Dumb Type and the Perpetual Problem of the Performance Exhibition

A retrospective at Museum of Contemporary Art Tokyo struggles to convey the collective’s energy and impact 

Formed in Kyoto in 1984, Dumb Type started out examining the effects of global information overload, consumer hedonism and technological development on society. They explored these through multimedia performances combining aspects of drag, mime, dance, MTV, Hollywood, experimental theatre, electronic sound and interactive installation. An incubator, at various points, for artists including Ryoji Ikeda, Bubu de la Madeleine, Takamine Tadasu and Shiro Takatani, as well as the group’s early visionary, Teiji Furuhashi, who died of HIV-related complications in 1995, the group can be compared with other interdisciplinary collectives in postwar Japanese art such as Jikken Kobo (Experimental Workshop), active in the 1950s. Yet information about their past activities and opportunities to see their works have been hard to come by over the past decade or so as the group transitioned from regular production and touring to a more custodial phase. Most glaringly, Dumb Type were omitted from a flurry of exhibitions in 2018–19 that clumsily attempted to historicize the Japanese art of the 1980s.

Dumb Type, Playback, 2018, installation view. Courtesy: Museum of Contemporary Art Tokyo; photograph: Nobutada Omote 

This may simply be because rigid genre categorizations are baked into the structure of most Japanese art institutions and Dumb Type fall into both a temporal and categorical grey zone. Then there’s the ongoing curatorial dilemma of how to fit live and durational practices into the museum framework. Do you show plans and documentation? Re-enactments? New commissions? To that extent, the Museum of Contemporary Art Tokyo’s take on Dumb Type, which was big on set pieces and atmospherics, was an interesting thought exercise. Frustratingly, it may have been better at indicating systemic limitations than providing answers about how Dumb Type worked.

Initially presented at Pompidou Metz in 2018 before being updated for Tokyo, ‘Actions + Reflections’ is more digest than retrospective. The main works are new large-scale multimedia installations adapted from elements of earlier performances. The first piece viewers encounter, Playback (2018), comprises a grid of stands topped by turntables with translucent records that light up and spin at random intervals to emit sounds ranging from lilting piano to English instruction exercises and the multilingual greetings sent aboard NASA’s Voyager probe in 1977. This Blade Runner–meets–T.S. Eliot fugue landscape of disembodied future-past is enjoyable enough to stroll through, but hardly communicates the wit of the performance from which it derives. In that piece, Pleasure Life (1988), the stands were topped with props and devices that fed into vignettes, acted out in frenetic movements, of daily routine on a space station called The Colony where inhabitants’ lives are controlled by an all-pervading computer network. Similarly, the super-high-resolution video installation MEMORANDUM OR VOYAGE (2014) rehashes visuals from the later performances OR (1997), Memorandum (1999) and Voyage (2002). Monitors with grainy video clips of these and other performances dotting the exhibition provide only a glimpse into what they entailed. 

Dumb Type, LOVE/SEX/DEATH/MONEY/LIFE, 2018, installation view. Courtesy: Contemporary Art Tokyo; photograph: Nobutada Omote 

The exhibition is redeemed somewhat by a posthumous alternate version of Teiji Furuhashi’s solo installation Lovers (1994/2001), a darkened room with a stack of projectors in its centre. Set on rotating discs, the projectors beam life-size images onto the walls of naked men and women who walk, run, spread their arms, make hugging gestures, fade away or let themselves fall back into the walls’ void; the projections’ stilted motions and blown-out colours put the work’s machinery itself on display. Made at the same time Dumb Type were preparing the performance S/N (1994), in which Furuhashi speaks frankly about living with HIV/AIDS, Lovers provokes meditation on mortality and technology. Its poignancy comes partly from the realization that the spectral figures all occupy separate planes, never touching even when they overlap. 

Dumb Type, MEMORANDUM OR VOYAGE, 2014, installation view. Courtesy: Museum of Contemporary Art Tokyo; photograph: Nobutade Omote 

As with those spectral figures, there is a disconnect between spectacle and narrative in this exhibition; the former, created at doubtless great expense, ended up compressing Dumb Type’s wide-ranging intellect into an object-form. This impression was brought home by a giant ‘archive book’ available for perusal on a plinth in the gallery. It first struck me as obscene in its ostentatious analogness, but, once I got looking at it, I felt like I was plugging in to the Matrix. (I gradually sensed other visitors ganging up to unrivet me from my spot.) The book contains reproductions of plans algorithmically working out scenarios for an early version of Pleasure Life; deadpan photos of interface units, drivers and audio-visual matrix switchers; and a draft of the ‘Love Song’ dialogue of S/N: ‘We know how to protect ourselves against the virus, but is it possible to protect ourselves against the words?’ There seem to be myriad exhibitions waiting to be discovered there, if only we could catch up to them. 

Main image: Teiji Furuhashi, LOVERS, 1994/2001, installation view. Courtesy: Museum of Contemporary Art Tokyo; photograph: Nobutada Omote 

Andrew Maerkle is a writer and editor based in Tokyo, Japan.

Issue 210

First published in Issue 210

April 2020

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