Japanese artist Teiji Furuhashi’s moving installation Lovers is on view at The Museum of Modern Art through April 16, smartly coupled next to a display of Nan Goldin’s Ballad of Sexual Dependency. Lovers, part of MoMA’s permanent collection, has not been on display since 1995, the same year that Furuhashi (1960–1995) passed from AIDS related complications. Here, Visual AIDS Programs Director Alex Fialho interviews Cara Manes, Assistant Curator at MoMA, about Furuhashi’s work and the heartening return of Lovers to public view.
Alex Fialho: First, can you describe the various components of Teiji Furuhashi's enrapturing installation Lovers, now on view at MoMA?
Cara Manes: Life-size images of human figures are projected onto the walls of a darkened room from a central tower holding five rotating video projectors, two rotating slide projectors, and one motion sensor, all controlled by two concealed computers. Four of the five projectors present looped video sequences of members of the Kyoto-based Dumb Type artist collective performing various activities—running, walking, stopping, turning. The figures occasionally overlap such that they appear to interact, running past each other or pausing in a gesture of embrace, yet their real filmed bodies never make contact. The fifth projection is video of Furuhashi walking slowly and deliberately around the room until a viewer triggers the motion sensor, signaling the video of Furuhashi to change: he stops and turns to face the viewer wherever the motion sensor happened to be in its rotation. As this happens, the slide projectors are programmed to align themselves with the projection, and they begin their own sequence: one displays a slide image in line with the word “fear” and the other a perpendicular line with the word “limit.” The projectors move toward each other until the two lines intersect in a crosshair across Furuhashi’s body, as he stretches out his arms and dives backward, disappearing. The projections then reset and the sequence begins again.
AF: Can you situate this work within Furuhashi's larger body of work?
CM: Well, it was the last major work that Furuhashi made. A recurrent theme in Dumb Type’s work is the status of the individual in a rapidly changing technological world. Here Furuhashi filtered this lofty topic through an autobiographical lens. Though he had often performed in his own work, and often explored identity self-reflexively (at times employing alter egos), I think it’s fair to say that
Lovers is particularly personal—a kind of reflection on life in the face of death.
AF: Lovers underwent an extensive restoration process in order to be exhibited. Can you speak to this process?
CM: The restoration process is most accurately and comprehensively discussed in a MoMA blog post by project conservator Ben Fino-Radin (viewable here). But I can say that the project was a massive undertaking. Since the work had not been shown since its acquisition in 1998 (it was first shown at MoMA in 1995, prior to its entry into the collection), a great deal of work was required to assess what we had, what worked and what did not, and what we needed to do to get it up and running again. Lovers had already been the subject of an extensive conservation examination, as a case study for a course Ben was teaching at NYU, so some major groundwork had already been laid in terms of understanding which elements of the work were stable and which needed to be replaced (though we kept and documented all of the original components). Lovers was groundbreaking in its technical complexity at the time it was made and remains so today. Conserving it completely challenged our conservators to expand established models of preservation, extending the Museum's commitment to collecting, preserving, and displaying complex time-based media installations. And, we had the great fortune of working with Kyoto-based fellow members of Dumb Type Shiro and Yoko Takatani. Shiro had been responsible for much of the work’s technical execution, as Furuhashi’s health was failing at the time he made it, so his input and expertise were critical to the effort’s success.
AF: Furuhashi was a member of the Kyoto-based artist collective Dumb Type. Can you tell us more about Dumb Type and Furuhashi's creative community?
CM: Dumb Type was a group that formed at the Kyoto City University of Arts in the early 1980s. According to Furuhashi, its founding members were all students who felt like outliers within the school’s rather traditional curriculum and setting. Less a formal group, Dumb Type was really more of a loose collective with a core constituency and several rotating members, including video artists, sculptors, choreographers, musicians, architects, and computer programmers. At the heart of the group’s project, and informing its performances, videos, and installations, was a shared desire to “create without words” (or, “dumb”-ly), in order to establish a new means of communication for the digital age.
AF: Do you have a sense of how HIV/AIDS effected Furuhashi's creative practice?
CM: Furuhashi was a true activist artist. For example, he participated in the 10th International Conference on AIDS in Yokohama in 1994, the year that Lovers was made. He guided the political direction of Dumb Type toward AIDS awareness activities which the group continued to support after his death, despite the challenges of doing so in the distinctly apathetic Japanese political climate at the time.
AF: Do you have a sense of MoMA's interest in initially displaying Lovers in 1995, and eventual acquisition of the work?
CM: Longtime MoMA curator Barbara London is responsible for the work’s initial display at the Museum and its eventual acquisition. An intrepid surveyor of Japanese new media art, Barbara was a close friend of Furuhasi and had invited him to give a talk at MoMA in 1990, and then brought
Lovers to the Museum in 1995 for its inaugural American presentation in her landmark survey show of video art, “Video Spaces: Eight Installations.” The version included in that exhibition differed slightly than the one that ultimately entered MoMA’s collection in that it included a set of longer projected texts; soon after he first presented the work, Furuhashi decided to reduce the text to two words only (“fear” and “limit”), and that is the version that MoMA acquired.
AF: Lovers is thoughtfully coupled with an installation of Nan Goldin's Ballad of Sexual Dependency. How do you see these two works playing off / complementing each other?
CM: In terms of content, on the one hand Lovers is firmly rooted in its historical moment and speaks to the pressing issues of its time and the specific circumstances of its maker. On the other hand, however, the work raises broad questions about humans’ relationships with each other, and with their own bodies, in a rapidly-developing technological age. Goldin’s Ballad operates along similar lines. A deeply personal narrative of the artist’s own experiences in Boston, New York, Berlin and elsewhere in the 1970s, ‘80s, and beyond, the Ballad also speaks to universal themes of love, sexuality, and loss. Goldin specifically addresses the destruction of AIDS, as well, through photographic portraits of some of those lost to AIDS related complications, and places herself inside the narrative structure of the work, as does Furuhashi in Lovers, of course. Though formally and stylistically distinct, both works offer prescient portraits of contemporary love that assume poignant associations when reconsidered in the present moment.
Cara Manes is Assistant Curator in the Department of Painting and Sculpture at The Museum of Modern Art, where she works extensively on the ongoing displays in the collection galleries, as well as temporary exhibitions and special installations. Most recently she organized Projects 104: Nástio Mosquito (2016) and the collection exhibition Take an Object (2015). Alongside museum colleagues, she has contributed to numerous other exhibitions, including From the Collection: The 1960s (2016), Ellsworth Kelly: The Chatham Series (2013), Artist's Choice: Trisha Donnelly (2012), and Cy Twombly: Sculpture (2011). Manes' writing has appeared in a variety of publications, including Hans Arp and the United States (Stiftung Arp, 2016) and Films and Videos by Robert Morris (Museu de Arte Contemporânea de Serralves, 2011). She hold degrees from Wellesley College and The City University of New York.