On Eiko’s “Duet Project”

When I imagine the Duet Project as a simple image, I see Eiko as a straight line gliding steadily forward. She, the line, acts as a constant, pointing towards an inevitable truth – death? The line intersects with other perpendicular lines on its way, but these collisions never stop her. The line pushes on, pulling the others into diagonals, pulling each one closer to another. We are left, assuming this pattern continues, with a bundle of lines being pulled along like seaweed stuck on a buoy, intertwining, tangling, and practicing to be remembered.

Drawing by Nora Thompson of horizontal line intersected by multiple diagonal lines, like a multi-pronged arrow.

Eiko’s Duet Project, by definition, is the sum of many collaborations, intersections, and interactions. So many, in fact, that they would be hard to connect without the through-line of Eiko. After her first formal showing of the project featuring six collaborators at Cathedral of St. John the Divine on November 20, 2018 I wondered to myself how I could summarize a night that included such varied artists that their creations each deserve their own essay. Should I attempt describe each duet individually and sequentially, as we experienced them, giving a few words for each? Should I try to recall which happened where in the Cathedral, listing out the places that helped us situate ourselves in a new collaboration? Despite recognizing the significance and richness of each duet, I find myself curious what drove Eiko to trust that the multiplicity of the evening wouldn’t be overwhelming. I can’t help but search for a uniting narrative. I wonder not only what will connect these six interactions on November 20, but also what might fuse the countless duets of the Duet Project. I try to identify not only what drives Eiko to maximize her interactions, but also what drives artists to interact with Eiko the way they do.

Eiko once described her video collaborations with DonChristian Jones, a young painter and musician who was once her student, as exercises in “practicing to die.” I hear this phrase in my head every time Eiko calmly acknowledges her mortality over dinner, talking about the Duet Project as her late work. I hear this phrase as Eiko starts the showing on Tuesday with an acknowledgement of the death of her close friend just months prior. I hear it again especially in her duets with the dead, poet C.D. Wright and her grandfather and painter Chikuha Otake. Teach me how to be ready. Teach me how to mourn. Teach me how to matter. Performance as remembering.

Eiko acts as a vessel of these duets with the dead as she interacts with the living. And the living seem to certainly be considering death. Each living duet manifested as a reaction to anticipated death – wailing, ranting, readying.

Margaret Leng Tan and Iris McCloughan wailed. Though their duets with Eiko never intersected with each other, they both occupied the space with an insistent fullness. Margaret played two booming, shrieking Henry Cowell works, one of which was called Banshee, to echo into the huge space. The sound seemed to not only emanate from the piano itself, but also from her body, which undulated and burst with intensity alongside/within her instrument. Iris, later on, ran through the open space of the Cathedral with Eiko and DonChristian, crisscrossing the space with such speed that the audience wasn’t sure whether to follow or just stand and wait for them to whoosh by again. Iris’ expansive, urgent traverses transformed to frenzied writing of (maybe) a poem, one or a few words at a time on paper ripped from a pad as soon as it was marked. Eiko danced mournfully close by, until they united by pushing, pulling, and falling. They filled the space, and maybe each other, with a physicalized death wail. Preparing, readying, mourning what they don’t yet know.

Alexis Moh, a young filmmaker, a friend of mine, and a close collaborator of Eiko’s, ranted. They urgently explained how almost everything and everyone was contributing to the impending death of our planet. They rattled off alarming statistics alongside a screen projecting notes, a counter of Google’s emissions, and videos of Eiko working in her apartment, while Eiko let out helpless whimpers and lightly complained that she couldn’t keep up with Alexis’ standards of ethical consumption. Their duet presented the most significant age difference, which felt relevant considering their contrasting approaches to the giant problems of the world—Alexis ambitious in knowledge and strict in their ethics, justifiably angry, and Eiko a little jaded but sympathetic to her young collaborator’s efforts, listening and getting riled up herself. Despite a duet of contrasts, one ranting, one crying, I could see they both understood the reality, and were preparing.

DonChristian and Eiko readied themselves, just as they had practiced before. Their duet began with him singing, sweetly, mournfully, then displaying a painting of Eiko he had created. Eiko looked on, buried in the crowd of the audience, letting him introduce his rituals alone. They moved together (a pushing and pulling and falling, much like Eiko’s movements with Iris) until they reached a projection of one of their videos in which they floated, bobbed, and crawled into the ocean. They watched themselves practice to die, accept death, float away. DonChristian, fittingly, left Eiko to stand alongside another one of their videos by walking down a long hallway of the Cathedral, singing clearly, walking slowly, alone. They were prepared.

I still wonder if Eiko asked each participating artist to think about his or her duet as a preparation for death, or if she just inspires that sort of serious consideration of mortality in the artists she works with. Maybe, that contemplation is inevitable in a series of duets with artists of different ages, with some dead. Maybe, she simply inspires that sort of reflection in me. Wherever these notions come from, Eiko and her collaborators displayed a unique ability to conjure images of mourning, mortality, and remembrance with an active vitality that brought the space, and the witnesses, alive.

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