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The images of the recent exhibition Zones of Love-Contemporary Art from Japan reflected an intriguing visual juxtaposition, which raised questions about cultural identity and cross-cultural expectation. The familiar iconography of international consumer culture that one associates with most large urban centres was very much in evidence, but was inflected with a local and alien trace which actually emphasized for me a sense of distance and remoteness. So while there was an immediate comprehension of the bold surfaces of the images, access to their productive centres was difficult.
Dumb Type's performance pH however, had a profound effect on me. It brought home most forcefully the loss of the interpersonal in the sealed circuits and systems of international consumer society, questioning the terms of an ideal civilised life.
The projects of Dumb Type reflect on the condition of urban dwelling in contemporary Japan, where technology is often so omnipresent that it has the 'natural' status of raw material. In our cultural context where the appearance and use of technology still has a powerful semiotic currency in and of itself, this matter-of-factness toward the technological environment has an inescapably futuristic tint. However, it would seem that even in the advanced techno-human environments of urban Japan, a site within which the technological and the human agendas would be harmonious has as yet no rational form. So while pH reflects this relationship as well and truly established, it is inherently unreconciled and unresolved.
pH recreates the urban social space as tightly regimented and intensely claustrophobic. Within this space the everyday, sanitized environments of shopping centres, transit stations, television shows and various institutions of social management and control become fused and layered. The performance space is composed of a long, thin runway, which is bound on all sides. It is cut up by continually moving metal girders which establish a relentless mechanical context for the performance. The girders are mounted with slide projectors which send a collage of highly coded words and images in bars of light down the runway and across the bodies and faces of the five players. Tennis balls shot from the outside punch the corrugated end wall of the space at irregular intervals, cutting through the ether of signs and providing a constant threat to the players who move within.
The players seem torn between compliance with and resistance to their surroundings. Alternately they fall with relief, in synch with the relentless grace of the functioning environment, or turn against the tide in a desperate and yet random struggle. The projected face of the lead male player fills the end wall, his eyes move side to side and seem to express simultaneously entrapment, panic and impassive observation. The players do not form a community but exist in a kind of limbo, devoid of agency. They appear to be controlled remotely by the relentless audio-visual information which constitutes the environment and casts their bodies.
The three women are like a triplet of sales assistants high on the pleasure principle of the products they are selling. They have fragile, bruised bodies clothed in uniform lace slips, bodies which betray the indestructible faces they support. These bloodless faces recall those seen on advertising billboards-two dimensional and coloured 'larger than life', they disappear into the plurality of each other, silent. The two male players are characterised by a powerful physicality-even barely clothed the lead player appears armoured. And yet the 'sharp' suit, which the men swap around, becomes a token of an interchangeable identity.
Much of the power of the performance stems from its aesthetic bite. The use of multiple media creates a polychromatic theatre of information: sound, slides, dance, sculpture, film and video which serve not just to reproduce but to concentrate and accentuate the features of a cultural reality spinning out of control. The layered sound-track becomes a sign of the urban landscape cluttered with things, but it achieves an intense sense of loss: muzak and banal recorded announcements, the wail of war-zone sirens and random electronic hiccups and heartbeats call to mind a post-apocalyptic world of machines spinning on in the total absence of human life. A herd of bright pink toy pigs advance down the harshly lit white runway and as they fall over one another and continue functioning they become a metaphor for meaningless over-production, their clean perfect pinkness becoming a parody of vitality. In pH the banal scenarios and objects of urban existence achieve a simple and powerful malevolence.
At one point we encounter a shopping mall environment, wherein the lead male player croons an American pop tune which drips with nostalgic longing: "Are you lonesome tonight, are you lonesome tonight, are you sorry we drifted apart?" The female performers roll on and off a table during this, legs and arms open, their expressions a frozen parody of willingness—like a production line of dream girls. In this scenario the hysterical romanticism of pop culture shines forth in all its ludicrous glory—boiling, nostalgic tears rise to the surface and evaporate there like fairy floss.
Of all the various readings of the scientific term pH in relation to this performance piece, I prefer 'post-history': an evaporation of time, running on the spot, present tense. pH highlights the fact that the aesthetic upon which consumer culture draws is one of total ostentation where every presentation exhausts itself in its delivery and as such leaves no room for the possibility of becoming or of reserve. In pH the sense of human agency exists as a mere trace, and yet it is this loss, which gives the performance such power.
There is in pH something of what is fundamentally at stake in cultures where a sense of human community has been stimulated and overwhelmed by the systems which control and manage social being. It also speaks metaphorically, for me, of the abandonment of a critical agency in the desire to meet the landscape of information with a complementary flow of celebratory response, where cultural evolution is the state of play to be watched and adapted to, rather than questioned. In these systems there is little acknowledgment of the ephemeral nature of life. A sense of urgency towards living is at last relinquished.