In primo piano · Interventi

Queer in Asian Contemporary Art  

  1. Introduction

This essay provides a brief cross-section of queer themes in Asian visual, media and performing arts. There is a particular focus on the artist collective Dumb Type, a Kyoto-based performance group which questions notion of gender, sexuality and self-identity, and on their piece S/N (1994). This paper attempts to trace the extent of Dumb Type’s influence on Japanese and non-Japanese artworks and activities related to queer issues across the spectrum of its meaning as “outside the norms”, and it could therefore be considered an attempt at mapping the group’s artistic genealogy. I will examine Tadasu Takamine’s performances and installations, the drag queen show Diamonds are forever and Choy Ka Fay’s project Soft Machine: Surjit + Rianto, all of which have been deeply influenced by Dumb Type. I will also mention queer themes in Ong Keng Sen’s The Flying Circus Project, Yasumasa Morimura’s self portraits and Miwa Yanagi’s series of photographs of women.

Chronicle Kansai. I have borrowed the idea of genealogy from Chronicle Kyoto[1], an exhibition held at MAM Research, a section of the Mori Art Museum devoted to present archives and historical records as well as artworks, in autumn 2018. As the title suggests, the exhibition intended to provide an overall picture of the thriving arts scene in Kyoto during the Nineties, with particular attention to the area of Sakyo-ku, a neighborhood close to Kyoto’s main public university. To paraphrase the exhibition’s opening presentation, arts, activism and club culture coexisted in an outburst of creative activities during the 1990s. This is due to a large number of diverse communities that formed around art collective Dumb Type and the Kyoto City University of Arts. Part of my essay can thus be referred to as “Chronicle Kansai”. For the purpose of clarification, I think it is necessary to provide some temporal and spatial coordinates at this point: Kansai is a vast region that includes Kyoto, Osaka, Kobe and Nara in the central, south-western part of Honshu, the main island of Japan, and the artistic period I will discuss in this paper spans the early Eighties to the present day.

  1. Dumb Type

Dumb Type rose to world prominence in the mid Eighties as an art collective based in Kyoto. The group was founded in 1984 by students of Kyoto City Art College, and each member, mainly from Kansai area, brought his or her own perspective, experience and knowledge to the project; its founding members were in fact trained in various disciplines, including computer science, visual and video arts, dance, choreography and architecture. To this day, Dumb Type combines multidisciplinary, hybrid and experimental types of performing arts in which live performances and multimedia installations are interwoven. In general, their pieces address a variety of social issues related to contemporary society, such as consumerism, gender, AIDS, life and death.

Despite the fact that the group had neither a leader nor a hierarchy, one figure who remained pivotal in the group until his death in 1995 was Teiji Furuashi. The following artists have also been involved in the project: Shiro Takatani, a visual artist who, along with his solo works and collaborations with Ryuichi Sakamoto, still creates as part of the collective[2]; Tadasu Takamine, a visual and performance artist[3]; musician Ryoji Ikeda[4]; musician and DJ Toru Yamanaka; LED light designer Takayuki Fujimoto; choreographer and dancer Kosei Sakamoto, who works for Kyoto-based dance company Monochrome Circus; Minami Takuya, musician for Softpad; butoh and contemporary dancer Takao Kawaguchi; theatre and drag queen performers Izumi Kagita, Hidekazu Maeda and Akiyoshi Matsuoka, known as BuBu de la Madeleine, Francois A[ru]dente, and Simone respectively[5].

The collective name Dumb Type derives from the English word “dumb”, meaning “mute”, “odd” or “stupid”. It refers to the mutation of social and individual identities that took place during the period of Japanese economic growth in the Eighties, the so-called Bubble economy. From that time individuals started to be overwhelmed by information without being aware of anything, Teiji Furuhashi declared in an interview. According to him, the ‘dumb condition’ meant “having an excess of information but not being able to recognize it” (memorandum 2000: 123). Consequently, at the very beginning the quality of “dumb” drove the group to a rejection of speech and towards the use “of bodies of performers as they react to set, images and sounds”, as explained by critic Yuko Hasegawa (2014: 192).

In order to understand the relevance of the term “queer” in Japan, I will analyse S/N, one of their most famous and controversial pieces to date. S/N is a mixed media performance and video installation that premiered in Montreal in 1994. It came after the successful pieces Pleasure of Life (1988), pH (1990), Love/Sex/Death/Money/Life (1994), and Lovers (1994). The piece’s title refers to a measure used in science and engineering. S/N is an acronym describing the power of a signal in relation to background noise, in which ‘S’ stands for ‘signal’ and ‘N’ stands for ‘noise’. S/N therefore measures the ratio between meaningful information which arrives to the addressee and the noises which corrupt the message. The greater the ratio, the easier it is to understand the message. Dumb Type’s S/N ratio is very high.

In S/N, Teiji Furuhashi publicly announced that he was HIV positive. Taking into account his coming out, S/N can be considered his last will or, to quote him in the piece, a “love song”[6] : an act and a message of love directed to all of Dumb Type’s members as well as to the audience.

During the creation of the piece, in fact, Dumb Type members raised the question of whether love can be turned into information. At the release of S/N, Furuhashi declared that he had intended to create a visual form of AIDS different from those by other visual artists, for instance the one by Derek Jarman in Blue or the celebrated movie Philadelphia. Moreover, he wanted to create a form without stereotypes, without the grating noise of taboo and the presumptions of science. He refused the labels of “incurability”, “twentieth century plague”, “punishment”, “tragedy”, and “victim”, all words used to describe AIDS at the time. At the same time, he aimed to paint himself as living in a grey zone between life and death. In light of these statements, and despite the lack of a personal narrative, S/N is centered on Teiji Furuhashi’s life and subjectivity[7].

S/N is made up of various sequences and sketches: dancers’ bodies repeat frantic movements, hitting with one another, while video projections on stage feature nude torsos; scenes from cabaret and magic shows are re-enacted, such as a naked man waving a flag without an emblem and a woman pulling out two dozen national flags from her vagina; and Teiji Furuhashi himself comes out of a boat, lip-synching the song Amapola. In a marked change from Dumb Type’s initial works, words are relevant in S/N and the artists use them widely: slogans are projected onto the two-dimensional space of the stage like sudden explosions, and they incessantly repeat themselves. Teji Furuhashi introduces himself with labels such as “male”, “Japanese”, “homosexual” and “HIV positive”. In addition, phrases projected onstage respond to his brutal categorization: “I dream of losing my gender”; “I dream of losing my nationality”; “I dream of losing my blood”; “I dream my nationality, my worth, my race, my blood will disappear”. Stripped of their semantic evidence, words serve as a metaphor for the S/N ratio. Other people involved in the piece, including actors, sound designers and dancers, take on the meaning of figures of speech: they indicate “S” and “N” alternatively. As critic Yuko Hasegawa has illustrated (2014: 192-93), repetitive movements, white noises, strobe lights, scan lines projected onto the stage and videos, as well as projections of slogans and words spoken by the performers, are combined in what can be identified as a form. The enormous amount of information and the chaos of contemporary times manifest both visually and acoustically. Audience members are asked to find a meaningful message through this frenzied form and their own personal impressions. The heavy use of technology combines with lyricism in S/N and helps the audience find meaning.

As previously mentioned, collateral activities carried out by Dumb Type members contributed to the creative and artistic scene in Kansai in the late Eighties and Nineties. One such project is the drag show Diamonds are forever. The idea of bringing drag queen parties to Japan was born in New York City in 1989, when Teji Furuhashi himself did an ikebana, sushi and tea ceremony in a kitschy, Takarazuka-style drag show at the Pyramid club, East Village[8]. In New York City, Furuhashi, who lip-synched versions of famous songs with a partner, performed as a drag queen inside a group called “Kookie Kabuki Sisters”. In December 1989, Teiji and other members of Dumb Type, including Simone, Francois A[ru]dente, Toru Yamanaka under his alias DJ Lala and BuBu de la Madeleine, did their first drag show at the Paranoia Club in Osaka and at the renowned Metro Club in Kyoto. These drag parties, which are titled Diamonds are forever, still take place on the last Friday of every month in Kyoto. Artist BuBu de la Madeleine, a former member of Dumb Type, has played a crucial role in both Diamonds are forever and in more general queer activism. BuBu, who was once a sex worker and later became an AIDS caregiver and safe sex educator, was the first spokesperson for Japanese prostitutes at the Tenth International AIDS/STD Conference held in Yokohama in 1994. She also created the Woman’s Diary Project.

  1. Tadasu Takamine

In this attempt to trace genealogies related to the reworking of a stereotypical vision, it is crucial that I consider the twenty-first century works of visual artist Tadasu Takamine from Shiga, a small city in the Kyoto prefecture. Tadasu Takamine, also a former member of Dumb Type who performed in S/N, has proven to be one of the most subversive, controversial and provocative contemporary artists in Japan. Takamine’s works have an improvisational tendency that aims to confront the viewer with his or her own darkness and self-contradictions. His artworks, which often touch on the topics of sex care, otherness and foreignness in Japan, expose people to taboos and unconventionality. Although Tadasu Takamine affirms that he does not have any distinctive style, all of his works are distinguished by pop imagery. In this paper, I will examine Tadasu Takamine’s controversial and provocative video piece “Kimura-san” and his performance JAPANESE SYNDROME~Step 2. “Inside of the Ball”.

In 1995 Takamine began to volunteer as the carer of a disabled man, Toshio Kimura. Toshio Kimura is a Morinaga milk victim who suffered arsenic poisoning through infant milk contamination. He can barely control his limbs and he cannot talk, walk or feed himself, but he is able to think and express himself through sound. One of Takamine’s duties was providing Kimura with sexual relief through masturbation, and it is this aspect of his work that inspired the video performance entitled Kimura-san.

Kimura-san was only shown at Ikon Gallery in Birmingham, UK, in 2002, and in a few colleges in Japan (WATCKINS  2011)[9]. In the performance, the artist is sitting between two video projection screens while the audience listens to a recording of his voice. The sounds that Kimura-san makes serve as a soundtrack. The video projections show an edited documentation of seduction and masturbation, finally concluding in Kimura’s expression of ecstasy. The video is interrupted several times by images of Takamine smashing his head against and staring into the lens of the video camera. Although Kimura allowed Takamine to make the video and to show it publicly, Kimura-san caused a great deal of debate about Kimura’s rights and his involvement in the project, and Takamine was accused of abuse and exploitation. However, according to Takamine’s monologue in the video, Kimura-san is meant to address notions of private and public in a body that is always dependent. In other terms, since Kimura is depending on others, he accepts what he cannot reject. Hence, as Takamine’s voice explains, “acceptance is both his permanent condition and chosen attitude”. “Kimura-san allowed me to show you this video. And I know the reason why. It is because from the beginning nothing is private, neither his body nor this video,” Takamine’s voice concludes in Kimura-san[10].

Takamine’s work JAPANESE SYNDROME~Step 2. “Inside of the Ball” is an experimental performance premiered in the ground-breaking Kyoto Experiment, Kyoto International Performing Arts Festival 2012[11] . JAPANESE SYNDROME~Step 2. “Inside of the Ball” is the culmination of the artist’s residency in Rio de Janeiro, in Brazil. It questions the notion of otherness. In Inside the Ball, the audience, mainly from Japan, collaborated in the process of making the work of art itself. The audience surrounded a huge, naked woman, the Brazilian performer Miss G., who took on the role of a Maenad. Miss G. took turns in moving towards the audience and stepping away; when she came closer, it became evident that audience tended to move away and escape from her naked body. Slowly, a plastic balloon swelled behind the audience and trapped them, while Takamine asked participants to close their eyes for several minutes. When their eyes were back open, he ordered audience members to stare at the person closest to them for a few minutes. At the end of the experience, participants seemed to be highly empathetic as opposed to uncomfortable. With this performance, Takamine attempted to awaken a physical yet psychological reaction towards the otherness, at the same time encouraging all participants to be aware of  their own awkward truths and cultural taboos.

  1. Choy Ka Fay

Another artist influenced by Dumb Type’s fusion of the physical and the technological is Berlin-based Singaporean artist and “performance maker” Choy Ka Fay (Choy Ka Fay’s “SoftMachine”: Mapping Asia through Dance, 4). In his works, he generally employs the means of art, design, and technology to research choreography and dance. Choy Ka Fay’s work SoftMachine is a multimedia project, a “free-flowing installation” made up of documentaries, archival materials and live performances (Choy Ka Fay’s “SoftMachine”: Mapping Asia through Dance). “How can we grasp the memories, experiences, and physical language of dancers? Will be possible to create a lexicon of Asian contemporary dance?” Which will be?” he questioned during the creation of his work[12]. His thirst for answers prompted him to travel to five countries and more than thirteen cities in an investigation of the status of dance across Asia. Similarly to S/N, gender is explored in conjunction with the question of Asian identity from the perspective of an Asian, rather than via the interface of the West. The SoftMachine: Surjit & Rianto project was presented at Kyoto Experiment 2016, Spring edition. Surjit and Rianto are two dancers who come from India and Indonesia respectively.

I will only discuss SoftMachine: Rianto in this paper. Rianto is from the village of Banyumas in Central Java. He studied his country’s traditional dance and has developed a particular mastery of the cross-gender erotic dance Lengger, although he also practices contemporary dance. SoftMachine: Rianto is a documentary performance that takes the dual approach of exhibiting interview footage and live documentary performance. In his performance, Rianto re-enacts dance pieces from the Lengger tradition, Javanese Topeng (dance with mask), contemporary dance and a gay club striptease, all the while shedding light on his own culture and social background within a documentary on his life and history as a dancer. If, in his folk dance demonstrations, the audience sees him transforming from woman to man, from princess to prince, in his contemporary dance piece he advises audience he is genderless. Viewers are compelled to consider the concept of archiving movements, gestures and performances as an accumulation of knowledge. This physical information also concerns gender identity, which appears to be fluid and to adapt to the context of each individual dance.

  1. Other Asian artists

I would briefly like to draw your attention to the internationally acclaimed artists Yasumasa Morimura, Miwa Yanagi, theatre director Ong Keng Sen and actor and dancer Atsushi Maeda as examples of transformation and the hybridity of crossing borders. Yasumasa Morimura and Miwa Yanagi are from Kansai and they are engaged in a kind of father-daughter relationship[13]. They are both masters of transforming themselves. This is evident in Yasumasa Morimura’s Art History Series, Actress Series and A Requiem series, specifically A requiem: Mishima 1970.11.25-2006.4.6. In this last work, Morimura dressed up as writer Yukio Mishima during his last speech before committing seppuku, a form of Japanese ritual suicide. Rather than resembling Mishima, however, Morimura looked like Masakatsu Morita, a member of the Mishima Group who wanted to be like Mishima and who died with him, creating a game of mirrors[14]. Regarding Miwa Yanagi, I highly recommend delving into the works A Series of Windswept Women, My grandmother, My granddaughters and Fairy tales.

Finally, I believe it is worth mentioning Ong Ken Sen’s Flying Circus Project. Ong Keng Sen, director of the English-language theatre company Theatre Works (Singapore), and former director of Singapore’s International Festival of Arts (SIFA), is renowned for his intercultural theatre, for instance Lear Dreaming, premiered in Singapore 2012, and shown at Theatre de Ville in Paris in 2015. The Flying Circus Project is a large laboratory started in 1996 that brings together Asian artists from different backgrounds, including documentary filmmakers, drag queens, visual artists, composers, contemporary dancers, DJs and ritualists. In its first edition, this project represented a paradigm of plurality, multidisciplinarity and interculturality[15]. In this project, as well as in other productions by Ong Keng Sen, the contradictions of traditional and contemporary art are exposed rather than glossed over. Finally I would like to make mention of the documentary film Queer Japan, which premiered July 15 at Rainbow Reel Tokyo 2019[16].


A requiem: Art on Top of the Battlefield. Morimura Yasumasa, 2010, Tokyo, Tokyo Metropolitan Museum of Photography.
BOON PIN K., 2013,   from Identity to Mondialisation. TheatreWorks 25, 2013, 138. from Identity to Mondialisation. TheatreWorks 25, Singapore, Editions Didier Millet.
“Choy Ka Fay”, 2016, in Kyoto Experiment, Kyoto International Performing Arts Festival 2016 Spring, Kyoto, KASHIMURA CO., LTD, 20-22.
Choy Ka Fay’s “Soft Machine”: Mapping Asia through Dance, Sadler’s Wells, 2016.
HASEGAWA Y., 2014, “Seeking New Genealogies − Bodies / Leaps / Traces”, in Seeking New Genealogies. Art / Bodies / Performances, supervised by Museum of Contemporary Art Tokyo (MOT), Tokyo, Film Ar Inc., 2014, 187-202.
Japanese Season (Press Kit), Centre Pompidou-Metz, 2017.
Kimura-san, Video
memorandum. Teiji Furuhasi, 2000, compiled by Dumb Type, Tokyo, Little More.
“Morimura Yasumasa and Yanagi Miwa. The sufferings of girls, and boys”, 2008, in ARTit, n. 19,  Spring / Summer, 46-55.
“Tadasu Takamine”, 2012, in Kyoto Experiment, Kyoto International Performing Arts Festival 2012, Kyoto, KASHIMURA CO., LTD, 36-39.
TAKEDA M., 2016, Choy Ka Fay’s Process, in Kyoto Experiment, Kyoto International Performing Arts Festival 2016 Spring,  23.
WATCKINS J., 2011, “Looking at Kimura-san”, in 高嶺 格:とおくてよくみえない [Takamine Tadasu: Too Far To See], Tokyo, Filmart-sha, 188-193.


[1] MAM Research 006: Chronicle Kyoto 1990s – Diamonds Are Forever, Art-Scape, And I Dance with Somebody (06.10.2018  – 20.01. 2019).

[2] Shiro Takatani and Dumb Type’s lately came in Italy with performance ST/LL (Napoli Teatro Festival Italia, Napoli, 20th-21st June 2016), installation 3D Water Matrix ST\LL (Roma Europa Festival 2016, Roma), video-installation Memorandum Or Voyage (Digitalife 2017, Roma), and with the installation at the Pavilion Japan of La Biennale di Venezia, Biennale Arte, 2022.

[3] Tadasu Takamine’s video God Bless America was shown at the Pavilion Japanof La Biennale di Venezia, Biennale Arte 2003, and in Aesthetics / Dietetics (GAMeC, Galleria d’arte moderna e contemporanea di Bergamo, Bergamo, 2006).

[4] His work Spectra III was exposed in La Biennale di Venezia, Biennale Arte 2019, Giappone.

[5] Some old members still sporadically collaborate with Dumb Type.

[6]S/N” (1995).

[7] See memorandum (2000), 111.

[8] Takarazuka is a type of theatre played only by girls and young unmarried women, who interpret all roles, including the male ones. On Diamonds are forever, see memorandum (2000), 59-61.

[9] One can watch Kimura-san

[10] Kimura-san.

[11] See “Tadasu Takamine” (2012), 36-39.

[12] See “Choy Ka Fay” (2016), 20-22 and TAKEDA (2016), 23.

[13] See “Morimura Yasumasa and Yanagi Miwa” (2008), 54.

[14] See A requiem: Art on Top of the Battlefield (2010), 14-17.

[15] See BOON PIN (2013), 138. In 2004 The Flying Circus Project expanded to including artist from all over the world. Also Choy Ka Fay and Tadasu Takamine were involved in The Flying Circus Project.

[16] In Queer Japan is casted Atsushi Masuda a dancer of Akaji Maro’s Dairakudakan Temptenshiki, a butoh company from Tokyo. This hybridity of crossing over the borders of several genres is also a characteristic well represented in butoh, a dance which combines traditional Japanese approach to the body, movement and meditation with Western contemporary dance.


Daniela Shalom Vagata
Daniela Shalom Vagata è docente di letteratura italiana alla Masaryk University. Ha in precedenza insegnato lingua, cultura e letteratura italiana all’Università di Bologna, alla Kyoto University per quasi dieci anni, in alcune università americane in Italia e a Indiana University, Bloomington. I suoi interessi di ricerca si concentrano sull’opera di Ugo Foscolo, in particolare sugli Inni alle Grazie e il loro rapporto con le arti figurative (in uscita nel 2023, per i tipi di Leo S. Olschki, il commento all’Inno alle Grazie di Ugo Foscolo), sulla narrativa di Eugenio Montale e di Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa, sull’opera giovanile di Dante, e sul cinema di Luchino Visconti e Federico Fellini.