Art

'Dumb Type': When actions speak the loudest

by Jeff Michael Hammond

Contributing Writer

Technology forces us to consider the meaning of being human. The media art collective Dumb Type explores this and related topics with thought-provoking performances and installations in Japan and around the world.

In Kyoto next year, it will showcase its first brand-new performance work since 2002, but ahead of this an exhibition dedicated to the group, “Dumb Type Actions and Reflections” is currently showing at the Museum of Contemporary Art Tokyo (MoT). An expanded version of an exhibition held last year at France’s Centre Pompidou-Metz, the retrospective includes extra works from the art group’s career.

Dumb Type was formed by students at Kyoto City University of Arts in the 1980s to provide a non-verbal (hence “dumb”) response — in the form of installation, performance, music, dance and more — to the onslaught of media imagery and information of contemporary society.

A loose collective of artists who also pursued other independent activities, Dumb Type had, and still has, no leader as such, but a core figure in its early days was Teiji Furuhashi (1960-95), whose last work, “Lovers” (1995), has been recreated for this exhibition. Completed before his death from AIDS-related complications, the work features projected images across four walls: Naked men and women are seen standing, walking and, crucially, embracing — wrapping their arms around themselves or other figures superimposed over them.

To illustrate how live performances have long been integral to Dumb Type, some rooms in the museum showcase the stage apparatus or background visuals that were used for such works. In these instances, it could be said we are being given the “hardware” of the group’s activities. But without the “software” — the human energy that brought it all to life — the exhibition faces the challenge of conveying the dynamism of the group’s performances within a museum environment.

This is left largely to documentary video recordings of various live events that put the installations into some context. One of these videos features some 1990s performances of “pH,” in which two computer-driven crossbeams move steadily across the room, one at a higher level projecting images onto the performers below, a reflection of how we are constantly bombarded by media imagery. The performers had to jump over the lower truss or lie on the floor as it passed over them like a huge scanner, perhaps a comment on how technology also increasingly surveils us.

In contrast, for the MoT exhibition, an installation has a single truss crossing an empty floor on which words are printed, drawing attention to various key words of contemporary life.

One of the most successful installations at the MoT is the video piece “Memorandum Or Voyage,” which holds its own as an independent work, although it comprises a combination of images used as part of three past live performances (“Memorandum,” “Or” and “Voyage”). In “Memorandum,” street scenes, the texture of walls and closeup details of everyday life representing the memories of group members are repeated in series across a long horizontal screen. Sometime-member Ryoji Ikeda provides the sound textures for the “Or” section’s meditation on life and death, the only part of the exhibition he is involved in.

“Dumb Type Actions and Reflections” documents the fruits of a worthy collaborative effort and serves as a decent introduction to those unfamiliar with the collective. Hopefully it will also spur the members to make sure it won’t be another 18 years until their next original artwork.

“Dumb Type Actions and Reflections” at The Museum of Contemporary Art Tokyo, runs until Feb. 16; 10 a.m.-6 p.m. ¥1,400. Closed Mon. For more information, visit www.mot-art-museum.jp.

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