9. Body Maintenance within KinesTHESES

As the KinesTHESES curator, I am interested in the tactile-kinesthetic propositions Body Maintenance offers for an audience of thinking bodies, and how these propositions activate and influence participants’ self-conception. This entry of the Toolkit offers some background information on why I invited Sakiko to be a part of KinesTHESES, and how, having experienced Body Maintenance, I understand the work as contributing to KinesTHESES’ curatorial inquiry. In part, this involves thinking through Body Maintenance within a larger trajectory of works by Sakiko, situating this piece in relation to some of her other performances. These comments are not meant to be definitive of the work; indeed, for some readers, they may be most useful as a way of revealing what my viewpoint as curator imposes on the artist’s intentions.

Inviting Sakiko

I first encountered Sakiko’s work at the 2006 Mobius International Festival of Performance Art. The festival’s organizers had invited me, along with Natalie Loveless and Vassya Vassileva, to write about the presented works for the Mobius website. The large number of artists being presented in the four-day event made it impossible for each of us to cover everything, so we managed our collective workload by determining in advance who would write about which works. Sakiko was one of the artists whose work I was assigned to describe. She performed two works, which I wrote about in relation to other works presented on the same day by David Miller, a Boston-based artist, and Yeh Tzu-Chi of Taiwan. Here is what I wrote about Sakiko’s works:

Sakiko Yamaoka of Japan […] offered us a dichotomy of seemingly contrasting approaches, placing two works, “Handmill” and “Drill” back-to-back. “Handmill” is a poetic, textural work that uses sound (plastic bags rubbed between Yamaoka’s palms; a rock drawn across a metal door; small packets of white powder crushed in her fist and poured slowly onto the concrete floor) and image (Yamaoka’s solid presence, dressed all in black, set against the delicate cloud of the powder as it pours out from her raised fist) to focus the audience’s attention. The physical demands of the piece rest in a sustained insistence on the concentration of one’s consciousness in the present moment. Yamaoka calls on her own iron-willed presence to command our attention, pitting her concise gestures against the distractions of room sounds (the building’s noisy mechanicals), uncomfortable bodies (too many hours of sitting and standing on raw concrete floors) and head chatter. It is demanding work for all of us.

The second piece, “Drill”, begins with a similar aesthetic, as Yamaoka pounds small round bells into a bright red apple. The tapping of the hammer, the occasional jingle of the bells, and the spray of the apple offer a familiar appeal to our now heightened senses. There is a shift, however, when the apple is completely studded, and a very large projection of archetypal (one might say stereotypical) Japanese images covers the wall and floor: images of pre-industrial farming, images of planes and war, Japanese flags, diagrams of exercises or martial arts poses, uniformed students in red and white, weight lifters and gymnasts, lucky cats, manga comics, action figures… Standing in the light of the projection, Yamaoka begins her “drill,” counting “one, two, three, four,” as she thrusts the jingling apple up and out, to the side, down toward the floor and back. This physically grueling routine continues through two repetitions of the images, the rhythm broken up by ragged pauses as she tries to catch her breath. Finally, partway through a third cycle, she asks the projection to stop. Her action, and the audience’s entranced gaze, is unceremoniously broken. The performance is over.

[… E]ach of these [three artists’] works invoke the artist’s sense of home – whether […] figuratively, in the sense of a homeland ([…] “Drill”), or poetically (the “home” that is our consciousness or awareness, in “Handmill”). While we cannot hope to grasp the full richness and complexity of those “homes,” what these artists manage, through their exquisite gestures, is to generate an uncomfortable awareness of our present. We are confronted by the looming proportions of our own resistance, through an illumination of the dynamic relationship between our own “home” and that of those around us.

This is, I believe, precisely what art has to offer. [1]

The most vivid impression that remained with me from Sakiko’s performance was her commanding sense of presence—the way she was able to bring her personal focus to bear on her chosen actions in a way that riveted the audience’s attention.

My next contact with Sakiko was two years later, when she was invited by Shannon Cochrane to present her work at the 2008 edition of the 7a*11d festival as a FADO-sponsored artist.[2] Sakiko undertook several different projects during the festival, including a version of her public intervention Best Place to Sleep (Come with me), in which she invited participants to join her in an action of laying on the floor in and around a number of banks in Toronto’s financial district[3],and another project called Wind from Sky (Human Beings Are Plants), in which she explored the proposal “Human beings are alive. Plants are alive. Therefore, human beings are plants.” For this poetic and philosophical inquiry, she sat in quiet stillness for an extended period of time among plants at various urban locations—a flower shop, a city park, and an unkempt patch of land beside a busy city street.[4]

It was her third project, however, Wind from Sky (vol. 2), that brought Sakiko to mind when I was thinking about artists for KinesTHESES.[5] For this performance, Sakiko placed a series of objects on a table, many of them partially filled with liquid (water, wine, coffee): first, Styrofoam cups, then clear plastic cups, then clear glasses, then off-white ceramic coffee mugs and saucers. As the vessels accumulated in rows, they were pushed slowly toward the table’s edge, until they began to topple onto the floor, first harmlessly and then more noisily and even calamitously as the glass and porcelain began to shatter. Eventually, Sakiko edged all of the dishes off of the table. I still remember the thrall of split focus as I tried to watch her careful movements while also being mindful of the liquid seeping toward me. The visual image of the differently weighted objects teetering at the edge of the table became entangled with a visceral sense of precarity and vertigo as I calculated when I would have to move to avoid getting wet. Then, with the tabletop cleared, Sakiko began to push the whole table forward, transferring the movement of the dishes into a ponderous scraping of the table along the floor. The proscenium audience was completely dispersed to the sides as she and the table made their way across the room. This action, which had begun with the same proposition as her other Wind from Sky work (“Human beings are alive. Plants are alive. Therefore, human beings are plants.”), put me in mind of events on a geological scale: the slow but inexorable expansion of a glacier that encroaches upon the objects and creatures settled in its path—and, an inverse image, the collapse of ice shelves and the threat of rising sea levels due to climate change.

Once the table’s trajectory was complete, Sakiko handed out plastic bags to the audience members, and had us rub them together in various rhythms to produce an orchestra of wind sounds, as if we were agents of the weather. As a participant, I was struck by the various ways Sakiko invested and mobilized the audience’s sense of movement and tactility in her performance, which had the double effect of sensitizing me to my biological vulnerability while at the same time connecting me with the (nonhuman) material, spatial, and temporal scales of geology and climate. I was astonished that she was able to achieve this most unlikely effect—at once extremely localized and vastly dispersed—through the use of such simple gestures and everyday, human-made materials.

Kinetic rhythm in Body Maintenance

Like the performances by Sakiko described above, Body Maintenance offers modest actions anchored in a sense of mental and physical focus.[6] The performance’s title suggests the idea of physical fitness and repair, of preserving and maximizing health. In broader terms, I would also suggest that the title points to concerns around a human body’s stamina, its responsiveness, its sensitivity to others and to its habitat, its adaptability and sociability, its ability to read external stimuli and intentions, and to follow through on its felt impulses. The title can also be read to suggest not just the maintenance of a body, but also the acts of maintenance capable of being performed by a body. How long can a body maintain a pose, a rhythm, a velocity, or a mood?

We often think of body maintenance in terms of programmatic exercises that rely on controlled actions and repetitions to stretch and strengthen particular muscle groups or promote cardiovascular functionality through exertion. Sakiko’s performance, however, was not like a traditional fitness routine. Certainly, she bounced her basketball in deliberate, repetitive, and often forceful ways, generating staccato rhythms that contrasted with the more sustained cadence of the projected waves. She also encouraged the audience to participate in the task of animating the ball. Yet if her actions had a specific purpose, they seemed more attuned to testing or playing with the ambience of the space and the energy of the assembled audience rather than getting participants to perform specific actions or to work particular body parts.

Sakiko’s movements could be described as improvisational or spontaneous. A more precise term, however, might be provisional: Here is a gesture and a rhythm to get us started, which may change to suit the changing and changed circumstances. Changing circumstances, because all situations are dynamic; changed circumstances, because every animate expression contributes to and thus affects a situation’s dynamism. Sakiko’s performance was driven by the tension between riding the energy of already existent circumstances and shaping that energy’s momentum by encouraging or evoking particular possibilities. Her actions could be read as an inquiry into how and what kinetic rhythms can sustain (e.g., can rhythm create new entities or individuations?), as well as the corresponding question of how a rhythm can be sustained among a set of bodies.

We often think of rhythm as an acoustic phenomenon, but rhythm is fundamentally kinetic. Rhythm is at the core of movement’s expressivity, linked to emotional registers such as excitement or languor. It also has a connective or collectivizing potential: rhythm synchronizes. In this sense, rhythm can act as a powerful carrier and transmitter of meaningfulness.

Sakiko chose not to speak during Body Maintenance, but she could hardly be called uncommunicative. Each of Sakiko’s actions conveyed meanings and shaped the participants’ interactions in various ways, both individually and collectively. The animation of the basketball served as both a process and a proposition, eventually transforming the audience into a group charged with the task of finding common ground. Indeed, Body Maintenance could be viewed as a kinetic experiment for modelling collectivity. Sport does something similar within a framework of rules that define and direct competitive and collaborative impulses, designating teams and providing guidelines to identify goals, regulate behaviour, and determine winners and losers. In Body Maintenance, however, the task of discovering or establishing a set of goals and behaviours was part of the play. Rules might be proposed or tested through interaction, but they could not be taken as given or relied upon as fixed; every gesture became a bid for individual expression as well as for building a group consensus.

Body Maintenance was certainly not about the game of basketball per se, but as an animate material, Sakiko’s basketball proved to be a useful learning object for mapping the dynamic exchange of energy and assent within the group.[7] A basketball is a familiar object across many cultures. As a hand-held object, it has a weight, a heft, and a grip that do not require too much dexterity for a typically abled human to handle in a rudimentary way. Nevertheless, a certain amount of force is required to animate the ball, and practice and precision are required to direct it skilfully. Playing with a basketball tends to engage one’s entire body, demanding a concentrated focus on one’s physicality and immediate environment. It is difficult to disappear into other thoughts when bouncing and travelling with the ball. At the same time, a basketball’s size makes it relatively easy to track visually. The ball produces a distinct and audible noise when it bounces off a hard surface, along with enough recalcitrance to assert a recognizable tactile and kinetic character. These qualities taken together are what allowed the basketball to serve as a learning object in Body Maintenance. Certainly the basketball offered a medium for the transference of energetic impulses from participant to participant; at the same time, however, the basketball offered a way to observe and map how kinetic forces shifted in intensity, amplitude, direction, and other felt qualities as they were passed from body to body.

For the first half hour of the performance, the audience watched as Sakiko moved around the room with the ball. Despite the vigour with which she bounced the ball, this was not a display of unusual prowess or athleticism. She was not doing astonishing things with the ball that would seem difficult or unimaginable for a human being to accomplish. Instead, her efforts with the ball allowed us to discover something about her physicality: her familiar ways of moving as a human body, as well as her distinct kinetic style as an individual. At the same time, the noise, vibration, and movement were affecting our own bodies in subtle ways, even though we were observing rather than actively engaging in the action. Initially, most of the audience was following Sakiko as she moved, respecting her request to be active observers that I had relayed when I was introducing the work. By the half hour point, however, the witnesses had all drifted to the edges of the space, content to keep some distance between our bodies and those of Sakiko and the ball.

At this point, Sakiko’s actions shifted. She stood in front of one of the audience members, and after subtly gesturing her intention, Sakiko tossed the ball to her. This turned out to be Stephanie Marshall, one of the local KinesTHESES artists, with whom Sakiko would be doing a public intervention the following week, although at that point they had not yet met each other. Sakiko was handing the responsibility for animating the ball over to the audience. She quickly slipped to the sidelines and avoided Stephanie’s gaze when Stephanie attempted to toss the ball back to Sakiko. Now, Stephanie would have to figure out how and if the performance would continue. Taking Sakiko’s action as a cue that she did not want her to return the ball, Stephanie began moving with the ball herself, looking for another audience member who might be more willing to receive it.

Once the audience had accepted the task of keeping the ball animated—a participatory role that was only taken on after a palpable initial reluctance—Sakiko’s actions shifted. She began to move through the space in ways that emphasized, without directly mimicking, aspects of the individual and group dynamics at play: lightness, heaviness, delicacy, fluidity, speed, following, leading, posing, tracing the painted lines on the floor, sitting on the sidelines, hiding, and so forth. Shifting among subject positions, these simple actions constituted a practice of listening through movement, further amplifying the emergence of individual and group dynamics as imbricated kinetic events.

In the general description of the KinesTHESES series, I emphasize how our perceptual experiences of bodily movement, what German philosopher Edmund Husserl called the kinestheses, are foundational to our individual subjectivities as humans. What participating in Body Maintenance emphasized for me, however, is how we only truly actualize as selves within a larger surround. No self exists in a vacuum: individuals come into being and achieve definition in the context of what supports a self and what that self stands in contrast to. We tend to describe this situatedness as if our selves were pre-existing, stand-alone entities that then come together to create collective dynamics through our individual reactions. Such a viewpoint emphasizes the felt continuity of our existence. Inversely, however, who and what we find ourselves to be as entities is also determined by the way collective forces shape us. You, I, and we are entities that are continually being formed, in animate relation with one’s world.

In Sakiko’s performance, responding to the action in Body Maintenance entailed accepting or avoiding the ball, deciding where and how to move with the ball, when to share the ball, and reacting emotionally and animately to the events taking place. A web of relations, largely manifested through kinetic interactions, established the contours of individual participants, as well as shaping various group dynamics. Although we experience the world as localized, individuated consciousnesses, feeling our actions to be the directed expressions of a self-contained will, we can also occasionally sense ourselves operating within and as a part of larger structures and forces—kinetically as much as materially—that generate an intelligence more expansive than what we experience as exclusively our own. In this sense, we are present as more than our selves. Occasionally, we can surprise ourselves by discovering aspects and possibilities of our being that can only exist and unfold in particular situations.

Put another way, it is not simply that we adapt to circumstances. The circumstances also adapt us. We are always becoming. When we synchronize to a rhythm that appears to originate externally, we become part of the animate materiality of that rhythm. Being, then, is not confined to what we are as material substance; it also encompasses what we do—our animateness—and this kinetic register of our existence is extremely porous and interconnected to what we generally perceive as being external to our material self.

After the group action with the basketball, Sakiko ended Body Maintenance with a final sequence in which she traversed the length of the space, bouncing the ball and blowing a high-pitched whistle. Her pace was considerably faster for this final action. She bounced the ball more quickly, allowing the movement to infuse her body, so that her steps also had a bounce to them. Her feet lifted higher off the floor as she moved, and at times her torso took on a vertical undulation. The whistle emphasized the connection of movement with breath, illustrating the porousness of interconnection in the relationship between her body and the bouncing ball.

A companion work: Blessing Breathes

Kinetic rhythm, with its inherent porousness and transformational potential, is central to Body Maintenance. An attention to kinetic rhythm can also be found in the video documentation of a related performance by Sakiko, entitled Blessing Breathes.[8] Originally performed in 2000, Blessing Breathes began with the image of Sakiko activating a metronome after setting the weight on its pendulum aflame. This gesture was followed by an extended action that is a direct precursor to Body Maintenance. Sakiko moved through the audience aggressively bouncing a basketball, traveling faster and faster until she eventually singled out particular audience members as partners, throwing the ball back and forth with them in an abrupt, even seemingly hostile manner as she moved closer and closer to them. Her aggressiveness emphasized the potential intrusiveness of kinetic force, the way such force can determine and even dominate our engagement with it. Perhaps remembering this earlier work, Sakiko told me after presenting Body Maintenance that she had expected the interactions to be much more aggressive. Despite Sakiko’s initial forcefulness, however, the group dynamic was not conducive to sustaining this particular affect in the Toronto performance.

Sakiko’s experience in Toronto may have affected her understanding of and approach to Blessing Breathes. A 2020 work by Sakiko with the same title, notably subtitled “The Body Maintenance,” took place in Japan after her Toronto performance, relatively early in the COVID-19 pandemic. This performance references and also appears to evolve out of both the much earlier version of Blessing Breathes and Sakiko’s Toronto experiences with Body Maintenance.[9]

For this iteration, rather than using a basketball, Sakiko bounced a much smaller orange plastic ball, which I believe is a ball she bought in Toronto during her KinesTHESES residency for her public intervention called Step Two with local artist Stephanie Marshall. As with the earlier version of Blessing Breathes, a bouncing ball and metronomes are the essential materials of the 2020 performance, but the arc of the work is quite different.

Often Sakiko does not speak in her performances, relying instead on her gestures and images to communicate with the audience. In this performance, however, she addressed the audience in Japanese as she bounced the ball. Subtitles on the video translate her words:

Previously, it was OK to catch the ball when it came near you. But this time, I am told by the organizer I should not pass anything to the audience, because we have to prevent infection. So, if the ball rolls to you and you touch it, please disinfect or wash you [sic] hands, we have water and the bottle of disinfectant, though I am not infected yet.

Bouncing a ball was still important to Sakiko’s performance, as the action allowed her to animate her body and the space while producing an audible rhythm. Because the ball could not be passed from body to body, however, it could not function in quite the same way as a learning object. This role was instead displaced to Blessing Breathes‘ other prop, the metronome.

In the 2020 performance, Sakiko used seven metronomes, which appeared after rather than before the action of bouncing the ball. In this version, the artist did not set the pendulum weights aflame. Following her exertion from playing with the ball, Sakiko measured her wrist pulse, and vocalized a short pum sound with each beat to make the rhythm evident to the audience. She asked the audience to keep time with her, and once they were clearly and confidently mimicking her pulse’s rhythm with the same pum, pum, pum sound, she used their vocalization to find a synchronous tempo on a metronome. Once she was able to match the rhythm by adjusting the position of the pendulum weight, she stopped the pendulum, leaving the weight in position, effectively archiving the slaved rhythm.

She then repeated this process with six more metronomes, matching the rhythms to those of different audience members’ pulses one by one and setting each of the metronomes together on a table. Once all of the metronomes were slaved to individual pulses, Sakiko activated each of them, creating a kinetic and symphonic sculptural object. The metronomes with their varied rhythms provided a striking illustration of group interaction, their clicks and swaying pendulums seeming to move in and out of synch while creating a unique dynamic whole. Eventually, Sakiko stopped each of the metronomes, until only one continued to pulse. This one, which was smaller and more slender than the others, seemed somehow more evocative to Sakiko. In the video, she remarked, “Small one is very cute. Swinging with his body.” The silent metronomes were removed, and Sakiko then dragged and pushed the table in an erratic spiral through the space as the single metronome beat. Eventually, the metronome fell over, ending the performance.

While some the changes in the work can be attributed to the constraints of the pandemic, the adaptations may also reflect discoveries Sakiko made through Body Maintenance. Perhaps the most obvious shift is the change of affect, from an aggressive interaction to one that is both lighter in tone and more cooperative. The rhythm of the bouncing ball seems less an imposing force that presents a challenge to individual selves than it is a synchronizing force that encourages group coherence. With the metronomes, kinetic rhythm is foregrounded as a dynamic force that enlists objects in various trajectories of conflict, alignment, and decay. At the same time, the emphasis on externalizing an internal kinetic rhythm—the human pulse—highlights the way that we are not only substance, but also animateness, and that animateness is both porous and responsive to its environment. Indeed, movement can give definition to bodies, and even bring them to apparent life, so that we cannot separate substance from animation. In the ambiguous words of William Butler Yeats,

O body swayed to music, O brightening glance,
How can we know the dancer from the dance? [10]


[1] This text is no longer on the Mobius site, but it can be accessed through the Internet Archive’s Wayback Machine here by following the Commentary tab at the top of the page and accessing the “Friday Night” posts.

[2] The FADO website includes documentation of her work here.

[3] An eyewitness description of this performance by commissioned 7a*11d blogger Elaine Wong can be found here.

[4] Some commentary on this performance by Elaine Wong can be found here.

[5] An eyewitness description of Wind from Sky (vol. 2) by commissioned 7a*11d blogger Andrew J. Paterson can be found here.

[6] For a description of Body Maintenance along with photo and video documentation, see the previous Toolkit entry: 8. Tools (curator’s description with digital photo and video recordings): Sakiko Yamaoka’s Body Maintenance. [ADD URL]

[7] The term “learning object” is borrowed from the artist Jeanne van Heeswijk, who uses it in her exhibition Trainings for the Not-Yet to describe various objects and environments she employs in relation to her larger social practice. An online description of van Heeswijk’s show by Efi Michalarou emphasizes how such objects carry with them particular possibilities for knowledge and practice:

Meant to be used and accommodated by and in the trainings, [learning objects] are living repositories of knowledges, stories, and experiences; the tools-in-wait for activation in difficult conversations and joyful praxis; and the archives of past and future anticipations of what “we” want to become when practicing visions of transformative justice, equality, dignity and love, care, resilience, collective power and sharing, and the relationality spawning alternative possibilities.

One simple example of such a learning object in van Heeswijk’s exhibition was a stairwell built to allow face-to-face conversations among participants of different physical stature.

[8] Video documentation of this performance can be viewed here.

[9] Video documentation of this performance can be viewed here.

[10] From the 1928 poem, “Among School Children.”

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