Yuko Kaseki neither looks like a woman nor a man. She has been living in Berlin for 20 years but isn’t German. She grew up near Tokyo but feels alien in Japan. Her hair is blonde but also back and silver. On stage, she is, at once, an elderly woman and a young girl. Kaseki, one of the world’s foremost artistes, floats outside perimeters of definition to scrutinise man-made strictures. At the recent Serendipity Arts Festival in Goa, she presented a powerful comment on war, Shoot Jeez My Gosh!.
On a dark barge fitted with a long ramp, a spotlight picked up Kaseki in child-like poses. The recorded “music” was the sounds of war machinery and her postures were inspired by American recluse Henry Darger’s paintings of children in idyllic settings or being tortured and executed. As war overtook the narrative, Kaseki’s physical expressions extended to rolling, falling, scrambling and cowering. Her body turned into a fragile entity against the constant rattle of gunshots and swearing of soldiers. The spotlight slanting on her, as if from a helicopter, followed as she ran or fell. When the performance ended, there was silence in the audience before rounds of applause.
“Her work is very political and the ability to use her body as material to create images is outstanding. She is able to transform from an adult woman to a child at the snap of a finger and that technique is masterful,” says artiste Nikhil Chopra about her performance.
Kaseki is trained in Butoh, a dance theatre form that originated out of the horrors of World War II in Japan. “The piece is inspired by children and women, who are the weakest people in a war. My family never talked about war and that is also a problem,” she says. Apart from using her androgynous body to make images of war, she also reconstructs ideas of time. The beginning unfolds slowly before the minutes begin to collapse on each other like a person rushing towards a finale. “I wanted to change time and travel from real to the unreal, or go slow or fast. This is because technology can manipulate time and reality today,” she says.
Kaseki did not perform until she was out of university and joined a theatre group. Works such as Unspelled, in which lifeless objects were used to comment on ideas about women, and Surnature, in which she “lifts a co-performer out of his wheelchair world, just as he jolts her out of her preset movements” show her insistence on exploring the “outsider experience”. “I like to stay outside groups that explain me as ‘Japanese of such-and-such age and gender’. These create a frame and we have one category fighting the other. I am very interested in what is outside. Art allows me to challenge and recognise myself,” she says.