This Is Water

July 15, 2021

OUR LANGUAGE for physically slow performance has been tainted by the residue of familiar associations. Sidecar words like “delicate” and “calm” attach themselves to descriptions of performances just because they’re filled with only a handful of events. Time, created by composer Ryuichi Sakamoto and Shiro Takatani, artist and founder of Dumb Type, moves slowly, yes, but it is inflamed, an emotional flaying at a snail’s pace, a psychic oven walled with black glass and set to a steady 200 degrees. For almost 70 minutes, Min Tanaka, a dancer trained in the improvisational Butoh style, moves in and out of sync with shō player Mayumi Miyata. They inhabit space like two weather forces. Tanaka throws his body against waves we cannot see while Miyata seems to glide across the stage. Time ultimately crushes—it does not progress. Tanaka shows the futility of human effort throughout the piece, as he tries to create a path across a body of water, witnessing his own inability to complete his task, or avoid its pointlessness.

Performed in late June at Amsterdam's Gashouder Westergasfabriek as part of Holland Festival 2021, Time streamed, briefly, which is how I saw it. The upside of my virtual attendance was the ability to watch it several times, but not being in the same space obscured some of the work. (The most basic problem was not knowing what sound was live and what was pre-recorded.) Sakamoto and Takatani used two interactive surfaces: the stage, almost all of which was a silky black mirror of water, and the back wall, which became a screen that projected the performers’ movements or pre-recorded films.

Sakamoto’s music here is a triumph, a combination of the minimal approach of async, his 2017 album of (almost) solo piano, and the richness of his score for Bernardo Bertolucci’s The Sheltering Sky (1990). Throughout the piece, a soft clanking rang in the space. Chains? Chimes? A handful of seashells? Sometimes a sprinkle of digital tones interrupts these organic sounds, a bit like raindrops falling into a river. Strings, possibly abetted by a trumpet, surge and rotate through a series of chords that never progresses or resolves. It’s one of the best themes Sakamoto has ever written, and it wasn’t a theme as much as it was the heart of the entire piece.

Time begins with several minutes of Miyata walking (very) slowly across the stage while playing. Her shō’s tone is like a keyboard or string, sort of striated and high, and alongside Sakamoto’s sound design, I couldn’t tell if the sound was coming from her. Miyata begins the piece backlit by only a few lights; she is barely visible, and walks as if leading a funeral procession. Eventually she steps, resolute and unbothered, into a circle of light. Tanaka appears at the edge of the stage, wearing a hooded raincoat, looking both like the grim reaper and the dead. He pulls back the hood, and his face is heavy with doubt. As he slowly approaches the edge of the water, his naked feet are projected behind him at three times the size of his body. His movements are pained and hesitant where Miyata possesses such solid continuity that she seems neither alive nor dead. She is simply there, and he is trying miserably to be anywhere.

As with everything else he does here, Tanaka unfolds his gestures so slowly as to demand new words to delineate the degrees between slow and still. When he puts his hand into the water for the first time, his image is projected upside-down behind him, so his gesture also reaches upward, beseeching. After he touches it, he pulls his hand back as if burned. The water ripples as Tanaka’s face becomes a mask of agony, horrified by the water—that he cannot control it, that it outstrips all of his crude science. He seems to have chosen the wrong foe, but chosen he has.

The piece then fades into the first of three texts read by an unseen narrator: “Dream #1” from Ten Nights of Dreams by Natsume Soseki—the dream of Rosei, the story of the idle man who seeks enlightenment—thereafter followed by The Butterfly Dream of Zhang Zhou, and the “Kantan” dream from The World Inside a Pillow by Shen Jiji. These are all reveries of transformation, and each is spoken in Japanese while English subtitles appear on the back wall. Miyata lies motionless on a small board on top of the water. Tanaka crouches next to her as the voiceover explains that she is dying, and someone must dig her a grave with an oyster shell and then wait beside it for a hundred years. Behind them, we see a film of Tanaka walking alongside a rock wall. On stage, he walks across the water, mimicking his movements in the film. Later, the screen becomes a forest, and as he sits on a bench in the middle of the water onstage, we hear: “I have lost my way in this cruel world. When will I awaken from this dream?”—a passage from The World Inside a Pillow. (Soseki’s Dream has been interrupted, rather than abandoned; the three texts alternate over the course of Time.) Tanaka has the whole of the universe tucked inside his roomy raincoat, and it seems as if death might be a relief.

Tanaka gets up from the bench and starts to throw twigs and branches into the water. No dice—not enough to build a bridge. Technology, intervention, bloody-mindedness: none of it works. Tanaka then plunges his hands into heaps of black glittering sand as the Soseki dream returns, narrating parallel work: the digging of the woman’s grave. Caught between descriptions of moonlight and sunlight, Tanaka here is lit more fully than before, and we see his upturned face in its entirety.

As Time continues, Tanaka slowly lays black bricks across the water. He is eventually soaked by actual rain, and the ocean (a projection behind him) threatens to overtake him. He ends motionless in the water, with his back to us. Miyata once again marches across the stage playing her shō, and time seems as steady as ever.

— Sasha Frere-Jones