with their mother irrespective of their presence or absence— it apprises and defines “who we are, and who we may become.” 

Installation view of Eiko Otake: Mother on view at The Green-Wood Cemetery| Mother | STIRworld
Installation view of Eiko Otake: Mother on view at The Green-Wood CemeteryImage: Maria Baranova, Courtesy of The Green-Wood Cemetery

Even though the installation drew on elements from her mother’s funeral, the exhibition engaged viewers beyond Otake’s personal experience. It is not important to share her memories but in constructing a performance and an installation, some of her memories dictated some details. She succinctly mentioned, “This does not mean I want my viewers to know, understand or connect with my memories. Rather, it only matters that I am not ambivalent in performing these details, which, I hope, makes the time and space I share with the audience more dense, and rooted. I am not concerned if viewers like it or not but striving for that density is important to me. It is more profound than each viewer feels a strange density in which they are compelled to make their discoveries, their discoveries lasting more than what is prescribed.” 

Installation view of Eiko Otake: Mother on view at The Green-Wood Cemetery| Mother | STIRworld
Installation view of Eiko Otake: Mother on view at The Green-Wood CemeteryImage: Maria Baranova, Courtesy of The Green-Wood Cemetery

Dance is an amalgamation of visual art, including space, body, movements, and time. Since the human body and performance is crucial to Otake’s practice, one is curious to know about her interest towards the sensorial experience of the body. Aware of the vulnerability of the body that sets our course of existence, Otake expounded, “A body can survive many assaults, but one cannot cut a body in half and survive. We are so unequal in our lives, talents, looks, classes, health conditions, and nationalities yet every living thing has a body. I think in residing intentionally in one’s body one can also imagine others. Having a body is common among us and with other species. All lives were born and will die. Eros and Thanatos.”

Otake has been bestowed with several awards, including Bessie's Special Citation, the Anonymous Was a Woman Award, Art Matters Award, and the Doris Duke Performing Artist Award. Otake refrains to mention about the absolute consequentiality of her practice. She values an experience that presents the unknown. She makes work only to present time and space where people are collective yet do miss their individuality.

Mother was on view at The Green-Wood Cemetery, New York, until May 7, 2023. 

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