That thing that looks like a hollowed-out vintage caravan in MoMA’s Agnes Gund Garden Lobby, from now until January 21, is just that. And those bulky, muscular curtains—clinging to all sides—are in fact made of leaves, sweet potato stems, and other organic detritus. And yes, those are real people—dressed in gauzy, powdery garb—moving slowing around, or nestling inside of, the vehicle.
What you’re seeing is The Caravan Project (1999/2011/2012/2013) a work by legendary dance duo Eiko & Koma. They have been making work together since 1972, and their history is detailed at length on the Internet and in many books, so I’ll focus here on the lesser-known story of the Caravan’s journey to MoMA and the performance about to unfold inside it.
On Monday afternoon, the Caravan arrived at MoMA from its storage space in Hackensack, New Jersey. We had to stop traffic on 54th Street for a few minutes as Koma expertly reversed it into the loading dock. And from then on, there was very little margin for error as the art handlers guided it through MoMA’s mezzanine. Despite being sealed and unadorned, it had already taken on anthropomorphic airs—seeming to me like some sort of oversized, burrowing animal, ungainly in its slow but determined movement.
The last image above depicts what the Caravan looked like as the installation was wrapping up late Tuesday evening. Illuminated from the inside and parked askew, it sits below Tony Smith’s Untitled (1962), and in front of Rodin’s Monument to Balzac (1898). That unlikely grouping—each a figure in its own right—and the nearly finalized Caravan itself, has left me with a couple of observations:
Even though the performance has yet to begin, the Caravan feels fleeting. As though it had been on-the-move and needed a quick parking space, and MoMA graciously obliged. On the other hand, it appears as though it was abandoned here decades ago, and somehow managed to remain invisible until now. Decaying in plain sight. These impressions of either happenstance or near-permanence each lend the Caravan a serenity I did not anticipate. In the busiest thoroughfare of the Museum, it seems at ease.
I’m reminded here of a story about Eiko & Koma recently told to me by a friend who’d had them as teachers at Wesleyan University. She described how, in class, they asked students to isolate under-loved or under-danced body parts: “Dance from the back of your neck,” “dance from your armpits.” In another exercise, they encouraged students to dance as if each finger had a separate persona, and in a third, students were asked to move as though plants were blooming from their bodies. These requests—dancing from minor parts of the body; reconceiving hands as a quorum of autonomous subjects; trying to adopt an arboreal pace—resonate with the Caravan’s feel and function in the Museum (albeit on a different scale). The Caravan is a slow moving organism, operating in a minor key and with a temporal sensibility that seems to rub MoMA against the grain. It invites close and extended looking, an unanticipated meditation in and on an often frenzied space.
Eiko & Koma: The Caravan Project, held in conjunction with the exhibitions Tokyo 1955–1970: A New Avant-Garde and Performing Histories: Live Artworks Examining the Past, is presented in the Museum’s Agnes Gund Garden Lobby during Museum hours from Wednesday, January 16 through Monday, January 21.