“There was a kind of intimacy about this scene of river and people, as if the running water were a giant centipede and the people its legs.”
– Hayashi Kyoko, “Two Grave Markers”
Centipede, as of April, 2020:
Five years ago I was Eiko‘s student at Wesleyan University. I was learning to see my body as a landscape, to be popcorn or marshmallow or maggot, while also reading pages and pages of atomic bomb literature. We often were shocked by the atrocities we read about, prompted to say “I can’t imagine” again and again. Eiko insisted that instead we try to imagine.
For my final project, I took on her call to imagine. Inspired by a quote from Kyoko Hayashi describing people desperate for water in the aftermath of the atomic bomb–“There was a kind of intimacy about this scene of river and people, as if the running water were a giant centipede and the people its legs”–I created a landscape of bodies, small figures with their heads towards a river, that continuously grows. Titled, Centipede, I aimed to explore how large numbers like death tolls and statistics dehumanize their subjects while also attempting to enliven each lost individual. Centipede was first performed at Wesleyan University’s Olin Library for nine hours over five days.
After graduating, I continued to work with Eiko helping her with social media, communications, website troubleshooting, but also with reflecting and responding to her work. She continued to invite me to extend the work of Centipede as its relevance kept emerging: I performed at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine in New York City for a an event memorializing the fifth anniversary of the Fukushima disaster curated by Eiko in 2016 (for four hours), at the New York Buddhist Church for their service remembering Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 2017 (for two hours), and at an event, “Facing Disaster,” in which Eiko spoke about Fukushima at Wesleyan in 2018 (for two hours). Centipede’s figures had shifted to act as a conduit for imagination not only for atomic bomb victims but also for those affected by the Fukushima disasters. My idea of loss expanded past death to include those who were forced to evacuate, those whose homes were irradiated, those whose pain and loss were subsumed by a narrative of disaster.
So, it is apt that Eiko asked me to reconsider the drawing in the midst of this pandemic, as as part of her Virtual Creative Residency with Wesleyan University. Of course, this effort to empathize and imagine is relevant for any event in which human lives and deaths get abstracted. I thought, at first, of course.
I feel some hesitation in resuming the drawing. So far, this process has been to understand the scale of lives lost in the past, due to an event that is (largely) over. So far, this process has been an effort to collapse distance and bring the far away right under my nose.
But this pandemic is here and now. It is so literally under my nose, in the form of a mask made out of a tank-top and hair elastics. I am in New York City, “the epicenter.” I hear the sirens constantly. My roommate probably had it. My partner just got tested. I probably have it, had it, will have it. It is so here and now that I can just say “it,” and we all know.
This is different because I am living inside it, through it, among it. But it is the same too. While I am holed up in my partner’s apartment, safe with food, medicine, television, and a puzzle, I can’t see what those sirens really mean. Friends from other cities call and ask “is it really as bad as it looks in New York City?” I don’t know what to say. My visual experience is of the cherry blossoms in our backyard, cooking and doing dishes and cooking and doing dishes again, my computer screen. I only see a five-block radius of brownstones and small apartment buildings and closed storefronts, masked neighbors walking dogs. It’s eerie, but it is not a nightmare. I have yet to see the death. I have yet to know someone in the hospital.
I am inside of this slow, terrifying disaster, but also protected from it by my walls, my whiteness, my wealth, my steady job. I don’t know anyone who has died from it yet. Reporting is coming out that black people are disproportionately affected, disproportionately dying. This system that oppresses, of course, oppresses further in crisis.
They say 100,000 to 200,000 Americans will die from it this year. If someone says, one more time, that “everybody dies sometime anyways” I will fucking scream. Eiko has instilled in me this belief that everyone deserves their own death–a personal death. When we count deaths in such numbers, we depersonalize them. This is the reality of mass violence, of genocides, and even public health crises. We must face the truth that these deaths are not like others. These deaths have to happen in isolation in hospitals. These deaths don’t get funerals. Some of these deaths will be due to rationing care, ventilators, beds. Some deaths will be considered more inevitable than others–eugenics has and will rear its head. Do these numbers count those who will die because of anti-Asian violence? Do these numbers count those who may take their lives when faced with isolation? Do these numbers count those who are trapped inside with abusive partners?
So, this time, I am not counting up towards some finite number. I cannot count because the loss is still evolving, and I feel certain that so much loss and pain will not be “officially” counted. This time, I will lay down and draw to connect with my current reality, to empathize with those who passed alone, to imagine those who face more danger than me now. I will outline each human with care and imagine the pain that I can’t see outside my apartment now. I will lay down and draw not only to focus on the individuals and the now, but also to keep learning how to be with and support a collective when we have to be spread apart.
Day 1, April 22, 2020:
Drawing today was quiet and slow and not as hard as I thought it would be. I mostly heard birds chirping and the garbage truck rumbling and wind howling through our windows. I am in an almost absurdly colorful sweat-outfit because for some reason these days I want to be drenched in bright color. My tendency towards all black outfits (like a classic New Yorker) evaporated once I was stuck inside and watching myself on Zoom all day.
As soon as I lay down to draw, I immediately noticed that all the individuals I drew so far were straight-size (not fat) and seemingly able (had all limbs, fit the “normal” idea of a body). My learning about ableism and fat-phobia since I started this project draws my attention in new ways. I am trying to draw each person with even more specificity and challenging myself to not just draw my body over and over.
When I started drawing, I drew every person a little more spaced out. I think the 6 foot mantra has sunk in in a way that’s really hard to shake. I worry about putting them close to each other. I tell myself that the ones that are closest are family units, viral pods, social bubbles. I tell myself they’ve made the choice to be close and to share air. But I saw a text from Eiko as I took a break and changed the camera position. She said there was something powerful about them being “packed in.” And then I thought about images of the subways packed with people from the Bronx or Brooklyn who need to go to their essential jobs. I thought about apartments full of multiple families. And even the sidewalks of my neighborhood that are only 3 feet wide. So I started placing them closer again, trying to recognize the reality and limitations of “distancing” in this city.
Day 2, May 1, 2020 LIVE:
Today felt about fear.
I was nervous about sharing this in real time. Of course, I’ve always drawn Centipede publicly. But this is different. I am controlling their view of it much more than I’d like. I wish each person watching could hover around me and get close or step back. I wish they could walk over to the start of the drawing, 15 feet away, and inspect an individual drawn five years ago. I wish they could breathe on the paper.
But this is the way we have to share right now. When we can’t be together, we can look at each, what we’re doing, through portals called screens. So this would have to do.
I kept thinking of the last time I saw more than one person at a time, a gathering, you could say–my COVID test. My boyfriend, Alex, and I drove to a testing site in Flatbush, Brooklyn, where we were greeted by a tall, lanky man in military garb and a medical mask who shouted to keep our window closed. He had mastered speaking loudly enough to hear through the his mask and the glass of my window without really yelling.
I watched a doctor and her assistant ready themselves for us. The doctor took off a pair of gloves to reveal another pair of gloves. She threw out the first, and rubbed hand sanitizer on her inner pair of gloves as if the plastic was now skin. She put on another pair over. I only opened my window halfway for her to stick a swab deep inside my head, through the nostril. It felt hot and swirling and pricked a tear duct deep in my skull I didn’t know I had, but I heard her counting to ten and resolved not to cough. It was intimate and gross and sad. I drove off, feeling like I was leaking from the right side of my face, noting that this was the only person I had been so close to besides Alex for over a month
Today, I kept drawing the man who shouted but did not yell (now I can remember his name on his uniform, Jean-Baptiste) and the doctor, a slight woman with an accent, despite puffing up with paper gowns and plastic face shields. I drew them over and over, the people I could imagine most readily.
My little hiccups of fear reminded me of the people I was drawing and the people I have drawn, and what might connect them. From the people searching for water after the atomic bombs, to the evacuees of Fukushima, to those holding onto the small rituals of normalcy during this pandemic and those working, wrapped in plastic, we are all in fear, we are all trying to survive. We are all tired. But we are holding onto our individual humanity while so much of what represents our time is percentages, death tolls, tallies. And we are trying to hold onto each other without touching, through comments on social media and heart emojis and faces on screens, through thick glass and fabric and plastic.
Day 3, May 19, 2020:
When Eiko suggested I resume this drawing amidst the pandemic she repeated over and over “this is up to you” “your health comes first” “you don’t have to exhaust yourself.” I think she emphasized these points because this work had once been an exercise in tiring myself. It was durational – I always drew for at least an hour at a time, often two to four. I forced myself into an extended meditative state, let my hand cramp up, and let my hip bones bruise on a hard floor. But while I am inside the tragedy I am trying to portray, I believe (and Eiko clearly does too) that I have to take a different approach.
So, I have been trying to draw the same way I take runs. I only do so when I feel like it, when the urge strikes me strong enough that the action won’t drain me. I attempt to move away from “shoulds” and more towards wants and needs. I was curious what would happen with this project if I made no schedule or timeline, and just made sure I had the materials available to draw. Besides, if we don’t know how long this state of being will last, how could I plan?
Today, I am in New Haven, Connecticut. I have been living in my parents’ basement for just over a week. I left Brooklyn in search of trees and running without a mask and a bicycle. I feel guilt about leaving and not being sure when I will return, and I can feel the unfairness in my new access to space. I have hesitated in drawing Centipede again because I wonder where my value is in this new perspective from this new place. But today, the desire emerged.
I lay down to draw this morning after a few days of feeling utterly disconnected. It is easier to forget about the pandemic here. It is easier to forget about the pain and suffering of people when you see fewer people. And it is so much easier to forget about the dangers of the “outside” when your “inside” has expanded. In some ways this has been a relief. But my life before COVID now feels more like an abstraction than ever—my work is contained on a screen, my friends have turned into voices on the phone, it’s hard to remember what the subway felt like, or joyful crowds, or live performance. I feel far away and floaty, untethered.
Today, I wanted to connect and remember and imagine the people who were now far, or far less visible to me. I wanted to feel close to unknown people whose suffering gets obscured by graphs and charts and especially by our boredom with quarantine and itching to move again. Today I wanted to see what this new space offered me, and offer it back. I filmed with no plan. I broke my own rules and played music—John Prine. I drew a person, and another. I let myself get bored, and kept drawing anyway. I let myself get bored, and danced in my driveway. I let the wind decide the view of the video—it chose sky and trees.