There's a scene in the film version of Stephen King's The Shining when an increasingly disturbed Jack Nicholson types out, repeatedly, the old adage: "All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy." Of course, Jack's problem is more than mere cabin fever, as we come to understand when he starts terrorizing Shelley Duvall with an axe. Contrast this particular madness with the controlled environment Japanese performance art troupe Dumb Type presents in the early minutes of Memorandum. Takao Kawaguchi sits on a darkened stage, alone, writing out the same seemingly innocuous statement. He records it on paper in different languages--English, Japanese, French. He's quiet and thoughtful. The stage setting is calm and antiseptic-clean. Everything's okay, we think.
Of course, Kawaguchi, like his colleagues in the Kyoto-based Dumb Type, will say that nothing is as benign as it appears, a fact proven often in Memorandum, presented by the Walker Art Center at the Guthrie Lab this weekend. The 1999 work is all about the deceptions of the mind, that tightly wound bundle of nerves that either keeps us steady or knocks us down.
Specifically, the piece delves into the elusive realm of memory, the dark reaches of the brain where personal and collective experiences are stored, reshaped, or dismissed. Past triumphs or transgressions are never more than a synapse away. Dumb Type considers all of this neurological ephemera and then transforms it, through a stunning marriage of art and technology, into the stuff of three-dimensional performance.
Dumb Type, founded in 1984, is a collective of actors, dancers, visual artists, computer programmers, and architects. They collaborate on their works during lengthy creative sessions often lasting a year or longer. According to Kawaguchi, a brainstorming session sparked the group's interest. "We thought about the act of discussing and thinking about memory, and then we discovered that thinking is already about memory because you search for information inside your brain," he recalls. "You select information and images. We realized it's interesting, this system of memory. How do we recall things? What triggers memory? What brings up memories from the past? We wanted to give it a shape."
An unforgettable one, as it turns out. Onstage, Dumb Type's ideas are by turns beautiful and chaotic, inviting and disturbing. The movement, says Kawaguchi, draws upon observations of simple actions like "hugging somebody, slapping somebody, picking somebody from the floor, writing, smoking." The performers interact with a video screen that dominates the space behind them. The screen allows viewers to see the performers in different states of focus, either as shadows when they run behind, or clearly visible in the stark space out front. "It represents the layers of memory," notes Kawaguchi. "Like some memories from your childhood come back very vividly. Meanwhile what you did yesterday is a blur."
Throughout Memorandum runs a sort of intriguing dream logic, one in which a foreboding memory is represented by a black bear who "stains" the stage with his dark presence, and the "children of the future" are introduced to the memories of the past through a Sesame Street-inspired performance. Papers float through the air, like so many reminiscences scattered to the wind. Meanwhile, video images zoom by, demanding the viewer sift through a constant stream of information. It's a workout for the cerebrum.
In order to achieve a universal experience of memory that transcends cultural differences, Kawaguchi explains that the group consciously avoided any direct references to personal or historic nostalgia by choosing to concentrate on the mechanics of memory itself, an apt approach for artists who so easily integrate science into their aesthetic. "We started creating this piece at the end of the 20th Century, a time when lots of people were talking about memory," Kawaguchi concludes. "The actual contents of memory and what we remember is reflected in the smallest details. Feelings and concerns are hidden in the smallest corners of the performance." Hidden, maybe, but never forgotten.