Showing me around her studio, Aki points out various objects, “There is this big ramp. Then [mystery object to remain unnamed] is really the centerpiece, so maybe you shouldn’t say what it is. And then there are chair and lamp sculptures.”
Aki Sasamoto’s Centripetal Run, at the Chocolate Factory this week, is a return to theater for an artist who works in multiple fields. She has performed as a dancer with a number of artists, most recently in Yvonne Meier’s revival of The Shining, last year and will again this year. Her own work often takes the form of sculptural installations which she also performs in, but she is careful to keep the two practices—performance and installation—independent. As she puts it, “I don’t want to be an ambassador.” She resists being a representative of the theater world when her work is presented in visual arts contexts, and likewise resists exhibiting her work as sculpture when performing in theater spaces.
“An installation is already its own show. Instead of creating a theater in the gallery, I just bring a performance into the installation. I’m not doing theater there, I’m activating the installation. I try to kill the theater atmosphere in a gallery show, because I don’t want to export theater to the gallery. When I’m in the theater, it’s the reverse: I don’t want to be an object theater. I want to look at the performing body handling big things, handling sculptures, rather than just putting sculpture in the theater. Because that would just be exporting again (from the gallery to the theater). This is just in my head, maybe it doesn’t show it the piece, but the conceptual attitude is important.”
Sasamoto’s handling of objects is indeed one of distinctive factors of her work, and what allows it to function (though perhaps differently) in its various contexts. Her sculptures frequently include repurposed found objects, which serve as active material for her performances. “I want to use the raw reaction I have to objects as part of the piece. I have a reaction to an icepick, and I want to subvert it, but still have the original object or shape in the piece. So rather than make an object inspired by an icepick, I want to be inspired by the icepick constantly.”
This “subversion” is foundational in her presentation of objects. “The subversion comes when something is right there, as is, so no hiding. And there is another concept or different use, that subverts that original. And I want to use both. And I want to put both in the origin, back in the timeline. I think ‘as-is’ and ‘misuse’ have to be shown together.” That is, the “misuse” of the object is not something applied after-the-fact to its intended purpose, but the object is actually reinvented as though both “uses” are fully inherent in the original object. “Subversion is already happening, should happen before action. Like, I put the chair in a wrong orientation: this already calls for a specific action.” Objects are not static, but exist in time and create a reaction in her during her performance. Sasamoto’s subversion of objects turns them into active entities.
Returning to the theater, Sasamoto reflects on her practices over the past few years. “I realized that it’s been a long time since I’ve been in a theater making a piece. So I’m trying to embrace where I am, and also use some things that I miss. I take liberty in the kind of object I make, because there are certain things I try not to do in other contexts.”
“Such as?” I ask.
“Well, I do them anyway so it doesn’t really matter, it’s just a head game. But in my head, I think like ‘no wheels’—basically no big thing that would look like a set (because I don’t want to have a theater set in a gallery). I realize it now, not necessarily at the time. Also, I’m not just doing a solo, but collaborating now in a distinctively theatrical context, with a lighting designer, a musican…etc., which is something I missed.”
She describes all of her collaborators as “good friends,” and expresses excitement at this opportunity to work with these friends. Matt Bauder is a musician she has known for “more than 10 years.” He will work with some sound elements Sasamoto gave him, and provide others of his own creation. Arturo Vidich a dancer and performance-maker she has known for 15 years (the two are also known for their frequent pairing in Meier’s work) will perform along with Sasamoto in this piece. Pau Atela provides a drawing that will open the show, and also has a conceptual influence in the work, “We do a lot of coffee, we chat a lot. Our talking has definitely influenced my work, because he talks in concepts a lot, and I also talk in concepts, so our heads meet. ” Sam Ekwurtzel is a sculptor, and is creating an object to be in the piece—one that Sasamoto won’t see until they arrive in the theater the week of the show.
This is another aspect of collaboration Sasamoto is exploring in this work: its relationship to possibilities for improvisation. “I realized that I call my performances in galleries ‘improv,’ but they are solos, so I have total control. I know the space, I know my objects, I know what I’m trying to convey. What makes it improv is that I don’t set it, but I’m aware of the range of things I can do. So that kind of hyper-controlled-ness is what I usually do, but in this production I’m taking that away completely. I asked four people to meet with me in the theater that week! It’s exciting because it gets me out of the hyper-controlled-ness, but it’s gonna test me a lot. It’s a big gig for me, but I’m doing a lot of…”
“Surprises?” I offer.
“Sound, object, movement, concept. These four are usually all in me, now I’m trying to pull it away from me. But I will still take the centerpiece, I will still do all of it! I’m excited to see where it will push me. This is why it’s more improvy. I want to go to the theater at the stage where I can still change the concept. Usually I have all the elements in the studio: myself, objects, movements, sound, and the plan. In that way, I can start way in advance to shape the concept. But if my personal challenge is to take those other inputs more, from other people, I have to be more flexible in the process.”
She stresses this point: “This is important. I’m taking this return to theater as personal challenge, not as subject matter of the piece.” Sasamoto is clear about using her artistic process as a means of personal development, and not primarily as conceptual critique. “We also talked before, about how I use my work as an excuse to do certain things. This is the same. I’m focused on selfishly developing during the art-making. And the Chocolate Factory is really great for that, because they are really open to experiments.”
Also, she corrects herself, there will be five collaborators meeting her in the theater: the Chocolate Factory’s resident lighting designer Madeline Best will also contribute. “Because I didn’t have theater lights when I was outside the theater, in the gallery, I would use my own light source—the lamps in my sculpture—or the lights of the gallery which were also not theater lights. With this show I’m trying to see if the two light sources fight each other or work well together.”
Generally audiences can wander through her installations as she performs inside them. For Centripetal Run, the audience will be seated, but just on the risers, no chairs. “There are chairs in the piece so I didn’t want chairs in the audience, it would be too much.”
The reasons for seating the audience go deeper than that, of course. Here is another challenge she presented to herself, “Usually in my shows I go up close to people to violate the personal space, to use that energy. That works in a gallery, but I think that people bring an intense gaze to the theater anyway, so maybe they will be engaged anyway. I have to be aware of the duration of people’s gaze, and intensity of gaze, and the spatial relationship to the objects. This is why I want to try to seat them.
“I also want to see what kind of liberty it gives me if I don’t have to deal with maneuvering people. Maybe I can throw things? [Laughs] And maybe the pace will be different. Like I can run.
“I was debating until the last minute, but now I decided I’m going to have the audience sit. I think I revolted against seating in theater, so it’s weird to go back to the theater and have people sit. It could be an embarrassing return! I have to open the lid and find out.”