“What does it mean to make myself visible to others? What does it mean to perform in front of people?” asked artist and choreographer Takahiro Yamamoto. “If I want to invisibilize myself, if I want to disappear…do I have agency to do that?” These questions foregrounded a conversation I had with Yamamoto about the origins of his latest performance work, titled Opacity of Performance, which took place at Portland Art Museum this June.
Opacity is a slippery term. Merriam-Webster tells me that it is a noun and gives an initial definition of esoteric import: “obscurity of sense” or “the quality or state of being mentally obtuse.” However, these abstract meanings do not capture opacity’s full spectrum of practical applications, which have bearing on my own day-to-day life. I rely on the opacity of concealer to cover the dark circles under my eyes when I am tired or the opacity of my curtains to block the sunlight on a hot day. Opacity is the buffer that obscures what I wish to hide or hide from, and it is often material in nature.
In developing Opacity of Performance, Yamamoto employed opaque materials that became an analogy for the social concerns of his work. He explained to me that he wanted to create a scenario in which he and his cast of eight other performers—Intisar Abioto, Roland Dahwen, Nolan Hanson, Garrick Imatani, Sydney Jackson, Irene June, Stephanie Schaaf, and Emily Squires—could experiment with receiving attention, yielding attention, or disappearing all together. To cultivate this level of individual agency, he commissioned Imatani to construct a series of three sliding curtains that the cast could control. These curtains decentered the audience while also allowing the performers a level of self-determination within the environment they inhabited together.
“The museum is a very intentional choice,” Yamamoto said of the performance context. He has long been committed to considering performance through the lens of visual art—in fact, he came to Portland to study at Pacific Northwest College of Art for this reason. And though I already knew about his penchant for bridging other mediums with performance through multi-pronged projects (such as his Direct Path to Detour), I was overcome with a deepened appreciation for this commitment when I finally got to experience Opacity of Performance.
The cast members brought their backgrounds in visual art or other mediums to bear in this work, seeding it with their unique social experiences. Over the span of five hours, they took turns cycling in and out of the gallery and filtering through the substrates of curtains a few at a time. Likewise, audience members filtered in the gallery to watch, leaving whenever they wished. Each cast member performed a solo that had been choreographed with one-on-one support from Yamamoto. Sometimes, these solos involved their use of certain materials, such as fabric sculpture or tape.
Intermittently, the cast members pulled curtains this way and that, hiding and revealing themselves and one another and creating remarkable visual compositions in the process. Their contributions demonstrated sensitivity and care toward one another, forging an energetic tensegrity that ran between layers of material obfuscation.
During my time in the gallery, I witnessed Abioto sing and Yamamoto laugh. I caught Jackson’s gaze, and received a smile and a whispered hello in return. I heard the sliding of curtains, squeaking of sneakers and exertion of breath. I felt the shuffling of audience members near me. In the midst of all this sensory stimulus slipping in and out of the space, I reminded myself not to conflate visibility with sight alone. The opportunity to observe the cast, obscured as they often were, underscored how this performance contained more than my eyes could perceive.
After all, how much did these opaque curtains and context actually hide? Not everything to be sure, and maybe that was part of the point: to sense what was being revealed in their wake. Humans are far more complex than the identitarian attributes ascribed to them in the visual realm, and Yamamoto’s Opacity of Performance directed my attention accordingly, offering a rare and spacious moment for this kind of witnessing and contemplation.
The Portland Art Museum hosted 8 performances of Opacity of Performance in late June. Lucy Cotter also wrote a review of the performance for ArtsWatch.