“I should like to be the landscape which I am contemplating, I should like this sky, this quiet water to think themselves within me, that it might be I whom they express in flesh and bone, and I remain at a distance. But it is also by this distance that the sky and the water exist before me. My contemplation is an excruciation only because it is also a joy. I can not appropriate the snow field where I slide. It remains foreign, forbidden, but I take delight in this very effort toward an impossible possession. I experience it as a triumph, not as a defeat. This means that man, in his vain attempt to be God, makes himself exist as man, and if he is satisfied with this existence, he coincides exactly with himself. It is not granted him to exist without tending toward this being which he will never be. But it is possible for him to want this tension even with the failure which it involves.”
Simone de Beauvoir, The Ethics of Ambiguity
still from Tokyo Story, directed by Yasujiro Ozu
There is an underlying and ever present distance in human experience. There is a distance when I am before the waters of nature. The ocean is before me and bigger than me. It flows without me and it has always been without me. I am led to seek refuge in its beauty and I would like to think that it could cradle me when I feel sorrow and that I could go to it in this way when I am sad. And when I lay in bed at night unable to sleep I could imagine and remember it. And yet in the event of its storm, this distance discloses its horror when I realize the water’s indifference.
A general kind of distance is between something that exists of myself and the world and other people. I was birthed from my mother and I live through the blood of my ancestors, but I cannot understand what it is that I carry of theirs. Though at times I may, sometimes uncomfortably, feel a certain essence of my family emerge in myself or in my body.
Perhaps most obviously, there exists a distance between myself and my lover that often causes distress and misunderstanding, but this distance is what has made possible our bond. And the distance between myself and strangers I see every day is far and easy to be ignored but, when reflected upon and taken notice of, it is particularly poetic.
Maybe most subtly and most disturbingly at the same there is a kind of distance that I have from myself. I witness my own actions and try to monitor them as best I can, but I have been thrown into the world without knowing why, and I continue to perform actions nonetheless with certain projects that I consider my own and that I have chosen. I speak and I act and I fall forward with each step as I walk. I know that I am doing these things and I choose to do them in a certain way, but I do not know how it is that I am doing them. I witness my life as time passes and time passes and I don’t know how it does. There is a very slippery distance between myself and my death that also exists so intimately to my being, as it could happen at any moment. And yet I cannot know it. When I wake up in the morning I immediately experience an indescribable kind of distance that I have with myself.
These distances that I experience make up a kind of ambiguous existence of the self. Simone de Beauvoir explains that we are ambiguous beings because we have both freedom and facticity, the ability to choose and create our lives while also having been thrown in the world with facts about our situation that we cannot change. I am aware that I am in this world, that I was born in a particular time and place, and that I exist yet I did not choose to. I also have freedom to create a kind of identity for myself, which I recognize as being an artist and a writer, and I create writings and artworks using language people have developed within a certain social and historical context. And there is this kind of distance between these two realms- there is what I am able to recognize myself as and there is the darkness of my brute existence.
Human experience is defined as nothingness by Sartre in virtue of this distance that exists between my existence and my socially identified self. Sartre also describes human experience as nothingness because of our ability to negate, which renders imagination, and imagination is what makes us free, and we have a very rare kind of existence because of our freedom. In a particular situation I am in, I am able to recognize what is not here. If I could only recognize what was here, I would not have imagination because I could not conceive of anything else than what I perceive. And thus I would not be free because I could not imagine what else could be possible besides this situation and then choose to act in accordance with whatever unrealized possibilities I would pursue. Imagination is different than perception because it negates the current situation, yet it is still restrained by my situation. Some unrealized possibilities that I could imagine could be realized through action and some unrealized possibilities are impossible and forever foreclosed from being realized by me. In my day to day life I may have many dreams and imaginations, but it is appropriate only to act in accordance with which imaginations are realizable. It would be madness if I were to, for example, expect to win a bodybuilding contest tomorrow, which is an unrealized imagination that could not be realized in virtue of my situation. Or, more tragically, an imagination that I could reach out to and talk with and be with someone close to me who has died, which is a longing for an imagination that could be quite familiar and vivid but could never be realized.
I am interested in the intersections between possibilities that can be realized, ones I may pursue in my everyday within this social, historical, and physical context, and the dreams that remain with me. There are distances between my imaginations and myself in the world, and sometimes there is an ability to come close to closing distance through action and sometimes an impossibility of ever coming close to closing distance. While I pursue possibilities in my day to day, longing for what is impossible remains a beautiful excruciation. While these longings do not realize themselves in my every day actions, perhaps art provides a space for my desires to exercise a certain kind of movement of freedom that may create new possibilities in virtue of incessant failure.
Tatsumi Hijikata, photo by Eikoh Hosoe
The Butoh of Tatsumi Hijikata initiated a desire to change the material composition of the body in physical performance. While western modern dance teaches positions and shapes associated with a codified technique, Hijikata was interested in what the imagination could create through the body, and form was found from the imagination. These forms would realize the essence of animals, rotting trees, and blooming flowers. It was a changing of the frequencies and energies of the socialized self to create bodies that articulated objects and nothingness. It was and is a dance of failure, but it is not an impossible dance done in vain. What emerges in Hijikata's dance is the movement of a dancer's imagination in face of its situation. The fist of the Butoh dancer beats itself against a wall in pursuit to become the impossible, but in doing so with freedom and imagination the dancer's body becomes both familiar and unfamiliar at the same time. Through this uncanny form of movement emerges the ambiguous existence of the self; a self that has both a social identity and the darkness of its brute existence. Strong moments where the uncertainties of one's distance to everything else disclose themselves; moments when we may recognize what seems to be an essence of the dancer’s grandmother, the moment of emerging memories from childhood, moments when the dancer's deepest sadness is uncovered from underneath social habits, a moment the dancer becomes a creature or a kind of seaweed underwater moving itself through the shell of what appears to be a socialized human before me.
Tatsumi Hijikata, photo by Eikoh Hosoe
I should like to be this landscape, and this is an impossible dream. Yet the proposition of this image could create a space for a new kind of realized possibility. A possibility that maybe I could not hold conceive of as a specific image but something that could be produced through the efforts of my freedom. In my studio I could propose my body to articulate a certain kind of energy of the deep flowing water of the ocean before me. Though my body would not be specifically recognized as this kind of landscape, what would happen with the exercise of this longing through action is not total impotence. I am not simply standing back and contemplating the landscape and stopping here by confirming an inability to be the rocks and water. I am changing the frequencies of my everyday human habits and erasing my socialized self in longing to transform. It would be a movement of freedom toward an impossible end, but it would still be a movement of freedom, and this movement of freedom that is unique to the rare existence of being human is a dance of Butoh.