In 1995, just as desktop computers were entering middle-class households in much of the world, an artist in Kyoto was putting the finishing touches on a high-tech media installation grieving the emptiness of those newly wired lives. The artist, Teiji Furuhashi, was months away from dying of AIDS-related complications, and his work Lovers, is his magnum opus. The work, installed in a large darkened room, projects images of ghostly nude figures walking and running, which periodically stop in front of your body, located by a motion detector, to embrace themselves or fall backward, as if dead, into a void. The wraithlike projections, emanating from a totem-like pole of projectors in the gallery’s center, are accompanied by a minimal sound installation.
Originally shown in the 1995 exhibition “Video Spaces: Eight Installations” at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, and a year later acquired by the museum, Lovers is now on view at MoMA for the first time since its mid-’90s debut. Finding it at MoMA is a revelation, as Furuhashi has remained incredibly underappreciated since he died at the age of 35, and because the technology that makes up Lovers has long been obsolete. Coming across this impeccably strong, rarely shown work, I wondered how MoMA’s curators found this incredibly special artist who was living in Kyoto in the ’90s with only months to live. How did they acquire the piece, and how did it come back on view?
Barbara London, MoMA’s pioneering associate curator of media and performance art from 1977 to 2013, was responsible for bringing the work into the museum’s collection, meeting him on one of her many excursions to Japan in the 1990s. At a time when most American curators were making sojourns to Europe, and concerns about non-Western representation were not on most curators’ minds, London was interested in visiting Japan because, she explained to me in a recent phone call, “a lot of the equipment artists and museums were using, including the Portapak and video monitors, was coming from Japan. So I was very curious what Japanese artists themselves were doing with it.” It was on a trip to Kyoto in 1982 that she met Furuhashi, then an art student, on the advice of an artist friend. London was doing researching for “New video, Japan: a video exhibition,” which opened at MoMA in 1986 and included Furuhashi.
Furuhashi, after spending time in New York apprenticing with performance artists such as Meredith Monk and Lypsinka, went on to found the performance and “inter-media” artist group Dumb Type in 1984. According to all reports of the time, he was both the heart and leader of the group. “Dumb Type worked with popular culture in a way that was always kind of symbolic but very emblematic,” London told me, “very much about everyday life in the way that everybody had a TV, everybody had a rice cooker, everybody had this and that.” Although Dumb Type didn’t make overtly political work early on, Furuhashi’s AIDS diagnosis, and the Japanese government’s denial that it was largely affecting gay men, made them become activists. “He was incensed about the fact that the Japanese government put its head in the sand about this disease,” London said.
Lovers is Furuhashi’s only solo project, and two of the members of Dumb Type, Shiro and Yoko Takatani, have stewarded the work since Furuhashi’s death. Both the work, which features the members of Dumb Type as the characters who walk around the installation, and their efforts to perverse it are a testament to friendship and love in the time of AIDS.
Why unearth this piece now, after it has been sitting in storage for over 20 years? “The current contemporary collection presentation is organized as a trio of large-scale media works in dedicated spaces,” Cara Manes, a collection specialist at MoMA, told me in a recent email. “Once this structure was established and we began to research our holdings toward that end, Lovers quickly emerged as an ideal choice in this context. The narrative it stages speaks broadly to the dehumanizing effects of technology—a topic of ever-increasing relevance and, now, urgency.”
Furuhashi’s piece addresses the hollowness of life online as well as the trauma inflicted on the body and mind in times of healthcare crises, which is particularly relevant today. As we’re entering into an era marked by the looming repeal of the Affordable Care Act, and the increasing futility of expecting the government to protect our health on an individual level, works like Lovers prove the potential emotional resonance of art in such times. Although, of course, Furuhashi made this incisive work with technology that is very, very dated. In order to bring that technology up to operational capacity for MoMA’s exhibition—where it must run for hours a day, days on end—the museum’s conservators had to work intensively on recreating the look and feel of Furuhashi’s work with all new tools, trying their best to approximate his intentions with the instructions he had left.
Luckily, the museum had a head start in the conservation process. “The work had already been the subject of extensive conservation study at the museum and beyond its walls (last year, a class of NYU conservation students completed an extensive case study on it, for example),” Manes said. Which is not to say that it was all easy, she emphasized. “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.”
The preservation process was exhaustively documented on Medium by Ben Fino-Radin, an upstart media conservator, then at MoMA, who is known as a key thinker in the field. He writes, “Much of our initial work was about discovery. What do we have? How do we connect all the parts? How do we even turn it on? From storage, we withdrew a panoply of materials. Out came LaserDiscs, 35mm slides, speakers, wires, accessories, slide projectors, an eight-foot-tall metal tower containing video projectors with robotics to control which direction they are pointing, two flight cases full of behind-the-scenes control hardware and software, and a hefty folder containing documentation, manuals, installation specifications, and correspondence with the artist and his studio.”
Fino-Radin’s account of the preservation takes you through the formidable process of both stabilizing the work for exhibition and meeting the exacting standards of the artist’s original intentions for his complex installation of overlapping projections. Viewing the piece while keeping in mind the team that helped create and restore it—all of those dedicated media conservation students, MoMA’s world-class preservation and curatorial teams, Dumb Type, and London (not to mention the scores of new-media artists and curators who have now flocked to MoMA to see it)—the piece comes to life as a manifestation of love in itself.