What is the Contemporary?

Homage to Kazuo Ohno, a modern Bolero and Marten Spångberg’s ‘Ocean’

© Dominique Baron-Bonarjee

(November 2013, revised 2016)

It’s just over a week since my installation ‘Black Box’ closed at gallery éf in Asakusa. and I’ve spent the week as a spectator seeing an absolute plethora of shows: from re-creations of Kazuo Ohno, to hyperactive ‘entertainment dance performance’ with Japanese dance stars, to what the choreographer himself might call an ‘immaterial performance’ last night at Morishita Studio. Today after, completing my entry into a publication called the Contemporary Performance Almanac, I felt challenged to ponder ‘contemporaneity’ and what it means with regards to performance.

I describe my work as seeking to address contemporary experience and yet I am not sure I know what that means anymore. Last week I had a moment of doubt, on the train platform. I was carting another wheelie-trolley load of bicycle tubes to the gallery for my installation when I oscillated into self-critical thought: “some aspect of contemporary reality doesn’t make sense to me, I have totally veered now into the (possibly dangerous) other side, I know this piece has no bearing on reality whatsoever, look at someone like Jerôme Bel who makes a piece about t-shirts, I don’t even own a t-shirt, I can’t incorporate these popular references into my work because they don’t feature in my world. Am I totally out of touch?”

Dragging in the past


Takao Kawaguchi reviving Kazuo Ohno

On Thursday I saw performance artist Takao Kawaguchi’s ‘About Kazuo Ohno – Reliving the Butoh Master’s Masterpieces’. Takao first appeared, nonchalantly riding a bicycle through the hallway of BankART, the contemporary art space, a former goods warehouse, in the Yokohama dockyards, wearing a motorbike helmet on his head and a blue tarpaulin sheet as a cape. This first glimpse immediately began a process of (contemporary) semiotic structuring within my mind: everyday objects/readymade, irony, childishness, audience interaction, improvisation, the unexpected, risk. Already I could sense’ Judgement’ fomenting.

We are standing in the open area outside the actual performance space, we can move as we wish, the performer himself, is moving randomly about the space playing with objects that are in bags, cases or on the floor: ping pong balls, pieces of fabric, empty plastic bottles, my own umbrella even gets caught up in the chaos of objects. He rushes through from one corner to the next, indulging in child’s-play ham-acting to get into the legendary ‘naivety’ of Kazuo Ohno’s persona: what I see is the dancer Takao, trying to ‘act’ like a child. But I follow him, I want to know where it’s going, where he’s going to take us along this all-too-obvious route. He grabs a banana-shaped water pistol, my mind jumps to Banksy’s graffiti near Old Street: contemporary reference number one, but perhaps I’m the only one, as this is Japan and I’m surely the only person used to Banksy encounters all over east London.

He sections the room with swathes of rough-cut bunting which looks more like bandages: not quite a celebration. Out of a suitcase he produces a plastic rose, and a pelvic-puppet form (pelvis and legs) made of plastic bottles: ‘aha says my mind, I get it, this is the Kazuo reference’. I’m following the swinging plastic bottle legs as the dancer climbs a piece of scaffold, feeling like I know what he’s up to, but at the same time totally blank. I’ve almost lost interest after all the aimless running about, and I’m also hypnotized, swaying absentmindedly to Elvis Presley’s music: Elvis was one of Kazuo’s music staples. Fast-forward through various other meanderings, jogs and runs to the point when I suddenly notice the piece of green astro-turf as the dancer starts to slowly disappear inside the mound of things that were littering the stage: foot inside the helmet, other leg through a suitcase, a fan is dragged into this moving mess. It’s an image I’ve seen in various forms and I’ve nicknamed it ‘the Burden of Objects’: an image that seems to link the super rich to the urban homeless; the accumulation of random objects. I recognized it in Francis Alys’ ‘Los Ambulantes’ photo series and Kawaguchi becomes an ‘ambulante’ as he circles the space: a Diva of debris.

To the bombastic music of Bach’s Toccata in D minor, Kawaguchi walks slowly through the room with his train of flotsam and jetsam, he claws out desperately for a ping-pong ball, that evades him, the lights now reduced to a few stark spots catch a glistening dark sphere eyeballing us beneath this mound of rubbish. And then he vanishes into the darkness of the performance space.

So back to my question about ‘contemporary’: I suppose I’m wondering after this abstract and ‘performance artsy’ entrance, can Kawaguchi, somehow bridge this into Kazuo Ohno’s archival works?

I remember my first encounter with Ohno’s ‘Admiring La Argentina’ of 1977 at the ‘Postmodern’ exhibition at the V&A Museum in London in 2010 (lodged between Grace Jones and Talking Heads) and which began my process of discovery of Kazuo Ohno and his dance.

 “…after self-consciousness has, so to speak, passed through infinity, the quality of grace will reappear; and this reborn quality will appear in the greatest purity, a purity that has either no consciousness or consciousness without limit: either the jointed doll or the god.”

[Heinrich von Kleist, On the Marionette Theater]

I’m sure I won’t be the first to use Kleist to refer to Kazuo Ohno’s dance but I read the essay before studying Ohno’s movement and after I had, I came to understand what Kleist meant. Kazuo Ohno’s jerky movement and over-sized hands are certainly puppet-like: you can check the archival footage of ‘The Dead Sea’ on Youtube (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZUjhQLB0hXY).

And then there is the ‘god aspect’: people often tend to talk about Ohno with tears in their eyes and an ex-pupil of his from Soshin Girls School, whom I met even went so far as to compare him to Jesus Christ. The myth that surrounds him and the intangible quality of ‘purity’ perhaps that Kazuo had, which attracts so much awe from witnesses to his performances must be that yearned for return to the innocence and lack of self-consciousness or infinite consciousness that Kleist has identified. Kazuo Ohno’s experiences in WW2 and POW camps, and the impact it had on a sensitive consciousness created a sort of ‘death’ in him. In a letter from the war front he writes:

“Yesterday, I listened to Schumann’s Carnaval (Opus 9) played on piano by Cortot. Not having heard music for such a long time, I was moved to tears.”

(Kazuo Ohno, Chronicle of a Lifetime, p23 Canta Publishing)

In an interview with Kazuo’s son, Yoshito, he told me that Kazuo never spoke about this period in his life: It wasn’t that he was trying to be like a dead person. He felt he was already half dead.” (Y. Ohno interview, 2012)

In Western cases, this problem might be given the label of post-traumatic stress disorder and be treated as psychiatric illness. Although suicide was, and possibly still is, widely accepted as a brave and honourable action in Japan, mental illness is taboo. I can’t go into a discussion about the meanings and analysis of madness in this paragraph, but to call into this context Luigi Pirandello’s play, ‘Enrico Quarto/Henry IV’, madness is often seen as a state of personal freedom which threatens established social mores and structures. In Kazuo Ohno’s case, this self-consciousness “passed through infinity”, and died. And in a sense, it is a part of his ego that died: for Lacan the ‘mirror stage’ of ego development is when the infant’s consciousness of self is awakened, when the child sees its own reflection in the mirror. By going through the mirror, Kazuo Ohno came back with ‘the quality of grace’, which dwells within the puppet or the god according to Kleist.


Kazuo Ohno in the ‘Mr O’ films

And what of Kawaguchi’s homage? His performance ‘About Kazuo Ohno – Reliving the Butoh Master’s Masterpieces’ is described thus in the Ohno Fest festival programme: Takao Kawaguchi perfectly copied Kazuo Ohno’s movement sequence in Admiring La Argentina, The Dead Sea, and the other performances. This is the thrilling stage in which you meet Kazuo Ohno through Takao Kawaguchi, the medium.”

In the prelude, as an ‘ambulante’, Kawaguchi covered in his heap of objects, brings to mind a figure we know, the ‘outsider’ from society, the tramps at Tokyo station or from the dark banks of the Sumida River. Those who perhaps have not managed to make it back with ‘grace’ and hide their shamed egos under those blue tarpaulins that cover the objects they cling to. This prelude is a passage, through which we travel and as the space changes and the lights are lowered, we have gone through the mirror.

Now, no more objects, just a body, naked. He puts on those old costumes hanging on the rail: the same ones I’ve seen so many times at the Kazuo Ohno Studio. The names of the performances are projected on the back wall: ‘My Mother’, ‘The Dead Sea’, ‘Admiring La Argentina’. He dances. A strong body, a cryptic face that seems to morph and transform from young to old male to female, expressive hands, and that strange stilted movement, which suddenly breaks off into flights of dancing ecstasy which I recognise from the documentation footage of Kazuo Ohno’s performances. I search this movement for that quality Kleist has brought to my attention and I realise that I am asking myself those questions again: about Kazuo Ohno’s dance about his body and the traumatic experiences that became so fused within his body? And it seems that something within this disembodied performance is bleeding out some answers: ‘disembodied’ because Kawaguchi is not there, he seems to have disappeared in the walking heap, and all I see is a body veiled with a certain quality of perhaps, dare I say, ‘purity’, a medium.

At this point, I’m not looking at Kawaguchi with any judgment on his similitude or not to Kazuo Ohno, bur rather through his dance, something unravels, which touches on how matter and spirit correlate through time and through bodies. With the device of his prelude of objects, a sort of deluge of signs, he succeeds in creating a space where the past (Ohno’s spirit) and present (Kawaguchi’s body), merge in an aeonic moment, devoid of signs, analysis and judgement and perhaps in that moment of timelessness we can glimpse what contemporary means as a moment where the palimpsest of bodies exposes a line of movement from the past to the future.

Reversing out of there to return to my intellectual examination of what contemporary is, I decided that having a wide frame of reference and especially one that doesn’t respond directly to my personal tastes is a good rhizomatic direction to explore.

Saturday night in the Galaxy

Saturday night’s performance is ‘Bolero – Paradise Lost’ presented by Entertainment Dance Performance Company and starring Japanese entertainment star, Higashiyama Yoshihisa, at the Galaxy Theatre. It is fairly full, primarily with young women: the opposite of the stage scenario which is made up of ten men and three women.

The dancers are young, highly skilled all trained contemporary and/or classical dancers (one dancer has won The Japan Contemporary Dance Competition Awards four times in a row) and display an array of fascinating hair colours and styles. They jump, writhe, twist and claw their way through 1.5 hours of non-stop dance. They get a standing ovation. I feel hazy, having been constantly ‘danced at’ for all that time: the experience has created a sort of pacified anxiety in me. And if I observe it analytically I can confirm that that is a fairly common contemporary emotion: being wowed to the point of inadequacy. Not that I feel inadequate, but rather that no response is possible or required to such a performance, except possibly a standing ovation before you walk out into the night dazed and confused.

‘Bolero’ deals with the great themes of ‘good versus evil’ and does it in the slickest way possible, beneath an incomprehensible set comprising of neo-classical columns and futuristic bits and pieces, and extensive costume changes as the opposing energies fight it out over and over again on stage until the grand finale, where everyone reconciles in a sort of white tie affair which could be the contemporary dance version of a G20 summit. Now I recall that feeling of pacified anxiety: it also surfaces when I’m faced with the performance of ‘contemporary politics’. A lot of noise, gesticulation, one-upmanship, make up and, whatever I think or say won’t make much difference.

The two aerial artists, imported from the UK, give a moment of relief as they soar in the air, giving us that utopian hope of how things could be, but the ‘showing off’/campaigning for attention on stage continues even during those short episodes of impossible dreams.

I wonder if the creators of ‘Bolero – Paradise Lost’ are aware of this new narrative that may have spun off from their entertainment performance, unlike Mårten Spångberg who seems very aware of the contemporary environment he is formulating.

‘Ocean’, a performance, performed

The last in my series of wild card performances in search of ‘what contemporary means’, took me to the Morishita Studio in east Tokyo on Sunday night for Swedish choreographer, Mårten Spångberg’s piece entitled ‘Ocean’.

I know Spångberg as a contemporary and friend of Jerome Bel and Xavier Leroy. A group of male ‘conceptual choreographers’ who seem to project similar personalities and attitudes: easy going, slightly jokey and cool, don’t take themselves too seriously, play around, and with each other… a great deal.

I arrived at Morishita Studio and as I paid for my ticket, I was invited to buy a beer and kindly informed, or instructed, that I could drink it during the performance. Inside the studio, Mårten himself, all long-haired giggling gangly Swedish enthusiasm, greeted us and asked us to sit down and make ourselves comfortable: he kept suggesting we lie down in fact. He also emphasised that we could make phone calls, take pictures, check our facebook, etc. during the performance. Perhaps another pointer to my existence outside of the ‘contemporary world’ is that I don’t have a phone or mobile data or internet, so of course all I could do was concentrate on the moment itself.

The studio, which I know well, had been transformed with all kinds of colourful objects from the hyakku ((¥ 100) yen shop, the equivalent of the pound or euro shop: blue tarpaulins featured once again, a pile of oranges, some mouthwash, nail polish and more plastic bottles and other odds and ends. I was reminded of Thursday’s man on the bicycle who ends up wrapped in his blue tarpaulin, a fan attached to his foot and plastic bottles for puppet legs. The costumes were a heap of signs once again, oversized t-shirts over more oversized t-shirts, basketball shorts, shiny bits layered over them, cute cool feather headbands or hiphop-style caps, a guy in a woman’s cape, seemingly very excited raced around gleefully.

Colours and layers and signs: a smörgåsbord so loaded that its contents were almost unrecognisable, presented to us under the glare of the lights reflected in the silver paper of the makeshift floor. And Mårten reminding us once again that we could lie down, or check our facebook, was wearing a t-shirt that said ‘California’ written in the Coca Cola-swoosh design.

The performers themselves, who had attended a four day workshop, started off their dance by coming out of the audience and striking a pose. From then on they moved very slowly from position to position, breaking off into groups: not quite vogueing, it created an abstract landscape of absurdist movement. What I noticed most were the performers’ eyes: either staring vacantly or flitting from point to point, never resting in one place, like people on a moving train or surfing through the channels or their phone messages. I wondered if this was part of the choreography. Sometimes they would go still again in a sort of tableau vivant. Then a pair would stray off to paint their nails, another one to play with oranges, two of the dancers moved from one counter-balance pose to another, simultaneously chewing gum ad vitam eternam in a trendy yoga automatism. A friend who performed in this event, Aya Ito, explained to me later that they had been instructed during Mårten’s workshop process to “move from their chakras”…

There were ‘plants’ all over the audience: people associated with Morishita studio, I guessed, who had been instructed in how the choreographer wished the audience to behave. One woman loudly enquired as to what drink her friend wanted and then walked purposefully across the stage (or ‘non-stage’) to go and buy it, again asking for it in a very loud, performative (very un-Japanese) way. Then the ‘barman’ would get up whimsically and start twisting around to the constant flow of pop tunes being half-heartedly karaoke-ed along to by two ‘cute’ girls described in the Google translate version of the advert for the performance as “ also Sweden gal two, beautiful people appear”. They were taking photos of each other and the performance, and Mårten, sitting next to them, was egging them on with his boyish energy. Some people followed the gyrating barman and started to sway a little awkwardly. Some people slept.

The movement was beginning to generate a feeling of two-dimensionality: perhaps that was the point of encouraging us to take photos and experience the piece through the medium of technology and smartphones. It could have been a photoshoot for the new experimental branch of ‘American Apparel’, the tag line being: “don’t take yourself too seriously, be cool and pretend you’re human.”

I felt as if I was watching TV, and I don’t even watch TV and haven’t had one for more than eight years and this is exactly how it makes me feel whenever I happen to encounter one: alienated. In fact I felt like an alien looking at something that seems familiar and yet being totally disconnected from it: as if through glass. In this ‘Ocean’ I was the one in the water, looking through the porthole of a submarine called ‘Contemporary’. I started to question if I was perhaps slightly socially-inept as I watched other spectators doing as they’d been slowly coerced to do, dancing, drinking, looking at their phones etc.. Though normally I’ll dance at any occasion, I just don’t like doing things in what seems like a forced situation: like I’m being told to participate and respond in a certain way. In fact in this “art experience” that Spångberg has created, I’m being told to ‘perform’.

Mårten as quoted on Jerome Bel’s website says:

“The possibility of an art-piece, even a choreography, today is not to propose an utterance, but to invite the spectator to re-invent him/herself, or perhaps less utopic, to re-search his/her ideology of watching, of constructing Self, or articulating security. The artwork cannot say anything in itself, it can represent a political idea or concept, but today the artwork is a formulation of itself. The artwork can only investigate, or re-search, its own domain, and become self-conscious through reflection (per speculum in aenigmae) and through this awareness it can become an experience of the Self (the spectator) but never an experience of something else. To be part of an art-experience is always only the experience of the self.”

Mårten Spångberg


So here we are in front of the mirror again: staring self-consciously at our reflection. I questioned my responses to mainstream culture, music, fashion, societal pressure as I watched through that glass: no strong feelings, no love, no hate, just boredom. And to be faithful to this ‘experience of the Self’ I had to time out after one hour (it went on for two hours).

I imagine that this is the response that Spångberg would be pleased with, as his work definitely succeeded in giving me an experience of my Self, and made me respond in a manner that was totally truthful: I made a conscious choice to opt out.

I wanted to know more about Spångberg’s concept, as the experience itself was almost too literal: create a space that mirror’s contemporary society and makes you reflect on your relationship to it by being immersed within a concentrated moment of it; banality for the sake of reiterating banality.

And so I happened to come across a text he had written ‘What is the meaning of contemporary?’ which in turn elicited my own response. I am still pondering ‘what is contemporary’ and questioning it on the micro-level of individual existence as well as the macro-level of society and history as I wander from West to East again.

And strangely enough I was recently pointed in the direction of Italian philosopher Giorgio Agamben. And he too has written an essay entitled: ‘What is the Contemporary?’

His text throws me back towards my initial pathway of investigation once again: Hijikata’s ‘Ankoku Butoh’ and what this means today, 50 years later. Agamben’s thought opens with a poem by a Russian poet, Osip Mandelstam, entitled ‘The Century’. It conjures the image of a beast walking towards the future, but at the same time turning back to witness its backbone that is crumbling into the past and history. It is this shattering that is the point of ‘contemporariness’, “this fracture a meeting place or an encounter between times and generations.” (Giorgio Agamben, Nudities, p18)

The meanings of contemporary be it in art, dance, culture, politics, as a whole seem multifarious, and confusing, there is a tendency to say that something is ‘contemporary’ if it has contemporary relevance, which seems to throw us into a mobius strip logic. I’d like to turn to the artist Hito Steyerl’s critique of various forms of contemporary culture in her video works for a final flash of inspiration. In her video ‘Duty Free Art’ she says that ‘contemporary art is the lack of a global time’. By this I believe she means that we are conscious of each other but all on a different page, across continents and cultures, let alone individually, and this is because of the availability of information, networks and ease of travel, the very reason I am here, that bring us closer, and further apart and make definitions harder to narrow down and ring-fence, culture more difficult to categorise. And in this way are we approaching a moment like the one described by Kleist of “no consciousness or consciousness without limit: either of the jointed doll or the god”?

I will end these thoughts as an invitation to explore the darkness, the fractured presence of the contemporary, in all its penumbral permutations:

“To perceive, in the darkness of the present, this light that strives to reach us but cannot – this is what it means to be contemporary. All eras, for those who experience contemporariness, are obscure.”

(Giorgio Agamben, Nudities)