Interview with Teiji Furuhashi> Performanceartist>Kyoto
Carol Lufty

Carol: What persuaded you to come out about being HIV-positive?

Teiji: It was a practical decision. I knew that if I wanted to create an autobiographical work, it was going to have to address AIDS, and I didn't want everyone who saw it to be speculating about whether it was a fact or fiction. I want to be clear to the audience that I am living with AIDS. But I didn't intend is as a heroic gesture. I've never gone out of my way to advertise it because it's not my primary identity.

Carol: What is your primary identity?

Teiji: I don’t have a primary identity. I'm just saying that being HIV-positive is not it. I want to stress this because people who get to know me let the fact that I am HIV-positive dominate our interaction. This had a particularly strong impact on people who don't have a lot of HIV-positive friends; it immediately becomes my first identity in their eyes. The point is that I don’t want this to be the only criterion for how people respond to me.

Carol: How do you want people to respond to you and your art?

Teiji: At the beginning of S/N, I half-sarcastically wear signs that say 'male', 'Japanese', 'HIV+' and 'homosexual'. Other performers wear sign that say 'male', 'deaf' , 'American', 'black' , 'homosexual'. And we say to the audience, 'We are sorry to tell oyu that we are not actors. We are what we are labelled.' My goal was to break down the boundry between art and real life. This is an issue that should be discussed in real life and real terms, not in an academic way. After the performance in France, for example, a TV journalist asked me; 'Do you know someone who has Aids or is homosexual?' I couldn’t get over that.

Carol: You have said the S/N was the most difficult work to conceive.

Teiji: Because it exposes so much about my life. I had reservations on some level, but I wanted to go through with it because I felt- almost to the point of absession- that I have a mission to explore ways to give visual form to Aids. I wanted to counter the stereotypes in AIDS art.

Carol: What stereotyped?

Teiji: The 'You cant understand me because I am dying of AIDS' type, like Derek Jarman`s film Blue, which I have a love/hate relationship with. And the obvious, boring political correct type, like the movie Philadelphia. I tried to give S/N an edge without forfeiting a sense of humour and without creating a huge distance from the audience.

Carol: What has the critical response to S/N been?

Teiji: There were tons of articles about it. I've never seen so many Japanese critics write so seriously about art before. It was like a battlefield.

Carol: What were they battling about?

Teiji: They were battling with themselves, because anything you say about S/N reveals your feelings about so many intimate issues. The reviews were uncharacteristically personal.

Carol: What's the reaction been in Europe and the United States?

Teiji: In the West, I've experienced some resistance, perhaps because it is too sexually explicit. The big established art organizations self-censor themselves. They are afraid to offend the mainstream middleclass audience they have come to depend on for financial support. They say; 'A parent couldn't see this work with an eight-year old child.' And I want to say; ' I've never created art for Disney'.

Carol: How is S/N sexually explicit?

Teiji: It includes striptease, a drag sequence and a lot of nudity in general. There is also one controversial scene in which Bubu, who appears as a prostitute- she actually is one- pulls two dozen flags out of her vagina. It's like a magic show, but it's real. It's very funny and beautiful; a few people even told me it was so beautiful it made them cry. That's what I call performance art. (laughs)

Carol: How does it tie into the rest of the piece?

Teiji: Bubu came up with the idea, saying; 'The least I can do is make you laugh.' When I first say it, it was shocking, but I found it very beautiful. Later I added 'Amapola' sung by Nana Mouskouri to the act. It is an extreme interpretation of sex, but somehow it expressed my feelings after loosing many close friends to AIDS and experiencing the futile struggle with science and bureaucracy. It's like screaming into a black hole. You know, many years ago when I confessed to Bubu that I was HIV-positive, her immediate reaction was; 'I want to have your baby.' That is an extremely difficult challenge to science today. To make it safe. Even more challenging was whether I could have straight sex. (laughs) Anyway, we laughed and cried and gave up. But she has devoted her life to AIDS care and safe sex education ever since. She believes that prostitutes are the most effective safe sex educators.

Carol: Are you saying that's why she became a prostitute?

Teiji: Part of the reason, yes. Her career as a prostitute is glorious too. She is currently working in the Kansai area. She has worked in Paris and even in one of those famous pink windows in Amsterdam. Last month she marched in the Gay Pride Parade in New York in support of 'PONY' (Prostitutes of New York). She also was a spokesperson for Japanese prostitutes at the Tenth International AIDS/STD conference in Yokohama last year. There are tons of prostitutes in Japan, but they had never spoken publicly before. Bubu gives me inspiration. She used to be a housewife and an art school teacher, but somehow she did not feel fulfilled. Now she is working as a prostitute and an AIDS care worker. How is that for a switch! She is pretty, too…and currently looking for a boyfriend, by the way.

Carol: How have people responded to the disclosure that you are HIV-positive?

Teiji: In Japan, nobody-amazingly nobody- outside the gay community has approached me about it, although I can smell that they are interested.

Carol: If they are interested, why are they avoiding the issue?

Teiji: I don’t know.

Carol: What is the climate now towards homosexuality in Japan?
Teiji: I am not really familiar with it because I am always travelling: my experience with AIDS has been mostly in the U.S.  What I do know is that being gay in Japan is very tolerated if it is not out in the open. Being gay after five, for example, is an accepted way of life for a lot of people who marry and have families in order to have a career.

Carol: You are currently living in Kyoto. Did you grow up there?

Teiji: Yes. My father used to be a nihon-ga painter and is now a kimono designer. My mother helps him out. My grandmother was the Madame of a geisha house, so I grew up among those girls. I was always playing with them until I finally lost all sexual illusions about women. I have always been surrounded by strong women and still am; my best friends are always women. I just don’t love them in a conventional way.

Carol: When did you get interested in art?

Teiji: When I was in junior high school, I started drumming. My dream was to be drummer in a famous band. Between 15 and 19, I toured live houses with several Japanese bands, from Rock to Jazz. I was very young, but pretty well paid. I was very good with rhythm; my drumming experience still influences my choreography because I can deal with complex rhythms. Anyway, when it was time to decide upon university, I felt very disappointed with the master-disciple relationship in the music department. At the visual arts department, though, I somehow felt more comfortable. I could sense madness in the air. I entered Kyoto University of Arts as an oil painting major and later switched to arts planning. This included conceptual art, video, photography, performance art contemporary art  criticism_ basically everyone who feels like an outsider ends up there. I started to combine my musical skills with film and video art. I came to prefer working with a rhythm box more than my drum set. Also, my diva temperament made me realize that I did not always want to be stuck behind the vocalist. (laughs)

Carol: How did you form Dumb Type?

Teiji: I started dumb type in 1984 with about 15 other frustrated art students who wanted to take art outside galleries and museums. We were all interested in technology, but suspicious of the information-age dream. Those two things bonded us together and are still vital to our work today.

Carol: How many of the original members are you working with?

Teiji: About half. I am sometimes amazed that so many of us were able to stay together. There have been no regular payments, no future plans, no guarantees. That is the power of a shared vision, rather than a contract, I think.

Carol: How does Dumb Type work as a group?

Teiji: There is no hierarchy. One of the reasons I started Dump Type is because I hated the hierarchy in the Japanese dance and theatre companies. There is a mother figure and a father figure whom you are supposed to follow unequivocally. I am also against the tradition we have o deferring age. You don’t have to be a rocket scientist to figure out that older is not always better.

Carol: So how does a work evolve among Dumb Type members?

Teiji: We keep in mind that we are personally and artistically equal. There is no typical director-actor-technician relationship. The youngest performer can get away with saying 'I think that idea is stupid' to the director. And when we get paid, everyone involved in the project gets paid the same.

Carol: Choreographically, butoh seems to have had a big influence on your work.

Teiji: I don’t agree. In fact, it is almost the opposite. I can't get into that mysteriously profound butoh atmosphere, that profound look and mood. I am more into how to invent the profound moment with cheap-looking materials and movements from daily life. I know that techno-toys kill the illusion of art and that is why I like them. And my choreography is more influences by people dancing disco.

Carol: You have also been collaborating with a deaf artist.

Teiji: Kenjiro Ishibashi. He is a young artist I met about three or four years ago. It was an interesting time because he was just beginning to come out about being gay. It is sometimes hard to identify whether a deaf person is gay or not in Japan. So he was facing all these problems, not the least of which was the fact that Japanese like to pretend that handicapped people do not exist. We met and I think it was the first time that he was really able to talk openly about his feelings as a gay man. Now he is very actively gay.

Carol: You have been involved in the drag scene as well. How does drag fir into your life?

Teiji: I have been recreating myself in a sculptural way since my childhood, playing a lot with dressing up. But I guess I was really introduced to drag in New York. In 1986, I worked at the pyramid in the East Village because my roommate was a platform dancer there. I met all of these drag queens and they wanted me to try it out. So the second day I was in Manhattan I was already in drag, if you can believe that. (Laughs) They said: 'Oh, Teiji, you are so small and sweet and have no chest hair. You would look great.' And so I went for it. There were a lot of great artists at the Pyramid at that time, like John Kelly, John Epperson- now known as Lypsinka- and Ethyl Eichelberger, who died of AIDS many years ago. She was like a mother to me. I still think of drag as an art, it is not just the surprise element that keeps me interested. Maybe it is because I respond to it in a more fundamentally traditional Japanese way, like kabuki.

Carol: Do you consider the Takarazuka theatre drag?

Teiji: Yes, I love them! But maybe their budget is too large for it to be called drag. (Laughs) Those girls do not seem to have any gender politics. A few of them came to my drag parties just out of curiosity and they were caught off guard because a couple of lesbians came on to them. Maybe it has never occurred to them that real sex happens!

Carol: Tell me more about these drag parties.

Teiji: In the late 1980s, I was not really open in Japan about the fact that I was working in New York as a drag queen. I could see that there was a cultural mix-up in Japan between transsexuals and drag queens.

Carol: So what happened?

Teiji: In 1989, I decided to bring drag back to Japan to the late Bubble Period nightclubs like gold, Endmax and Yellow in Tokyo and Genesis and Paranoia in Osaka. We threw drag parties and called them 'Diamonds are forever'. They had the longest waiting lines of all.

Carol: I saw this underground drag video, Diamond Hour, in which you play a heroine called Ms. Glorias who is a goofy, devious blend of a rag doll and Carol Channing. Is that your drag persona?

Teiji: I don't have one definite persona. I am sometimes Julie Andrews, sometimes Barbra Streisand or Barbarella. These are my conventional drag persona. Sometimes I become a space cowboy or invader or whatever, any outrageous character I can invent with make-up and clothes.

Carol: How did the Diamond Hour project get started?

Teiji: It was shown at the Gay and Lesbian Film Festival in New York and was directed by D.K. Uraji, a professional illustrator and full-time drag queen. It is really a no-budget movie, but it looks beautiful in a way, which I guess is the philosophical point of drag.

Carol: You said at a talk at the museum of Modern art in June that if 'S/N' is the sun, 'Lovers' is the moon. What did you mean?

Teiji: Ugh! What a strange thing to say! (Laughs) Actually what I meant is that with Lovers, I feel comfortable, peaceful. It represents my quiet side. 'Lovers' is very soothing and hopelessly romantic. S/N is more direct, more sweaty and bitchy somehow. But the point is that I need both. I would feel suffocated if I only had one of them.

Thank you to Dumb Type- extract from: 'memorandum Teiji Furuhashi'