'It wasn't just a few buildings that were destroyed," recalls Eiko Otake. "It was an entire community that was gone. The earthquake, then the water, then the radiation. It was too much."
Otake is, of course, referring to the 9.0-magnitude earthquake that rocked the coast of Japan in 2011, triggering 10-story tsunamis and destruction that would lead to meltdowns of three nuclear reactors in Fukushima. Today, what's left behind is forbidden ground, largely still evacuated and quarantined due to high levels of radiation. Otake, however, has uncovered the beauty of the human condition through the rubble and twisted metal.
Otake, 62, and her husband and partner Koma Otake, 66, are based out of New York City and together form a highly acclaimed performance duo. For the past 42 years they've earned their accolades in the contemporary arts community by choreographing and performing Butoh-style (a highly diverse dance form that often involves white body paint and slow movement) dance shows and exhibitions worldwide. In 1996 they received a MacArthur Fellowship, or "Genius Grant"— the first ever given to a partnership, rather than an individual.
But this year Eiko Otake unveiled a solo project inspired while she waited for a train in Philadelphia. As she remembers it, "I was standing at the train station and I looked around at the space and the people," paying attention to how those particular bodies — coming, going, waiting — occupied that particular space. Then the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts approached her about a show.
"I called William [Johnston]," she says, "and asked him if he wanted to contrast a train station in Fukushima, Japan, with the one in Philadelphia."
So she flew to Fukushima with Johnston, photographer and professor at Wesleyan University in Middletown, Connecticut (where Otake has been serving as a visiting artist). Johnston took pictures of Otake in the station, and in the surrounding landscape. The product of this effort is A Body in Fukushima, a photography exhibit of 140 works, with two videos comprising still photos Otake "choreographed," edited and put to sound.
It debuted in Philadelphia in October, and a variation is coming to the Galleries of Contemporary Art this week. GOCA is one of just three venues currently slated to host the show.
It's not difficult to understand why this project is dear to Otake. Originally from Japan, she grew up well aware of the country's tense nuclear history. "A lot of people may not know or realize that Japan is the only country to ever have a nuclear weapon used against it in history," she says. "The irony is that survivors of Nagasaki and Hiroshima have no idea why the Japanese government hasn't fully educated itself on radiation. This is very humiliating to people who were radiation survivors."
So she applies her gifts. "I feel if I could use my body as a conduit, that would be good," Otake says. "I want people to feel the relationship between my poses, to my presence, to the landscape behind my body."