In a marathon of sorts, performers Eiko & Koma will spend November naked in a Walker Art Center gallery. Aside from one 15-minute break per day, they'll be on view six hours a day, six days a week Tuesday through Nov. 30.

During a preview Monday evening they lay, curled into semi-fetal positions, in a circle of straw and raven feathers behind a curtain in a softly lit Walker gallery. As viewers peered through holes in the curtain or settled on seats beside them, the pair ever-so-slowly stirred and stretched, sometimes flexing a muscle, extending an arm, arching a neck or back. The only sounds were gallery chatter or the occasional drip of water plopping into the 2 tons of dirt that surrounds them.

The performance, commissioned by the Walker, is called "Naked," but doesn't seem either sexual or even very sensual, especially compared to contemporary advertising, television and pop music performances.

"It's not at all provocative or profane," said Walker performing arts director Philip Bither. "It's a very painterly experience that is, to me, very profound."

Somewhat to her surprise, Minneapolis philanthropist Leni Moore, a former investment banker, agreed. "I tend to be skeptical of installations, but the set is gorgeous and the performance is very beautiful," she said after the preview, attended by about 40 people. "Even though the artists characterize it as moving toward death, I see stirrings of movement and life."

Nakedness is nothing new for the Japanese-born, New York-based performers, who generally stage their slow-motion shows in the nude. Most of their performances last only an hour or so, however, and this is only the second time they have committed themselves to long-term exposure. In 1998 -- two years after they were awarded a MacArthur "genius" grant -- they did a similar monthlong stint at the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York.

Since then they've aged some, of course. Eiko Otake is now 58 and her husband, Takashi Koma Otake, is 61. With their shoulder-length black hair and lean bodies dusted with chalky powder, they seem not young or old but curiously ageless. They train all the time to maintain muscle tone and concentration, but they did nothing special to prepare for the Walker event other than to "image being there," Eiko told Bither.

Keep your clothes on

Getting naked in museums has been something of a trend this year. Last spring at New York's Museum of Modern Art, visitors who wanted to see a retrospective by Marina Abramovíc had to squeeze between two naked performers whom the artist hired to flank a doorway. An inspired visitor who stripped off her dress was quickly whisked out of the museum and told she'd be arrested if she returned. The museum cited its policy of forbidding nudity among visitors.

Eiko and Koma's performance is so somber it's unlikely to prompt such acting out, but, for the record, Walker Art Center doesn't allow nude visitors either, said spokesperson Karen Gysin.

The artists have a long history with the Walker, where they first performed in 1981. It has staged more than a dozen of their performances and commissioned six events, including a video. "River" was performed in the waters of Medicine Lake in Plymouth in 1996.

The Walker commissioned "Naked" as part of a retrospective the artists are staging in various cities during the next three years. A version will be shown next spring at the Baryshnikov Arts Center in New York, and there may be additional performances in Chicago, said Sam Miller, a New York arts producer who was in Minneapolis for the opening. The production has to be modified to suit each venue because they don't all have space, money or staff to fumigate a truck full of dirt and haul it into the galleries, as the Walker did.

Mary Abbe • 612-673-4431