Human conditions

As in butoh, Pipilotti Rist seeks the primordial and the present

by Donald Eubank

Like Picasso at his most mythologically cubist or a dark dream from the subconscious, the Dairakudakan butoh dance troupe took its audience back to the primordial for its 35th anniversary performances last week — and then brought it right back to the present.

A full two minutes after the lights went down, “Kami no Benki (The Earth is God’s Toilet)” finally started with three strangely frail and determined characters striking flints in the dark, casting out sparks and noisy clacks, putting a whole world in motion. These creators summoned forth onto stage convulsive, wild-haired divas, brightly grimacing servants, grunting women giving birth, human yins and yangs and a gibbering idiot, as well as much, much more.

Dairakudakan, a youngish troupe led by veteran butoh dancer Akaji Maro, deal in creation myths, fashioning a world out of the bizarre interactions of mysterious beings; these myths often end up with a comment on you in today’s society, and sometimes even on themselves.

The effect of watching a Dairakudakan performance feels remarkably similar to that of interacting with the works of Pipilotti Rist, who is currently showing in “Karakara,” her first solo exhibition in Japan, at the Hara Museum of Art until Feb. 11. A Swiss video artist who places her pieces around the museum on screens, as projections and as parts of installations, Rist deals with the body, the many confines of the fallen world and the joy of freedom from it — the same concerns as butoh.

Rist is already well known in Europe and the United States, having won the Premio 2000 award for outstanding achievement at the Venice Biennale in 1997 for the video installation “Ever is Over All,” which is showing at the Hara. “Ever” is a joyful work in which a smiling, immaculately dressed young woman strolls down the street breaking the windows of cars with the stem of a torch lily, a massive flower. Nextdoor is “I Couldn’t Agree With You More” (1999), a projection in three segments: the artist in her apartment, staring practically through the camera, as she does in almost every piece in which she features herself ; her on a crowded bus; and in a grocery store, expertly swinging the camera around as if performing a religious ritual while revealing shoppers, aisles and food products. She ends the last segment with a shot of apples.

The whole piece has a second video embedded in its middle of naked people peaking from behind trees at night, so it’s as if she’s speaking of the expulsion from the Garden of Eden here: once we wandered wild and nude, now we shop in square stores for packaged edibles — and the occasional fruit of knowledge.

Many of her earlier works have this religious slant. One of the most amusing, “Selfless in the Bath of Lava” (1994), was described by Rist herself at a lecture at the Hara as being designed to make “the viewer become the god, with the possibility of giving relief.” In a tiny hole in the floor, a screen shows her naked, looking up and ranting at you, probably cursing the state in which she finds herself. Viewers, helpless to do anything to calm her — perhaps like any gods that may exist — will probably only laugh and walk away bemused.

“Apple Tree Innocent on Diamond Hill” (2003) continues the Garden of Eden parallel. For years Rist has collected transparent items such as the plastic product packaging you’d find on just about anything that you buy in the Japanese”everything” store Don Quixote. In “Apple Tree” she hangs this modern detritus on two branches and backlights them to cast shadows that include the viewer on the wall. Is this what we have gotten for picking the apple? Still, it is beautiful and contemplative.

But her most recent works mostly shun narrative and simply celebrate the body, the mind, or the machine as a metaphor for the body instead. “Closed Circuit” (2000) is the most confrontational. In a bathroom past the museum store she has installed a window in the bowl of a toilet with a camera that shows what transpires as you’re squatting there onto a screen in front of you. Rist points out that we are so close to our body but never see its most intimate actions. Here you do (though according to reviews in other countries, less so in Japan than in similar installations elsewhere).

Rist stated her manifesto in her Hara lecture: “The artist’s task is to contribute to evolution, encourage the mind, guarantee a detached view of social changes, conjure up positive energies, create sensuousness, reconcile reason and instinct, research possibilities and destroy cliches and prejudices.”

In this she is physically fearless, and utterly lacking shame. Butoh dancers, who often perform almost in the buff, share this same comfort with the body, as well as Rist’s fond but critical eye on the modern world. At the end of Dairakudakan’s “The Earth is God’s Toilet,” a play within a play takes place: Maro, as a parody of a modern young Japanese woman — the final product of the performance’s creation myth — is on a smaller stage on the main stage, surrounded by an audience of his fellow butoh performers. Three unicorns pierce him with their horns until he falls dead. The unicorns then remove their masks to reveal that they were the original three unsteady fire-starters. They have destroyed their final creation, Maro — but not the audience on stage, who have seemingly pulled cell phones, digital cameras and bottles of cola out of the air, and who applaud as the lights go down. When the lights come back up, all the performers sadly wave at the audience within the theater — they, the creators of their show, were still at our mercy, not free of us yet.

Rist uses the latest technology to show our world and reach for what came before. In the steady gaze she directs at her camera, she is the artist with an audience, teaching her lessons of the past and future from behind the work. But she is in the same predicament as the fire-starters; the persona within the works she crafts — the creator or liberator — is herself trapped within them and before our eyes.

Perhaps this is why she has titled the exhibition “Karakara,” a double meaning from the Japanese words for “dry” and “laugh.” There is something fun and funny here, but also something clear-eyed, darkly positive and sad.

If you haven’t seen a butoh performance yet, take the next chance — Dairakudakan will present the second part of its anniversary Thursday through Saturday. Most first-time viewers, regardless of comprehension, are immediate converts. And if you can’t make a show in the next couple of days, stop by the Hara instead. Rist has found a way to capture through her videos the same difficult themes that butoh does.

“Karakara” shows until Feb. 11 at the Hara Museum of Contemporary Art; entrance ¥1,000; open 11 a.m.-5 p.m. (closed Mon.). For more information call (03) 3445-0651 or visit www.haramuseum.or.jp. Dairakudakan will perform “Kami no Koku (God’s Empty Space)” at the Setagaya Public Theatre on Dec. 20-23. For more information and tickets, call (03) 5432-1526 or visit www.setagaya-ac.or.jp/sept.