The history of the La Biennale di Venezia dates as far back as 1895 when the first International Art Exhibition was organised. During the 20th century this celebration of the creative arts expanded with the Venice Film Festival in 1932 being the first such festival in history and dedicated programmes launched for music, theatre, dance and architecture. Over time more and more nations have chosen to participate in the art exhibition by staging their own events in national ‘pavilions’. Some are rented spaces across Venice but there are also 29 permanent pavilions in the Giardini area adjacent to the central exhibition building.
The Japan Pavilion within the Giardini was designed by the architect Takamasa Yoshizaka and built in the mid-1950s. The modernist building is situated on sloping terrain and therefore the exhibition space is elevated above the ground with a level below where people can circulate and which can be incorporated into the public area of any exhibit. Integral elements of the design are openings in both the ceiling and the floor which allow light to invade the space and provide an intersection between the internal and external environment, linking the natural and curated worlds. Many exhibitors over the years have commented on the practical difficulty of using such a unique space, with the two openings in the architecture variously disguised to provide a space more suited for displaying art.
The 59th edition of the International Art Exhibition in Venice was scheduled to take place in 2021 and in March 2020 the Japan Foundation, commissioner and organiser of the Japan Pavilion, announced that the exhibition contents would not this time be determined through a competition of plans submitted by nominated curators, but rather the artist responsible for Japan’s contribution had been directly selected as Dumb Type.
Ultimately the impacts of the global Covid-19 pandemic meant that the festival would be delayed for a year, finally opening in late April 2022. The artists would choose to name their exhibit after the year of its staging, simply styling it 2022.
The installation flyer provides some background on the exhibitors: ‘Formed in Kyoto in 1984, Dumb Type is a pioneering Japanese art collective, composed of artists working in various different fields including visual arts, video, computer programming, design, music and dance. Without a designated director, the group’s creative practice is based on flat, fluid, non-hierarchic collaborations that entail participating members to change according to each project. Engaging with a wide range of issues such as gender, race, AIDS, life and death, memory, and information society with an acute sense of criticism, they have produced various performances, installations, as well as stage works and exhibitions incorporating video works in museum and theatres both in Japan and overseas.’
The group’s name is an intriguing one. In Damian Lentini’s introduction to Dumb Type’s parallel exhibition at Haus der Kunst, Munich (which opened in May 2022), he explains: ‘the group’s name stemmed from the uncritical openness with which Japanese society embraced Western influences during the so-called “economic bubble” of the 1980s, which in turn created a superficial (later “Superflat”) society conditioned by mass media, consumerism, and technology. Within said society – whose reach has subsequently encompassed the entire world via many of the technologies first pioneered in Japan – individuals are overwhelmed with information yet unaware of anything, and desire itself goes hand-in-hand with despair. The “dumb” in Dumb Type therefore plays upon the word’s double-meaning in English: both mute and stupid.’
This central concern with the impact of technology and mass media seems extremely prescient for a group of artists formed in the mid ’80s, long before any of us experienced the all-pervasive lure of the smart phone with its offer of always-on data and unlimited information at our fingertips 24×7. For the Venice Biennale, the following artist statement was issued alongside the announcement of their participation:
Dumb Type is a system.
Since our founding we have welcomed the participation of various members, engaging in collaborations through a flat and non-hierarchical relationship without a typical director figure, expanding the scope of our activities.
Dumb Type continues to further expand.
Dumb Type turns an observant eye to:
The era of post-truth
“The place beyond truth”
“The holes of time”
To question “Truth” itself
In a world of fragmented chaos in which the systems we believed in are on verge of collapse, what had once appeared to be fact now seems uncertain, and people assume what they want to believe in as being the “truth.”
“Truth” is no longer “Truth” as it used to be.
The “Future” is no longer the “Future” as it used to be.
“Hope” is no longer “Hope” as it used to be.
“Happiness” is no longer “Happiness” as it used to be.
We must continue to question how to perceive spaces of discourse on the internet = post-truth, and ask ourselves “How should we understand the present, live our lives, and die?” while revisiting “norms” through a pure and unfaltering gaze in the context of an information environment where words are like fog and have lost their weight.
Dumb Type’s previous production was 2020, their first entirely new work for many years. It was scheduled to be staged in March 2020 as part of the KYOTO STEAM – International Arts x Science Festival. An elaborate theatre-work presented in seven ‘chapters’, the striking feature of the stage design was a large square void in the central area – the place that would attract the most focus in any traditional performance. It’s a disconcerting device that suggests something of the disruption of reality as we have previously understood it. What we thought to be the ‘solid ground’ of widely accepted truths are now called into question. Surety has been replaced with a perilous uncertainty.
The global health crisis meant that 2020 was never performed before a live audience, instead it was broadcast online six months after its intended premiere. By then, some aspects of the group’s creation seemed to take on a new significance. Shiro Takatani, a founder member of Dumb Type, explains: ‘The most defining feature of the design of 2020 is that the place that is normally used the most in a performance – the centre of the stage – has a large hole in it, and thus is unusable. Although it was a big challenge for us to arrive at this decision, I liked the idea: the dancers are on either side of the hole, and are therefore dancing far apart from one another. However, their shadows overlap on the screen behind them: these shadows shake hands and hug, even though the physical bodies of the performers are far apart. And I feel that that this seems like some sort of metaphor of our attempts to communicate in a pandemic world.
‘But actually, when we were creating the work (in 2019), we had no idea that something like the current global pandemic would happen…It may seem at first as if there is a scene or two in 2020 that relates to the pandemic – I too found this to be very strange – but on the other hand, the notion of distances between people, social distancing, and the desire for communication may in fact simply be a universal concern.’
The central void also perhaps signified how life was put on hold during times of lockdown, loftier aspirations displaced by thoughts of surviving day-to-day in what seemed a dystopian new reality. Takatani: ‘It was 2020, the year of the Olympics, right? So Japan seemed totally absorbed with the Olympics. But actually, 2020 was a year that happened to everyone. We felt that everyone had to think about their own 2020, but that somehow everything was stuck, and important things were being neglected and put on hold.’
The pandemic also brought travel restrictions which meant that the members of Dumb Type would not be able to visit the Japan Pavilion in Venice before their exhibition there. The installation would therefore be developed using plans of the notoriously tricky-to-use space, and by translating these into a sophisticated computer simulation based on video gaming technology.
Only when the group studied the floor-plans did they discover the startling similarity between the space and their design for the preceding show. ‘It was a huge coincidence that the square hole was there,’ says Takatani. ‘The first thing we noticed that there’s a hole here. It’s apparently called “The Well of Light”. (A concept by Takamasa Yoshizaka).’
A link was immediately created between the works 2020 and 2022, a parallel in the physical environment which also allowed the development of a theme expressed in their artist statement that ‘“Truth” is no longer “Truth” as it used to be.’
‘Misinformation (fake news) and various biases have existed for a long time,’ observes Shiro Takatani. ‘But now, these phenomena have moved to a completely different stage by the growing popularity of social media. The lighthouses that determine the direction to go are now innumerable and invalid, standing on the edge of a world where you can’t find the centre. We are required to live while balancing on the ambiguous edge. The centre is Void = It’s the hole covered with glass in the centre of the exhibition room.’
Another link between the pandemic-impacted Kyoto performance and the Venice Biennale installation would be the use of a nineteenth century school textbook to provide words to act as a core focus of the work. Shiro: ‘The text we are using in this exhibition is from an American geography book from the 1850s…We’re using that because it describes how little people living on the plane formed by the surface of a sphere called the Earth perceived their world, back when no one had ever seen it from the outside [i.e. from space].’
James Monteith’s book for young scholars provides definitive answers for every question posed, presumably facts that were designed to be learned by rote and repeated back to the teacher as evidence of knowledge acquired. Dumb Type, however, were much more interested in posing the questions than dictating the answers. ‘We thought if we stripped away all that and just asked the questions, it would be perceived as thinking about the Earth. We thought if people were asked those questions now, asked what the Earth is, then maybe now it’s high time we questioned again what a good answer would be? And questioned again things like how many countries it’s divided into and in what way.’
What is Geography?
What is the Earth?
What is the shape of the Earth?
Of what is the Earth composed?
What is a Continent?
How many Continents are there?
On which Continent do we live?
What is an Ocean?
How many Oceans are there?
Which is the largest Ocean?
What is an Island?
What is a Mountain?
What is a Hill?
What is a Volcano?
What is a Desert?
By what are Deserts formed?
What is a River?
By what are Rivers formed?
Who governs an Empire?
Who governs a Kingdom?
Who governs a Republic?
Which is the largest Empire in the world?
Which is the largest Kingdom in the world?
Which is the largest Republic in the world?
In what Division of the Earth do we live?
When you look at the rising Sun, what Ocean is before you?
Where does the Sun rise?
Where, then, is the Atlantic Ocean?
When you look at the setting Sun, what Ocean is before you?
Where does the Sun set?
What Ocean east of Asia?
What Ocean south of Asia?
What Ocean west of Africa?
What Sea south of Europe?
Which is the largest Island in the World?
How many Countries are there?
How are they divided?
What Country furthest north?
What Country furthest south?
In what Country do we live?
Where is Cape Farewell?
Excerpt from First Lessons in Geography, James Monteith, 1856
In an extended period of global pandemic it was time to question again what ‘global’ really means (a word often used as a synonym for ‘universal’), a line of enquiry pursued in the context of a festival where contributions are organised and displayed by individual nations in discrete locations dedicated to the work of their country’s citizens.
Once again, international events brought new resonance to Dumb Type’s work. This time, as final preparations were being made for the Venice opening, war broke out as Russian military vehicles moved into Ukraine. The question of how many countries there are and ‘How are they divided?‘ was now extremely apposite as attempts were being made to forcefully re-draw boundaries. ‘The world was changing so fast that we didn’t think about it at all while we were creating the works, then found things had completely changed when we debuted them,’ says Takatani, recalling events surrounding both 2020 and 2022.
Ryoji Ikeda will be a name familiar to fans of David Sylvian’s music, most particularly for his remixes of ‘World Citizen’ and ‘The Only Daughter’, the latter on the album of Blemish reimaginings, The Good Son vs The Only Daughter. Ikeda is a past member of Dumb Type, and for 2022’s activities it was announced that the group would welcome a new member – none other than Ryuichi Sakamoto.
Sakamoto and Shiro Takatani had worked together many times over the years, dating back to Ryuichi’s opera LIFE in 1999. Collaborating according to the principles of Dumb Type was, however, a new context. ‘For this work…we decided to create it together with new programmers…new members who’d only just joined Dumb Type, rather than people who’d been in it all along. And I also asked Ryuichi Sakamoto to join. I talked to him in 2019 about doing something together: not just the sound, but the concept part as well.’
A specific meeting in Kyoto would inform another aspect of how the group would conceive their use of the exhibition space at the Japan Pavilion, in particular its relationship with an outside environment that is not completely shut out of the building, being present through the openings in both the ceiling and floor. Shiro Takatani: ‘I thought about in particular a time…when I went to a tea ceremony room in Kyoto with Sakamoto-san, in Shinju-an in Daitoku-ji Temple. As I recall the story of the run-down temple called Shinju-an now, it apparently got its name because the holes in its roof and paper doors scattered the moonlight about inside like beautiful pearls…
‘When I went to that teahouse, the Japanese-style paper doors and walls were thin, and I could feel the outside. Then while we were inside it started to rain heavily, and with the tremendous noise that it made, I could feel the outside world much more than by seeing it directly through a windowpane or open window. My brain wanted to learn more about the outside from the incredibly limited information. So, a good way to really observe the outside is to limit the information about it to some extent. In that sense, the information is pretty limited in this exhibition too. We only have five lasers and one LED, just a single piece of information flows across the horizon. And the brightness in the space changes with the scattered light shining in from the ceiling.’
The lasers are used in an innovative way to form a ‘horizon’ that encircles the room and at times the beams coalesce to form in letters the questions from James Monteith’s textbook. This is how the catalogue described the experience: ‘Mirrors on four stands positioned to the north, south, east, and west of the centre of the exhibition room rotate at high speed, reflecting lasers trained on them to project text onto the surrounding walls…posing simple yet universal questions. The sounds of voices reading the texts are emitted from rotating parametric speakers, becoming highly directional beams of sound that travel around the room, suddenly and unexpectedly reaching visitors’ ears.’
Back in Japan after the opening of 2022, three members of the collective took part in a panel discussion hosted by the Japan Foundation, sharing a ten-minute video of the installation so as to give those who have not been able to travel to Venice a taste of what it was like to be immersed in its surroundings. The opening sounds recall the heavy rain falling outside that tea ceremony room in Kyoto.
‘For the soundtrack you just heard,’ said Shiro Takatani, ‘Sakamoto-san created nearly an hour’s worth of material. He organised all the ideas that had come from our discussions and assembled them into a single sequence.’ The group initially wondered how they could incorporate the music into the visual setting. ‘When he sent us the soundtrack, we all listened to it. Like a movie, it has a beginning, and is always connected. At first, I thought it wasn’t installation-like. I mean, you have to look at the work for an hour. But when we really thought about it, we asked ourselves what an installation-like sound would be after all. So in that sense, we decided we could incorporate it as such.
‘This is used in many ways. For this work, there are eight main speakers, and four super-directional ones facing north, south, east and west.’
Sakamoto’s involvement in Dumb Type’s concurrent exhibition in Munich was to provide field recordings for a reinvention of the group’s work Playback. These were recorded by Ryuichi’s friends from around the world whom he asked to capture ‘the environmental sounds of their living place.’ They were then cut to vinyl to be played on sixteen individual record players set out in the installation space.
For 2022, Sakamoto used the same field recordings given their provenance from across the globe and overlaid voices gently reading the questions from First Lessons in Geography. Amongst the speaking voices are popular Japanese singers Mariya Takeuchi and Kahimi Karie, and the unmistakeable tones of David Sylvian.
‘Ryuichi is a very good friend of David,’ says Shiro. ‘When we decided to use the text of the geography textbook, Ryuichi thought that it must be good to ask David to read the text. David responded to his request right away, and kindly agreed. His voice is awesome, we love it so much. The texts are projected onto the surrounding walls by lasers, but it is also great to hear in reading voices. The voices touch the visitors directly.’
Minimal guidance was given to Sylvian when he recorded his part around March 2022. ‘Outside of contributing to Dumb Type’s Venice Biennale installation, I wasn’t given a context or any sonic setting with which to work. I was supplied the text with two specific instructions: “speak quietly, slowly”. I trust Ryuichi implicitly so nothing further was required.’ (DS, 2022)
Visitors to Venice enjoyed a much more complex experience of the installation sound than can be represented in the video which is restricted by the ‘flat’ stereo format. Satoshi Hama, one of the new programmers in Dumb Type, explains more: ‘The first place everyone goes when they enter is the hole in the floor. Over to the hole. They’re finding it visually dominating. In short, they gather in the centre of the room, surrounded by the lasers and so on in the four corners around it…Of course, that spot is in the centre of the eight speakers, so it’s actually also the easiest place to express things through sound.
‘With the four super-directional speakers, however, it doesn’t matter where you are, or whether you’re in the centre or away from it. The sweet spot isn’t the middle of the room, but wherever the speakers are pointing. In particular, when the sound beam hits the walls, it really becomes like a window of sound – like in the tea ceremony room mentioned earlier – or it sounds like the source of the sound is moving.
‘We’re using super-directional speakers. Parametric speakers. The difference in volume or phase between the speakers makes the sound move…We make the sound come from things by reflecting it off them.
‘When the speakers play whispering voices, you’ll only hear them if you’re facing the right way, but as you pass by it will fill your ears. It feels tactile to me.’
Over 100,000 people had visited the Venice Pavilion within six weeks of the public opening, the presentation provoking thoughtful responses from the public and contributors alike. Satoshi Hama: ‘Dumb Type creates its works as a group, so we start out with there being a hole, and no one has a shared idea of what to make it represent? Like, “do this with it”, or “make it mean this”. And we won’t explain to each other why the text around it should be just questions and no answers. Consequently, we’re also viewers ourselves. And it’s only later, now I’m back home, that I finally realise why there’s a hole in the middle, why it has questions all around it, and what we’re doing with this square cube…I think it’s a work that resonates tremendously with how things are now in 2022. So, I’d love for people to see it.’
The homecoming exhibition of Dumb Type’s contribution to the Venice Biennale, 2022: Remap, is being held at the Artizon Museum in Tokyo from 25 February to 14 May 2023.
Dumb Type – ‘2022’
Dumb Type: Shiro Takatani, Ryuichi Sakamoto, Ken Furudate, Satoshi Hama, Ryo Shiraki, Marihiko Hara, Hiromasa Tomari, Takuya Minami, Norika Sora, Yoko Takatani
Voices: David Sylvian, Maria Takeuchi, Kahimi Karie, Niki
Field Recordings (originally recorded for the installation Playback directed by Ryuichi Sakamoto for the Dumb Type Exhibition at Haus der Kunst Munich in 2022) Yan Jun – Beijing; Crosby Bolani – Cape Town, Apichatpong Weerasethakul – Chiang Mai; Kali Malone & Stephen O’Malley – La Pour-de-Peilz; Mukul Patel – London; John Warwicker – Melbourne; Martin Hernandez – Mexico City; Giuseppe La Spada – Mount Etna; Damian Lentini – Munich; Alec Fellman – New York; Andri Snær Magnason & Kaśka Paluch – Reykjavik; Jaques Morelenbaum – Rio de Janeiro; Atom Heart – Santiago; Cheng Chou – Taipei; Nima Massali – Tehran; Seigen Ono – Tokyo
Commissioner – The Japan Foundation
Special support from Ishibashi Foundation
The 59th International Art Exhibition
La Biennale di Venezia
23 April – 27 November 2022
All artist quotes date from 2022 unless otherwise stated. Full sources and acknowledgments for this article can be found here.
The copyright of all images of the works of Dumb Type rests with Dumb Type and those reproduced here are solely for the purpose of reviewing and exploring the work of the group. Further images of Dumb Type 2022 and previous works can be found at their official website here.
Thank you to Marta Roia for her assistance in researching this article following her visit to the Japan Pavilion, Venice in 2022.
The artist panel interview featuring Shiro Takatani, Ken Furudate and Satoshi Hama can be viewed on Youtube (with English subtitles) here.
Read more about Dumb Type in the Haus der Kunst publication available here.
‘This work relates to the massive transformation in the ways in which people communicate and the ways in which we perceive the world, a transformation brought about by the evolution and growth of the internet and social media, and by the global pandemic. In contrast to the discourses that surround it, the centre of the room is an empty space—a place that exists nowhere, but at the same time a place that could be anywhere. We live in a time of post truth and liminal spaces. The centre is void.’ Dumb Type, 2022