In the first few minutes of my encounter with Opacity of Performance at the Portland Art Museum, a solo performer (Irene June) pulls a silver jingle bell on a length of red wool across the wooden floor of the museum. The patient movements that accompany this understated and somehow intimate gesture seem familiar. They echo a pet-owner, pausing to a stop, then pulling gently again on their beloved’s leash. Yet the scenario is also strange, provocative, and somewhat otherworldly, plunging me into a world of playful embodiment, shot through with profound metaphysical and political questions.
Taking place over a durational five-hour period, Opacity of Performance inhabits the fertile middle-ground between performance art and dance, reflecting the background of it maker, Portland-based Japanese artist and choreographer Takahiro Yamamoto. The public is free to come and go, and even pass through the performance, as he and a rotating cast of collaborators – all notable visual artists or cultural producers – perform unique unfolding choreographies, both as a group and alone or in pairs.
Ultimately each performer has the chance to create a solo vignette that is often fascinating in how it implicates the audience and activates the space before another performer takes over. At moments of performer rotation, the newcomer is initiated and welcomed through a massage-like exchange of touch that is so deeply human, it’s as if the mask of conventional performance has been entirely eradicated.
Originally planned to take place in 2020, Opacity of Performance bears all the fruits of a long gestation. I experienced this work as a labor of love and a gift to the audience. There’s an incredible sense of generosity within this project – towards the public, around whose presence the performance revolves, and between the artist, the performers, and the curator (Sara Krajewski), who sustained their commitments through the long pandemic-related postponement.
A profound joy underlies the work, a celebration of coming together. It is palpable how much each of the collaborating artists worked intensely with Yamamoto to develop their individual contribution, as well as to co-develop the overall work. This is collaboration in the richest sense of the word, and I imagine it may seed new fruits for many of the participants’ practices, as well as bringing Yamamoto’s work to a remarkable level of intensity and ambition.
The setting of the work – a walk-through performance space created by artist Garrick Imatani in Portland Art Museum’s European gallery – is impressive in its own right; both aesthetically, and in its reclamation of that space and its implicit values for other means. (Indeed, it stopped me in my tracks when I happened upon it, a week before the first performance.)
Three sculptural room-sized curtains diagonally bisect the traditional gallery space, which not only reconfigures its physical infrastructure, but also transforms the unspoken architecture of performance itself. Pulled across the length of the room at intervals throughout the performance, they screen viewers from the actions of the performers, drawing the public into a conscious awareness of how one is watching the performance, and in turn, how the performers are watching their audience. Made up of alternately opaque, translucent, and transparent horizontal panels, they invite a playful experimentation with what it means to be seen or unseen.
Several performers and intrigued audience members play a sophisticated peek-a-boo, exploring its visual restrictions and possibilities: While I watched, one performer (Sydney Jackson) crawled under and physically grappled with the curtain in a powerful solo choreography.
Made up of three alternating layers of neon yellow, pink, and blue plastics and fabrics these drapes act like highlighter pens that make lines appear and disappear across thin air. As their semi-permeable visual barriers are drawn and re-drawn by performers, seated members of the public are surprised to be incorporated into the performing fold mid-performance, before being released again into the relative anonymity of conventional modes of viewing. This is only one of the many surprising aspects of this performance for casual viewers, many of whom are on their way to another exhibition. It was a testament to the work to see the public’s immediate attraction to or curiosity about it, with one expressive child stomping emphatically through the space.
These improvised yet highly studied performances are not without humor, as the performers exude outbursts of emotion that cover a wide spectrum of emotional realities. One (Intisar Abioto) breaks into song, the growing crescendo of her voice seeming to expand the height of the ceiling. Another (Nolan Hanson) enacts boxing-informed gestures that slowly grow from meditative repose into a cathartic aggression. The formality of the gallery’s silence is pierced by the performers’ occasional utterances, peals of laughter, or un-worded guttural sounds. All the while, the intermittent sound of the curtains being pulled to and fro across metal rails punctuates the work acoustically.
As its title alludes, Opacity of Performance heightens awareness of the dynamics of visibility of bodies in and through performance, including those of the audience and performers alike. The work’s many collaborators bring the complexity of their fully embodied sociopolitical and emotional selves into play, and by extension refuse any reductive reception of their racial(ized), differently abled, gendered, and sexually oriented realities.
In doing so, Opacity of Performance brings home the powerful promise of the word “opacity,” in Martiniquan writer Édouard Glissant’s specific inflection of the term as a refusal of individuals or communities to be cornered into declaring an essential identity or essence in the face of the “transparency” demanded by dominant (colonial) culture. Instead, “Yamamoto and his collaborators position Glissant’s poetic and political resistance as a means to reflect on the power and the danger of being seen—and not seen—specifically for diverse people that are often erased, marginalized, and endangered by the people and structures of power.” 1 This concept is manifest within Opacity of Performance, not as a didactic manifesto, but as an embodied reality that drives the (differentiated) questions that the work spontaneously provokes in each viewer.
Through the autonomous yet profoundly interconnected contributions of its collaborating artists, Yamamoto’s work brings home to us that “Opacities can coexist and converge, weaving fabrics.” 2 It is indeed the right to opacity that is, in Glissant’s words “the real foundation of Relation, in freedoms.” 3 By focusing on “the texture of the weave,” Opacity of Performance leads us beyond reductive discourses, beyond identity-markers, into the profound pulsating reality of being together in “lived relation.” 4 This quietly stunning performance begs to be widely seen.
- This commissioned dance installation was performed June 16-19 and 23, and repeats Friday through Sunday, June 24-26. A rotating cast performs in the Laura and Roger Meier Family Gallery of European art from noon to five p.m. each day.
- Cast: Intisar Abioto, Roland Dahwen, Nolan Hanson, Garrick Imatani, Sydney Jackson, Irene June, Stephanie Schaaf, Emily Squires, and Takahiro Yamamoto.
- Ben Evans, dramaturg.
- Garrick Imatani, curtain production.
- Curated by Sara Krajewski, The Robert and Mercedes Eichholz Curator of Modern and Contemporary Art, Portland Art Museum.
- 1 Portland Art Museum press release.
- 2 Édouard Glissant, Poetics of Relation, Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2010, p. 190.
- 3 Ibid.
- 4 Glissant, Poetics of Relation, p.190 and p. 195 respectively.