Dance, Sculpture, Body — A conversation between Damien Jalet and Nawa Kohei

A conversation between Damien Jalet (choreographer) and Nawa Kohei (sculptor)
Moderator: Ozaki Tetsuya

—— Since May this year Damien Jalet and Nawa Kohei have been researching and creating at Villa Kujoyama in Kyoto. Villa Kujoyama is an artist-in-residence facility run by the French government, and the launch this year of a new program by the name of “Duo” now facilitates collaborations consisting of a Francophone and Japanese artist. One such duo is that of Nawa and Jalet.
I was general producer of the performing arts section at the 2013 Aichi Triennale. Among the invitation performances was a piece by the title L’image directed by Centre Dramatique National d’Orleans director Arthur Nauzyciel, in which Jalet took part as a dancer. After the performance, when Jalet-san asked which works in the visual arts section of the Triennale were especially worth a look, I recommended that by Nawa-san.
Nawa  It was a piece called Foam, as the title indicates, a sculpture or rather installation consisting entirely of foam. I darkened a 25m square room with a 4m ceiling height, spread black gravel on the floor, and made the foam hover there, cloud-like. The foam actually rose up out of the floor, but my aim was to offer visitors the primeval experience of an encounter with some single, giant life form. Up to that point I’d been taking the concept of the cell, or bubble, and developing it in drawings, sculptures and installations. Foam was something I’d been wanting to do for about 15 years, since my post-grad days, that finally came together in 2013 as a culmination of the “Cell” series.

Nawa Kohei, Foam, 2013, installation view, AICHI TRIENNALE 2013
courtesy of Aichi Triennale 2013 and SANDWICH, photo : Nobutada OMOTE | SANDWICH

Meeting at the Aichi Triennale
—— Jalet-san, what did you think of Foam when you saw it?

Jalet  As Kohei says, it was primitive; yet simultaneously utterly modern, and I was mesmerized. The sheer scale of the installation was overpowering, and it struck me as being directly connected to the landscape, yet with a contemporary interpretation.
I had actually, purely by coincidence, seen work by Kohei a couple of weeks earlier at Tokyo’s SCAI the Bathhouse (a gallery representing Nawa). The gallery was closed but having persuaded them to let me in, I found a work that was a deer covered in beads. I was astounded by the way it was organic, yet transcended organicness, so to speak. Having learned after seeing Foam that this was the same artist, I was very keen to meet him. Intuitively I knew we could do something together.
—— Jalet-san’s being coincidentally so pushy may be what brought you together, in fact (laughs). Let’s start shall we by taking a look here at the video Jalet-san has brought along.
Jalet  This is a kind of trailer for what I’m doing at the moment. It shows snippets from my work up to last November, and the filming is ongoing. The title is Ferryman, and it’s been made in collaboration with Gilles Delmas.
(Having watched the video)
—— It’s intense, to say the least. An eclectic mix including a dance performance in front of a sculpture at the Louvre; scenes from Bolero for the Paris Opera, choreographed with the likes of Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui and the artist Marina Abramović; and you “co-starring” in a Balinese barong dance.
Jalet  It traces my journey over the last three years. In Bali I encountered in person many different forms of “trance,” and the Louvre project also consisted of a combination of the primitive and the extraordinarily sophisticated.
At the Louvre, I considered the possible connections between dance and sculpture, their differences and commonalities, and arrived at things like “immobility” and “suppressed energy.” Stone, that is to say sculpture, has a suppressed energy evident even after centuries. Some sculptural pieces are eight or nine thousand years old, so questions surrounding the ephemeral and the eternal also arose.
The Balinese dance, for which similar questions are relevant, was performed in a highly sculptural form. In Babel co-created with Sidi Larbi, we had sculptor Antony Gormley do the set. Thus such dialogue was already underway with Babel.
Dance is highly transitory by nature, and remains only in the memories of those who see it. Sculpture however must surely have the greatest longevity of any art form. Both explore how to take something that is physically transient, and render it permanent via an artistic format. How do we connect movement to other movement? What are the primitive roots of dance? What prompted humans to first start dancing? In my view the answers lie in places like Bali.
—— Nawa-san, you were shown this video soon after meeting Jalet-san, I believe. What was your initial impression?
Nawa  In one part Damien is wearing deer antlers, and as I was making sculptures with deer a lot at the time, I though it was a message from the gods, deer being divine messengers (laughs).
—— Meaning it was the deer that brought you together (laughs).
Nawa  Plus he appeared to be actively trying to stick out, rapidly changing the format of his dancing you could say, so I sensed in him a different kind of allure to that the other dancers. Then when we met after that, I noticed that much of what he had to say was very close to what I’m doing, and the concepts that interest me. It struck me as we conversed that here was someone I could create a work with.
—— What was close to your own work?

Nawa  First Damien said he wanted to take things like “life” and “cells” as his themes. He knew that I had rolled out a series of sculptures with a “cell” motif, and communicated to me in no uncertain terms his desire to make on stage something that looked like an organic body, generated on-site, like Foam. He was very clear on that.
Cross-disciplinary collaboration
—— Did you have any previous interest in the performing arts?
Nawa  As a student I was a volunteer helper at Art Camp Hakushu for a while. This was a festival staged every summer, driven mainly by dancer Tanaka Min, with various artists gathering in a place called Hakushu in Yamanashi Prefecture. I would stay there for a month or two and do stuff like help build Min’s stage.
Min said, “The bodies and skeletons of the Japanese are the product of agriculture. We eat the crops harvested by agricultural labor to make our bodies. That is where dance begins,” and I too helped out with farm work. Min was incredibly charismatic, and managed to assemble sculptors, artists and others as well as dancers: sometimes there were as many as 80 or so outdoor sculptures dotted around the site. Maintaining these was another job for the volunteers. I suppose you could describe it as the forerunner of projects like the “Art Field” now held in Echigo-Tsumari.
—— There was not just dance but also theater, music, film and art, wasn’t there?
Nawa  Min was someone who also collaborated with sculptors and musicians and painters, people like Richard Serra and John Cale, so dance seemed not so much a genre as a medium related to all kinds of things. And as a sculptor, I came to view materials and mediums as extensions of the body.
I once had a debate with Min on the nature of skin. His view on this was also different to mine. Min, being a dancer, said it was difficult to define where the skin begins and ends. His theory was that even when we talk about skin sensation, what we actually mean is not just the sense of touch, but also sight, smell, the overall senses connected to the space. And he added, “But then again I really don’t know.” (Laughs)
—— And what did you think about that?
Nawa  I went straight back to university and made a carving that looked like Min’s body. I then went on to make a human figure in water-based clay. Now if you leave water-based clay uncovered, it will dry out and crumble. So I coated the surface with a thin layer of resin, forming a membrane to seal in moisture. The human body is made up of nutrients and water, and really is like foam. These foamy lumps being eaten, excreted, and being materially replaced is the state of being alive, DNA being updated and reproduction occurring so that we continue to exist over successive generations. If we view the body like this in material terms, I think sculpture and dance do indeed come to be related.
Jalet  Discussing the body with that degree of rigor is quite a special thing I suspect. For me, the good thing about collaborating with those in the plastic arts is the opportunity to engage in real dialogue. Each artist has his or her own particular knowledge and obsessions – which goes for people like Marina Abramović and Antony Gormley as well, of course. A work is created by allowing our respective obsessions to confront each other. There is such a thing as the tension produced by two strong spirits, meaning things are not always easy, but that is exactly why I love collaborations.
What is the suffering symbolized on stage? How can the body survive in experimental settings? What is the relationship between psychological and physical limits? Marina is the embodiment of questions of this sort, and has a real aura. And she’s someone you would never consider suited to the world of classical ballet. Which is precisely why when I was asked by the Paris Opera to direct Bolero I thought it would be interesting to invite her to participate, and have her do something totally opposite to what she usually does.
In reality Marina’s questions and the dancer’s practice in classical ballet have something in common: sacrifice of the body in rigorous discipline. Moreover Bolero does have an obsessive quality, at the same time pursuing transcendence.
Marina and I went back and forth over the project for two years, and the conclusion we finally reached was that Bolero is a spiral of sorts. It is repetitive, and always returns to the same theme, yet with a different orchestration each time. Another way to describe it would be to say that all Bolero does is go round. Having noticed this, I thought I’d have the dancers spinning round for fifteen minutes. Classical dancers are skilled spinners, so we explored different methods, for example altering the axis of rotation, or spinning on the spot then spinning to match each other’s bodies. Emerging from this was the idea of using mirrors. From the front it appears to be chaos reminiscent of a battlefield, but in the top mirror is reflected an organized order: a double image.
With Antony, right from the start we decided to handle the Babel myth in an urban/architectural manner. The basis of the story of Babel is the tower, and we thought about how best to form borders and countries within the space. In the end though all these are no more than conventions. What we needed was not regulated borders, but cultural identities as structures. Identity does not have roots; it can also be found in the likes of movement and interaction.
Taking inspiration from Antony’s Breathing Room, we decided to make a space that was interior and at the same time exterior, using five structures made from metal frames. They were all of different sizes and shapes, including a giant volume, and one that was smaller but fit the same number of people inside. They conjured up all sorts of things from paintings and cities, to a checkpoint, a boxing ring, a bus, a country, continent, all in Russian-doll format, with a tiny structure at the end. That determined the dramaturgy of the work, and also influenced who we got to perform it.
The question of which plastic artist to work with is a defining choice that can alter the work enormously. By confronting limits as we converse, it is possible to summon up the limitless.
Is a revival of the sacred possible?
—— You previously made a work titled Yama. Is this latest work also associated with mountain worship?
Jalet  But of course. Yama was a piece for the Scottish Dance Theatre that I was preparing at the Robert Rauschenberg Foundation in Florida prior to encountering Kohei’s work.
At the time I was intrigued by Shindo Kaneto’s film Onibaba (1964). In Onibaba the story unfolds entirely around a hole in the ground, and I hoped to incorporate in the set of one of my own works a topographical feature capable of that kind of transference. Then, among the ideas from artist Jim Hodges, with whom I was collaborating, was a set that resembled a mountain.
Mountains are privileged places connected to human beings and gods in numerous religions and myths. Doing research for the project I discovered that in Japan, this kind of mountain worship was quite advanced, and two weeks before the Aichi Triennale I embarked on a journey to some of Japan’s sacred mountains with dancer Emilios Arapoglou. We made our way to a misty Mt. Fuji, passing through a deathly silent forest, and saw a shrine that seemed to have been abandoned and fallen into ruin. At Dewa in Yamagata we spent two or three days walking alongside itinerant monks (yamabushi) engaged in Shugendo practice. Yamabushi view the mountains as life-giving mother, and simultaneously also the grave. One ritual is made up of ten stations from hell to enlightenment. It reminded me of Dante’s Divine Comedy, but there are also some very sexual rites. In this particular ritual, having observed their own mourning, the devotee is reborn and carried by the mountain as a fetus, gradually passing through the steps to birth over the period of ten days taken to reach the summit.
I also have Scots connections, and believe Celtic culture and Shinto may be linked. Mountains were also venerated by the Celts, but their mountain worship was destroyed by Christianity. The philosophy of the itinerant monks is a mixture of Shinto and Buddhism, and it is the monks that forged the relationship between civilization and mountain. Yama takes its inspiration from this.
In Japan I also got a real sense of the importance of volcanoes, which are guardian deities, and at the same time also create and destroy. Bali, which featured in the video I just showed, is another volcanic land, like Scotland, with which I have close ties, and Iceland. Bali has volcano worship. Volcanoes teach people that nature can never be entirely subdued.
For this project I also thought I’d like to meet a genuine shaman, and to that end visited places like Miyakojima, but found that the ancient traditions and rituals are being forgotten. Sadly, the mystical connections between the natural world and man are starting to be lost. I recorded a song by a traditional Miyakojima singer (utasha) and intend to use it in my work, but her song is the last voice connected to the rituals of the past, and once it has gone, it will all cease to exist.
The likes of shamanism and Shugendo represent forms of a global unconscious. And I wonder if the fact that these rituals are disappearing isn’t causally related to the various disasters happening in the world today. As a collaboration exploring the connection between dance and sculpture, all this also affects my work with Kohei. As well as continuing to film, I hope to keep traveling around Japan, combining ancient rites and contemporary things along the way.
—— So you’re interested in the revival of the sacred. How about you, Nawa-san?
Nawa  While at university I went to see Buddhist statues, religious buildings and so on in Kyoto, Nara, all over the Kinki region. I got the opportunity to travel to London in 1998-99 on an RCA exchange, so used it to also go look at the old churches of Europe, as well as medieval art and architecture. The Buddhist sculptures, the decoration and so on in Japanese shrines and temples were fashioned in that era by sculptors of Buddhist images, or other individuals with design ability, and the same applies in Europe. That is, devices and images designed to make people embrace feelings of awe toward the gods, and holy things, were being crafted by people capable of moving between the realms of the sacred and profane.
However in our era, unlike the days when state and religion were joined, people are not all part of a single values system or overarching narrative, so it is difficult to determine what exactly constitutes the “sacred realm.” I doubt whether the way we make things now is capable of producing objects that everyone will admire or pray to. The techniques used to capture people’s hearts in a more religious age seem in our era to have been replaced by ways to make advertising, brand logos and shops, which thus being part of the capitalist cycle, is cheap, and duplicitous. How is an artist to produce works that surmount the times, without getting buried in all that? At university, that’s what I pondered.
My mother came from a place called Ushinokawa in the mountains of Ehime, so from a young age I listened to the stories of my grandfather, who was a hunter and farmer, and to folk tales, and I think I had some understanding of that animist sort of sensibility. And that sort of thing, which forms the foundations of Japanese sensibilities, accumulating over countless generations, would appear to remain, after refining sensibilities regarding the likes of materials and design. It was only when I went to Europe that the contours of Japan became visible to me, and a switch flicked on in my head: how could I express that in this day and age?
Jalet  The era in which we live is one of finely wrought segregation, in which everything is a specialized field. Which is precisely why I’d like to make use of the energy we possessed in our mother’s womb, the primeval energy of that first breath we took upon emerging. I demand complex, difficult things from my dancers, but that is because I want them to reach the trance state that comes once exhaustion is conquered. I require them to move from one world to another, from a material state to a lyrical state, and those shifts often manifest in the work.
That trance is similar to Kohei’s sculpture. It is a place of migration, like a door or gate.
Current collaboration and the future
—— What stage is your collaboration at right now?
Nawa  After Damien came to Kyoto, I had him watch a video of my “Force” show at my studio, and we ended up deciding to develop something on the relationship between gravity and liquids. The liquid at “Force” was silicon oil, which is quite hard to use in large volumes. So we searched for a material that would be safe even clinging to the body, that could be used in expression that transforms and metamorphoses, coming up with a number of ideas and having them tested directly on the spot. One material we found tried to set of its own accord when struck, and would rapidly attempt to turn into liquid if left to its own devices, and when I showed Damien that moment when the solid instantaneously became liquid he said, “That’s it!” and we had our material. It’s a material that can take on a clay-like consistency or be slippery smooth, depending on how you adjust the water density, and during our trials we found a balancing point at which if you gripped it, it would clump together, and if you released it, it would completely dissolve. Which also seemed a metaphor of sorts for our age.
Having found a material, we were able to start offering sketches every week of stage forms, and the relationship between dancers, stage and liquid. Damien also comes up with production ideas, so now we are making concrete plans in 3D, sharing these with each other and investigating their relative merits, making them into models, and checking them on the actual scale.
That something which tries to take a certain form then naturally disintegrates is, in extreme terms, Eros and Thanatos. If the body attempting to arise points toward Eros, then when it is drained and collapses, that is Thanatos. In an attempt to render in tangible form this state in which such impulses toward life/sex and the impulse toward death cohabit, I produce paintings using gravity, or works in the shape of a walking stick that turn gravitational form 180 degrees.
Because ultimately, sculpture is displayed in a stationary, immobile format, to show it more dynamically I do things like have liquid dropping naturally, and when one uses flesh directly to make it even more dynamic, the result is a huge volume of information. So I envy the way the entire realm of a work, the sensation of a work, can emerge using just a body, unmodified. I also think this is truly where sculpture has its origins.
For this work we have done 3D scans of the dancers’ shapes, and the content of that data is like a clump of powder, with a cross-section obtainable wherever one cuts. 3D scanning is perfectly suited to the process of converting live flesh to sculpture; converting the material itself in a truly trance-like manner, rather than looking at the model and creating a form that incorporates sentiment, as in the days of Rodin et al.

Nawa Kohei, 3D scanning image of Vessel, 2015

—— Is the choreography underway at the same time?
Nawa  Not sure if you could call it choreography, but Damien is always coming up with different looks for the production, to suit the state of the materials, the stage and so on. Dancers like Moriyama Mirai and Aimilios have now joined us, and we are at the experimental stage.
On this occasion, we’re less concerned with the question of whether to opt for a primitive, or more contemporary technical approach, and more with bringing out, in an interesting way, the overlapping parts of what we have all done previously.
Jalet  We’re doing some interesting experiments on the challenges of gravity, issues of bodily identity and so on. Based on the problem of solids and liquids Kohei spoke of earlier, we have also experimented with a fusion in which bodies meld into one another. Bodies completely without heads, that are like sculptures. We also tried to express the idea of the “liquefying” or “dissolving” of two bodies, using ancient Japanese terracotta figurines for reference.
In the process of building the performance, there are times when it is impossible to distinguish between sculpture and body. A fusion has occurred, making it no longer possible to divide sculpture and body, and at this point, interaction is born. On the one hand you have the ephemeral body, on the other, the sculpture, which will live on even after we are gone. The sculpture has not been made yet, but I think it soon will be. The idea is to dance with a sculpture that is like a double.
While this is choreography, it is not choreography in the usual sense. It is about changes in the body, just a slight change in muscles affecting the audience’s perceptions, luring the audience so that they will project various things onto there. The challenge is to work out what is the body, and what will be projected on that body. The audience will be drawn into a kind of collective fantasy, which in turn will be involved in collective change.
—— Thank you very much. I very much look forward to the work’s completion.

July 1, 2015, at Institut Français Tokyo Espace Images

(French interpreter/editorial oversight: Fukuzaki Yuko)

(English translation: Pamela Miki Associates)

(Publication: 29 November 2015)

Damien Jalet, Nawa Kohei, Vessel, 2015, performance view, Creative center OSAKA
photo: Damien Jalet

VESSEL. DAMIEN JALET, NAWA KOHEI (Creative Center Osaka, 2016)
choreography: Damien Jalet
scenography: Nawa Kohei
music: Hara Marihiko
dancers: Emilios Arapoglou, Élie Hay, Moriyama Mirai, Saeki Yuka
Production: Creative Center Osaka, Villa Kujoyama, Sandwich