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Ambiguous Zones, 8

Dear Friends,

Ambiguous Zones 8 takes a close look at Non-gravitational Being, 1983-84, a large-scale painting by Arakawa. This artwork offers a short text on Arakawa and Gins’s concept of “Blank” and stands as a good introduction to the work being done by Arakawa in the early 1980s. A short formal analysis of the painting will leave you primed to meditate on the artist’s ideas about spacetime, energy-matter, and how gravity might work in different dimensions. Hopefully you will enjoy this brief contemplation on physics all the more knowing that scientists were wrong, luckily, in their prediction that asteroid 2009 JF1 would hit the Earth on May 6th, 2022!

Yours in the reversible destiny mode,
Reversible Destiny Foundation and ARAKAWA+GINS Tokyo Office

Arakawa, Non-Gravitational Being, 1983-1984, acrylic, graphite, art marker and PVA on canvas (in two parts), 100 x 136 in. Photo: Rob McKeever
Non-gravitational Being, 1983-84: A Meditation
by Amara Magloughlin
 
 

Arakawa’s painting, Non-gravitational Being, 1983-84, sets up the viewer to encounter a large-scale map covered with arrows pointing in different directions in a pattern reminiscent of air currents. The far-left side of the map appears to be incomplete, but is it unfinished? Has it been erased in some way? Perhaps the mapmaker was not able to fill the rest of the canvas out of ignorance of what should be there, or perhaps the area has yet to be charted. There are endless possibilities including the fact that they may have interrupted an event in mid-flow or that the painting is waiting to be activated by the viewer to finish its development, just as the viewer will in turn develop alongside or with the painting. At 100 x 136 inches, the size of the canvas overwhelms the viewer, perhaps making them feel dislocated rather than better able to find their way as a map ought to do. This immersive inarticulation serves to prolong the moment of proto-perception that interested Arakawa so much. In his own words, he wanted to paint “the condition that precedes the moment in which the imagination goes to work and produces mental representations.”¹ It is possible that this is represented on the canvas, but in this instance, Arakawa has worked to lengthen this effect in the viewer—both artwork and viewer need the other for activation.

The various elements in the painting appear to occupy parallel planes, of which I count at least five. The map is the furthest back on the fifth plane, which includes the yellowed varnished area. The fourth plane has text stenciled across it in a seemingly sporadic manner with equally sporadic splotches and drips of paint. This plane also contains a white circle faintly visible beneath the black line of the three-pronged symbol (which will be mentioned below) on the left panel, as well as text stenciled upside-down at the top of the canvas. The third plane is occupied by arrows circulating over these phrases. The second plane holds the black, yellow, and red lines that form a sort of axis and the dark grey sphere. To my eye, the curved line circumscribing the bottom of the canvas, the two bolder directional arrows that perhaps indicate movement in opposite directions along this line, and the rectilinear shapes that move off the top of the canvas seem to exist on the first plane closest to the viewer.

Arakawa, A Diagram of Imagination, 1965, acrylic, graphite, colored pencil, pastel, art markeron canvas, 61 x 91 in. Photo: Rob McKeever

It would be difficult to develop an interpretation for this painting without examining other works by Arakawa with similar motifs and more snippets of text, both of which serve to elucidate Arakawa’s philosophical thought. Arakawa’s earlier diagram paintings include examples of maps with labels indicating certain elements, like STREET or OCEAN, as seen in A Diagram of Imagination, 1965. In the early 1980s, instead of these labels we find maps with elevations of tourist attractions locating objects in space. This is simply a different kind of sign, and one that is instantly recognizable as belonging to a tourist map. The iconic shapes of these buildings are as recognizable as their written names to the local population. For an international audience, such elevations might be more useful in deciding whether they have reached the right spot. In any event, this two-dimensional representation of space includes a nod to the three-dimensional world with the spare elevations of monuments that speak to the national identity of the inhabitants of this city. Indeed, they are so recognizable that with close inspection the viewer may begin to be able to identify what they are looking at. The Cathédrale de Notre-Dame de Paris is particularly iconic in shape and given its position near the dark grey sphere, it might be one of the first buildings that the viewer notices. Moving along the Seine to the left, the Louvre and the Jardin des Tuileries become apparent. Below this, the Palais du Luxembourg and the Panthéon among others are also identifiable. Even though we now feel we are in Paris, the city itself is interchangeable for the meaning of the painting. Since we have not yet found the map that Arakawa used to make this painting, it is not clear if he changed the streets in any way. Tourist maps are notorious for simplifying the street map, narrowing their usefulness to locating highlighted landmarks and sometimes not even those.

The sentences stenciled across the top of the two panels read as follows: “ALONG THE WAY, WITHIN ENERGY-MATTER, SOME INDIVIDUALS / FORM BLANKS. AS BLANKS FORM, SPACETIME WILL APPEAR. BLANK / IS THE MEDIUM OUT OF WHICH SPACETIME COMES”. While this text appears upside-down at the top of the canvas, some of the same words float randomly across its surface. Are we meant to see these as “non-gravitational beings”? They do not appear to correspond to anything on the map, but they do seem to align themselves around the contours of the varnished, yellowed section of the right panel. Is this indicating a different texture or density within spacetime that the words are reacting to or affected by even while they are not affected by gravity? They float outside of the structure of the sentence, which is nonetheless provided to the viewer, though in a way that may cause some disorientation. Which way is up becomes hard to say categorically, especially when dealing in beings not governed by gravity. Sentences like these that expound upon “Forming Blank” are found in many other paintings from around this time. Taken together, they lend extra insight into the ways in which this work may be read. The same can be said for the next plane, with arrows being one of the most commonly recurring motifs in Arakawa’s work. The arrows also have to do with Blank and its forming. This will be explored more deeply in a forthcoming article. For now, one interpretation might be that energy-matter, perhaps starting from the dense sphere, generates the forming of blanks out of which unfolds spacetime, as indicated by the arrows.

Arakawa, Proper Noun, 1983-1984, acrylic, graphite, art marker and varnish on canvas (in two parts), 100 x 136 in.

This dense, dark grey sphere on the right panel is worth looking at more closely. It is similar to the imperfect flat black circle on the left-hand panel in Arakawa’s painting, Proper Noun, 1983-84. In that instance, if we are to accept Gins’s interpretation of this painting in Helen Keller or Arakawa, 1994, that the map, representing spacetime, unfolded from this circle, Arakawa has presented a sequence for the event represented: on the left-hand side of the panel the unfolding has not yet taken place, so the dot holds every potential happening. By the time of the right-hand panel, the dense energy-matter has unfolded and has been cleaved, resulting in openings and variation in tissues of density, which can perhaps be seen in the hazy white patches on the right panel. It is a flat, two-dimensional circle, but if the energy-matter inside is condensed, then perhaps its dimensional existence can be condensed as well, as in the case, potentially, of a black hole. If we understand the same unfolding of energy-matter to be taking place in Non-gravitational Being, then we must also forgo any sense of a sequence of events, since both the sphere and the unfolded spacetime are represented, though possibly on different dimensions. If the unfolding only truly begins to take place with the viewer present to activate it, then in some senses this sphere does act as a “YOU ARE HERE” dot—though it is not necessarily locating the viewer literally on the Île de la Cité. This does not negate the possibility that the viewer IS there, especially given that Arakawa appears to be dealing in different dimensions.

Arakawa, That In Which No.2, 1974-1975, acrylic, graphite, art marker and collageon canvas, 65 x 102 in. Photo: Rob McKeever

Moving to the left panel, it is harder to find a precedent for the three intersecting lines in other paintings showing maps. Perhaps this black, yellow, and red symbol is meant to indicate the Cartesian coordinate system, with three axes meeting at the point of origin, here representing three-dimensional space (width, length, and height). This is not to limit the dimensions in Arakawa’s painting to three. It seems likely that Arakawa is including density and texture as other calculable dimensions, an idea borne out by other paintings, and, if so, the three intersecting lines may represent something slightly different. Nevertheless, let’s accept for a moment that in Non-gravitational Being the Cartesian axes denote three-dimensional space. If this is the case, then the arrows could be read as time, representing the fourth dimension. In this scenario, time is not behaving in the way we are used to perceiving it, since it is moving in many directions. We are in a world created by the canvas and the rules are Arakawa’s, so while time can behave in anyway the artist sees fit, it seems more plausible that in Arakawa’s configuration of elements the arrows indicate the unfolding of spacetime, as previously theorized. Moving to the sphere, it can be seen as being comprehensive of more than three dimensions whether condensed or not. Regardless, the first and closest plane in relation to the viewer, with its curve at the bottom of the canvas may represent four dimensions as curved space.

When all elements are taken in together, the viewer most likely does not feel like they have been transported to Paris, so this is not an effective stand-in for a landscape painting. Instead, the viewer might begin to understand how spacetime and Blank relate during this unique act of perception. The viewer might not yet be at the stage in which they perceive themselves as Blank, but there are many other paintings and encounters staged by Arakawa that will get them there. For now, it is enough to understand that energy-matter can have different densities and textures and that this will affect the ways in which perceiving beings experience spacetime as it unfolds. These ideas will be explored further in a forthcoming article.

¹Charles Haxthausen, “Diagrams for the Imagination,” in Arakawa: Diagrams for the Imagination, ed. Ealan Wingate (New York: Gagosian, 2019), 13. In the corresponding endnote, Haxthausen states that this is his own “translation from the Dutch of what was clearly a Dutch translation from the Japanese” found in: Yoshiaki Tono, “Het schilderen van Shusaku Arakawa: een voorstadium van de verbeelding,” Arakawa, exh. cat. (Eindhoven: Stedelijk van Abbemuseum, 1966), n.p.

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Ambiguous Zones, 7

Dear Friends,
 
Ambiguous Zones 7 features a video recording of our January 12th, 2022, webinar with guest speaker Tiffany Lambert, curator of the Gallery at Japan Society in New York.  Tiffany’s lecture focused on the connection between Arakawa’s art and Arakawa+Gins’s architecture. We hope you find it as illuminating as we did!
 
Moving forward, Ambiguous Zones will arrive at your inbox every two months, which will give us time to explore certain topics in greater depth. In the meantime, please join us for the international conference AGxKANSAI 2022: Art and Philosophy in the 22nd Century After ARAKAWA+GINS, organized jointly by the Studies of the Architectural Body Research Group at Kansai University and Kyoto University of the Arts. The event will take place from March 11–15, 2022 at Kyoto University of the Arts with a combination of in-person and virtual presentations and a live broadcast of all sessions available online. We look forward to seeing you there, whether virtually or in person!

Yours in the reversible destiny mode,
Reversible Destiny Foundation and ARAKAWA+GINS Tokyo Office

Lecture by Tiffany Lambert on the art and architecture of Arakawa+Gins, January 12, 2022

Top image: Installation view of ARAKAWA: Waiting Voices at Gagosian Gallery, Basel, November 25th, 2021–January 22nd, 2022. Photo: Annik Wetter
(Left) Hard or Soft No. 3, 1969, acrylic, graphite, and marker on canvas, 95 ½ x 65 in.
(Right) A Couple, 1966–1967, oil, acrylic, marker, graphite, and crayon on canvas (in two parts), 95 x 124 in.

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Ambiguous Zones, 5

Dear Friends,

This fifth issue of Ambiguous Zones arrives partway into the holiday season. Like last year, the final few weeks of 2021 may not feel quite the same as previous years, but that is all the more reason to focus on spending time with loved ones, whether in person or online. The RDF archive has no shortage of photographic evidence that Madeline and Arakawa did just that year round. Regardless of how your celebrations shape up this year, we hope these photographs of Madeline and Arakawa dining with friends and family get you into the festive spirit!

We also hope you will join us virtually for Dr. Ignacio Adriasola’s lecture and tour of the exhibition ARAKAWA: Waiting Voices, live from Gagosian Gallery in Basel on December 9th at 11am EST (click here to register in advance). 

In the meantime, we are sending warm wishes for a lovely December!

Yours in the reversible destiny mode,
Reversible Destiny Foundation and ARAKAWA+GINS Tokyo Office

Arakawa and Madeline drink coffee and eat pie inside after their meal outside, ca. 1977.
Madeline calls across the table to a guest at a dinner party at 124 W Houston St.
Arakawa laughs at a dinner with friends at 124 W Houston St.
Arakawa and Madeline eat with a friend at a reception.
Hotpot dinner with friends. Madeline with James Rossant (1928–2009; architect, artist) and another friend, ca. 1978.
Arakawa and Madeline gathered around the table with friends, 1977.
Arakawa and Madeline, post-dinner chat, with fruit and vegetables in a bowl, at 124 W Houston St.
Arakawa, mid-bite
Arakawa, Madeline, friends, and a delicious meal
Madeline and Arakawa relax over what appears to be breakfast.
Arakawa and Madeline at the cabin in Croton-on-Hudson, Westchester County, NY, enjoying what looks like an enticing Autumnal drink
Arakawa or Madeline enjoying a meal at a counter seat of a Japanese restaurant
Arakawa and Madeline with a group of friends, including Yoshiaki Tōno (1930–2005; art critic; on the right at the back), at a restaurant in New York, August 1978
Arakawa celebrates with friends and champagne.
Madeline and Arakawa share dinner at 124 W Houston St. with Colette Rossant (b. 1932; food critic; on the left, foreground), her husband James Rossant (on the left at the back), and their children (on the right).

Top image: Thanksgiving in July, or a heatwave or somewhere warm in November? Madeline Gins, Arakawa, and Madeline’s parents, Evelyn Gins, and Milton Gins enjoy turkey (or duck?)
in the great outdoors, ca. 1977.

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Ambiguous Zones, 4

Dear Friends,

In honor of Madeline Gins’s birthday on November 7th, the fourth edition of Ambiguous Zones focuses on one of her unpublished books. Madeline considered two possible titles that sum up the content quite well: “Conversations for our time: poet and physician” or “Medically in Our Time.” This book is based on a series of interviews that Madeline carried out with doctors with a variety of specialties, including neurology and psychiatry, an acupuncturist, and patients. Her overarching goal was to provide a course of action for the patient/reader that would help them navigate different approaches to their healthcare, including standard medical care, alternative therapies, vitamin regimens, and care related to their mental health, whether through psychiatry or other mind-body modalities like meditation and hypnosis.

Help us celebrate Madeline’s 80th birthday by doing whatever mind-body exercise speaks to you the most.

Yours in the reversible destiny mode,
Reversible Destiny Foundation and ARAKAWA+GINS Tokyo Office

In the late 1970s and early 1980s, Madeline Gins conducted multiple interviews with a variety of doctors and patients over the course of five years for a book that she would never publish. Her goal was to approach the evidence surrounding various treatments for disease from a poet’s perspective. To Madeline, this meant “keeping intuition in play” while sorting through all of the information. In her proposal, Madeline also makes clear that her approach was not simply “a ‘holistic’ patchwork, but a unified way of knowing.” What she seems to be suggesting is that, as a patient, you would not just go separately to your endocrinologist, acupuncturist, psychiatrist, and another doctor or physical therapist for biofeedback. The poet would make sure all of these approaches were working together in harmony – something you yourself might be able to do after reading Madeline’s book.

In the 2020s, we have even more access to information than Madeline would have been able to dream of in the 1970s/1980s. At the touch of our fingertips, we can find an unending stream of articles and websites that may offer insight into what ails us, otherwise known as “Dr. Google.” We come away with way too much, often contradictory, information, and this was precisely the instance in which Madeline thought a poet could help. In our current time, the wellness industry is in full-swing, which means there is yet more advice available now that may have been considered more esoteric , though available if you sought it out and paid for it, in the last quarter of the twentieth century. A doctor will have their advice, using a scientific approach geared toward physical symptoms, an acupuncturist will look at the problem from a different perspective, and so on. Regardless of the source, a poet can synthesize all the evidence to come up with the best course of treatment, using every avenue available. In Madeline’s words,

When poetry succeeds, through the medium of intuition (a set of suspicions in the process of being confirmed) what is known comes to be easily apparent. In the kind light of poetry, whatever is picked up and brought forward may come to be so bathed in enthusiasm, that it will virtually glow with what it knows, so that what was once difficult to resolve takes place almost effortlessly.

One of her proposed titles for the book, “Medically in Our Time”, was inspired by the eleventh century poet and physician Ibn Sina, or Avicenna as he was known in Latin, who wrote The Poem of Medicine. Ibn Sina also wrote the Canon of Medicine, but he felt that his poem was more easily transmissible—easier to understand and memorize. Ibn Sina reviewed previous scholars on the subject of medicine and well-being, including Hippocrates and Galen. Madeline set out a similar task for herself in writing her own book. On the wellness side of things, Ibn Sina stressed the importance of taking care of the soul, which would include good company and music if someone was sick, and for general preventative care, moderate exercise.

Madeline conducted an extensive search for doctors who would be willing to sit down for an interview. Aside from reading articles and books written by doctors whom she then would track down, Madeline also asked friends and acquaintances for suggestions and collected names and numbers. One of her parents’ friends gave her a number of names of “vitamin” doctors. Another friend gave a list of Japanese doctors with a short description of each. She also received a number of doctor business cards from obliging friends. By including specialists, general practitioners, doctors focused on research, and patients, Madeline’s own research covered as many view points as possible.

While a poet’s response to or opinion about medical treatments is not something people tended to search out at the time, or now for that matter, Madeline invoked Avicenna to remind everyone that there were indeed other periods in time when the ideas of a poet and a physician were intermingled, and she started by asking the same questions, in essence, that he did. For example: “what do you think of the state of medical research today?” “What about diet?”

 

Madeline’s approach to the interviews sought to engage her conversant on a poetic level and this seems to have allowed some of the doctors the space to speak about certain not obviously medical motivations they may have had that would not have come up in a typical interview session. One neurologist in particular opened up about his interest in Buddhist philosophy as a source of inspiration for one thread of his research. This created a rather productive discussion about some of Madeline’s more philosophical ideas, including topology.

In a conversation with a psychiatrist and Jungian analyst, Madeline is offered another way to address her anger over death: is she able to build a building with the idea and the concept of the building in her mind, but build it just for a short while? Dr. Engel says that “independent of how long [the building] will stay,” you build. A child building a sandcastle understands this clearly.

 

When in conversation with a patient, Madeline channels her poetic-alchemical voice to offer a way of navigating through difficulties. Through a series of interesting questions, she is able to help a patient visualize her well-being as a space both in and around her, while becoming more aware of what happens to her experience of time during episodes of illness.

In this way we see the poetic voice as one that is highly adaptable. Madeline, as the author, moves from medical researcher, to questioner, to philosopher, to psychologist, to the analyzed patient. It feels quite seamless when reading through her conversations, edited for flow, and even in its incomplete, unpublished form, this book provides not only an interesting look at what was happening “Medically in [Madeline’s] Time”, but also at the human condition and how it responds to and copes with the struggle, in its various manifestations, for wellness. Throughout the interviews, Madeline seems to be circling the idea that the body inherently knows what to do to get better, the struggle becomes access to this knowledge. How do you break past conditioned thought patterns and the mind, which seem designed to keep us from what our body knows? We can look for Madeline and Arakawa’s attempts to answer this question in the vast majority of their projects, both realized and unrealized.

Top image: Madeline Gins on the telephone, ca. late 1980s

Lower images: Correspondence between Madeline Gins and various health professionals and patients

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Ambiguous Zones, 3

The Reversible Destiny Lofts—Mitaka (In Memory of Helen Keller) in its near-completion phase, 2005, Tokyo. Photo by Masataka Nakano

Dear Friends,

Did you know that today, October 15th, is the official “birthday” of the Reversible Destiny Lofts—Mitaka (In Memory of Helen Keller) in Tokyo? Designed by Arakawa+Gins and completed on this day in 2005, it is one of the most unique apartment buildings in Japan. There are a total of nine units in the building: five of them are currently occupied by tenants, two are offered for short-term stays and remote work space programs as well as group tours, events, and workshops, and the last two units house the ARAKAWA+GINS Tokyo Office, which manages all aspects of the operations there. The Mitaka Lofts has attracted thousands of people from around the world, many of whom have made a special pilgrimage to experience the space in person. At the time of its opening 16 years ago, people were beguiled by it and they hotly debated whether this was architecture or art. Arakawa+Gins’s vision, however, was clear that this was to be a residential building, inhabited and used by people. Through this creation, they aspired to change Japan and even the whole world.

In this third edition of Ambiguous Zones, we share with you the “making of” the Reversible Destiny Lofts—Mitaka accompanied by a selection of architectural renderings and photographs that attests to its distinctive and complex construction.

Because the building has received many thousands of visitors every year for the past 16 years, there is great need for repair and conservation. The Tokyo Office is gearing up for a global crowdfunding initiative, launching early next year* for this ongoing project of preservation, so please stay tuned for more information in the coming months. In the meantime, we hope that AZ3 will convey the significance of this actively lived and highly engaging work of Arakawa+Gins.

Yours in the reversible destiny mode,
Reversible Destiny Foundation and ARAKAWA+GINS Tokyo Office

 

Arakawa in front of the Reversible Destiny Lofts—Mitaka (In Memory of Helen Keller) on October 15, 2005, Tokyo. Photo by Momoyo Homma

The main inspiration for the design of the lofts was Helen Keller. In what kind of space would she have wanted to live? Her life’s story taught us that each of our bodies is unique and we are all born with an individual ability to form and use its surrounding space and environment. The Mitaka Lofts, as an experiential laboratory, functions as a space that instructs us and our body toward boundless freedom. There are many architectural elements that are unusual, to say the least. One of the most distinct is the floor with a series of small bumps that constantly make you conscious of the sole of your feet and at the same time stimulate blood circulation. For the visually impaired, like Helen Keller, this feature helps them navigate the room.  

Madeline Gins, Helen Keller or Arakawa, Japanese edition, Tokyo: Shinshokan, 2010.
Making the floor of the lofts with bumps

Other interesting components are floor-to-ceiling vertical poles that can have a variety of functions if you tap into your imagination. They can be exercise poles, ladders, shelves, and for people with walking difficulties, bars to grab onto that offer support as they move about in the space.

Reversible Destiny Lofts—Mitaka, Five-Part Loft, 2001, digital rendering
Reversible Destiny Lofts—Mitaka, Wall-Configurations + Volumes, Complete Set of Shape-Defining Elements, 2005, blueprint

 

Because of the role that Helen Keller played in the ideation of the design, the Mitaka Lofts has been a focus of interest among scholars not only of art and architecture but also from the areas of welfare, medicine, and physical therapy. In addition, the creatives who are involved in product or environmental design for people with disabilities also pay attention to this building in order to activate the power of alternative thinking. In this way, A+G’s unconventional philosophy contributes to a building of an inclusive and cooperative society that the world needs today.

In their 2002 publication Architectural Body, Arakawa and Gins wrote that “although our species, like every other species, has a characteristic architecture that serves its members well by increasing their chances of survival, it is far from having an architecture that could redefine life. The architecture we speak of in this book is within our species’ reach. It will be a way to undo, loosening to widen and re-cast, the concept of person.”** Realizing such an architecture was an enormously complicated challenge. Knowing there was no precedent of this kind and driven by a singular passion, Arakawa visited a number of top executives of major construction companies in Japan. Ultimately, a dream team consisting of veterans of the field was formed in Tokyo to take on the task: Yasui Architects & Engineers, Inc. finalized the detailed design and Takenaka Corporation worked on the construction.

Construction in progress
Construction in progress, February 10, 2005
(top) Construction in progress, (bottom) Reversible Destiny Lofts—Mitaka, digital rendering

At its birth, the Mitaka Lofts was received as an eccentric artwork and a curious erection in the middle of a residential neighborhood in Tokyo. While it still stands out when viewed from the street with its vibrant colors and whimsical shapes, it has gained the respect and affection of those who have resided/reside there and have participated in various events and programs. It is a building that continues to live and grow with every person’s unique experience and is a place where anyone who enters becomes the main character in the story of the “making of”.   

Arakawa and Momoyo Homma (Director, ARAKAWA+GINS Tokyo Office) inside one of the loft units, 2005. On the kitchen counter, by Arakawa’s right hand is a Japanese edition of the book Architectural Body published in 2004.
Arakawa at the construction site, 2005. Photo by Masataka Nakano
Aerial view showing the rooftop garden
Night view, 2006

**The ARAKAWA+GINS Tokyo Office already launched a crowdfunding campaign last month to raise funds for the first phase of this long-term project through the platform Motion Gallery based in Japan. Since the system doesn’t readily support donations coming from countries other than Japan, we are preparing a separate platform for English-speaking people to participate in the project.
**Madeline Gins and Arakawa, Architectural Body (Tuscaloosa and London: University of Alabama Press, 2002), xi–xii.

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Ambiguous Zones, 2

Madeline and Arakawa posing with a shrub in front of Châteaux D'Amboise, France, 1980

Dear Friends,

The end of summer brings another round of travel photos for the second edition of Ambiguous Zones! Hopefully some of you were able to travel yourselves this summer and extra bonus points if you got to see some art, like the Alexander Calder sculpture Arakawa and Madeline saw in France in 1980, or become the art, like Madeline did in Venice in the summer of 1969. We hope you enjoy this selection of photographs that bring Arakawa and Madeline from Japan to France and Italy, back to the U.S., and finally to Tula, Mexico.

Yours in the reversible destiny mode,
Reversible Destiny Foundation and the ARAKAWA+GINS Tokyo Office

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Ambiguous Zones, 1

Dear Friends,

At the Reversible Destiny Foundation, the start of summer brings with it an air of celebration for Arakawa’s birthday on July 6th, when he would have turned 85. This year, it also heralds a change in our monthly newsletter. We started the Distraction Series at the beginning of the pandemic when many of us were adjusting to being at home full time. As things begin to open up at various rates, we think it is time to move onto a new monthly newsletter, Ambiguous Zones, that will continue to explore various themes related to Arakawa and Madeline Gins.

For the inaugural AZ newsletter, we took summer and Arakawa as inspiration for a brief look at the ambiguous zone of the beach, as seen in Arakawa’s 1967 painting A Self-Portrait Near the Ocean. We hope this leaves you with something to think about as you take your own selfies on the beach this summer!

Yours in the reversible destiny mode,
Reversible Destiny Foundation and ARAKAWA+GINS Tokyo Office

Arakawa, A Self-Portrait Near the Ocean, 1967, oil, acrylic, graphite, art marker and collage on canvas, 90 x 63 in. Photo by Rob McKeever. Courtesy of Gagosian.

As summer officially begins, Arakawa’s A Self-Portrait Near the Ocean, 1967, becomes a title that could be applied to many a photograph we will see this season. This painting also seemed like a perfect choice for AZ1, since we can consider as ambiguous zones both the snapshot quality of the moment depicted and the setting – a beach.

An ambiguous zone lends itself to an infinite number of interpretations when considered from the perspective of Arakawa and Madeline. For example, in the late 1960s, Arakawa wrote: “What I want to paint is the condition that precedes the moment in which the imagination goes to work and produces mental representations.” This in and of itself describes a type of ambiguous zone – somewhere right between an initial sensation and the coding of this into perception. It takes on an additional layer of ambiguity in another sense. By recording this extremely short duration between sensation and perception on canvas, Arakawa has allowed it to coexist with an eternity (or however long the painting lasts)—it is therefore both a moment and an eternity at once. For further reading, Deleuze and Guattari’s discussion of the percept, affect, and concept is highly relevant here.[1]

Turning back to the painting in question, we see both things at play. By providing merely a trace of an outline of a person, in this case supposedly of the artist himself, Arakawa provides the viewer with some open-ended information that allows them to fill in the rest of the details using their imagination. The label, “sands” allows us to infer that Arakawa is on a beach, although one might picture a sand dune instead. Sand itself is not earth and no longer rocks, so exists in a kind of in-between, albeit very long, stage. If these sands make up a beach, its size will change as the tide goes in and out. The beach is a location of leisure but also of labor depending on how it is deployed.

The painting itself has a typical tripartite structure, with the background made up of the sky delineated by a silvery-grey band with the word AIRPLANE and an arrow pointing to a rounded shape going off the canvas, and the foreground marked off by a white band with another rounded shape labelled as BICYCLE. Without the labels of AIRPLANE and BICYCLE we wouldn’t have any real indication that these bands are a part of the space of the painting. Does the bike belong to Arakawa? Is the plane heading to or from JFK airport?

The figure of Arakawa, anchored by labels for HEAD and FOOT, exists in the midground. Between these labels, along where we might imagine the body to be, we find a number of rather unexpected words: SHIP, AIR, TINFOIL, and HAIR. Do we understand the ship to be somewhere behind the figure? Is the air around him? In front of him? Being breathed in or out by him? It doesn’t seem to be ruffling his hair, but maybe he is wearing a hat? Is the tinfoil covering a sandwich? Is the hair on someone else’s head?  To the right of the figure, SANDS is stenciled toward the bottom and OCEAN toward the top. Arakawa’s feet are clearly in the sand and if he is standing then the ocean and presumably the ship would be behind him, but these are really up to the imagination, since even if Arakawa is standing in the water, he would still technically have his feet in the sand. Could it also be possible that he is reclining? Also to the right, a round object labelled BALL is moving through the air, over ocean or sand.

The colored lines that divide the midground may offer additional clues as to the delineation of space. The ship is in the same band as the ocean, beneath this, the ball is on the same band as the air, followed by the tinfoil (in Arakawa’s hands?), and finally the hair, feet, and sands are all within the lowest band before the foreground. Perhaps the fact that the head and feet are outlined in the same color suggests that they are in the same plane at the front with everything else understood to be receding back into space the higher up it is marked on the canvas. Does this work for the tinfoil? If the tinfoil is behind Arakawa, it would be blocked from view. Just when the viewer thinks they have understood the rules of perspective within Arakawa’s composition, the tinfoil begins to re-write them. The lines dividing the midground into sections, or zones, appear to be doing so with regard to both height and depth. As in many works by Cézanne and Picasso, we might understand that we are getting two views—looking down (especially if the figure is reclining) and looking out (especially if the ship is in the ocean). The ambiguity abounds.

Photographs: Arakawa at the beach, Japan, ca. mid 1950s

[1] Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari, “Percept, Affect, and Concept,” in What is Philosophy?, translated by Hugh Tomlinson and Graham Burchell, (New York: Columbia University Press, 1994), 163-199.

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Distraction Series, 18

Dear Friends,

For Distraction Series 18, we celebrate the arrival of spring with an invitation to virtually visit the Site of Reversible Destiny—Yoro, located within Yoro Park in the town of Yoro in Gifu Prefecture, Japan. The Site is a monumental landscape designed by Arakawa and Madeline Gins in 1995, with an additional vibrantly colored building, Reversible Destiny Office, completed within it in 1997. It consists of an expansive undulating terrain with a series of pavilions scattered amid various greeneries. This creates a gravity defying illusion and disorients the visitor’s perception of space, leading to a heightened sensitivity that helps them to see the world anew.

Created especially with future visitors in mind, the presenter, Momoyo Homma (Director of Reversible Destiny Foundation and the ARAKAWA+GINS Tokyo Office, who worked closely with Arakawa and Madeline Gins for many years) leads this illuminating tour of the Site’s highlights. The video was directed by Nobu Yamaoka, who has previously brought us an exploration of the artists’ philosophy in his documentary films about them.

This virtual tour is perfect for those who wish to learn more about Yoro Park as well as Arakawa+Gins’s architecture and we hope that it tempts you to plan a visit to the Site of Reversible Destiny in person when the world opens up again in the very near future!



Yours in the reversible destiny mode,
Reversible Destiny Foundation and the ARAKAWA+GINS Tokyo office

Reversible Destiny Office, Site of Reversible Destiny – Yoro, Gifu Prefecture, Japan

Virtual tour of The Site of Reversible Destiny–Yoro
Presenter: Momoyo Homma
Directed by Nobu Yamaoka (Rtapikcar, Inc.)
Director of photography: Nobu Yamaoka
Drone Shooting: Masayuki Akamatsu, Nobu Yamaoka

Produced by Arakawa+Gins Tokyo Office
Supported by Yoro Park
Special Thanks to Ran Takeuchi, Eriko Sato, Junko Katayama

© 2021 Arakawa+Gins Tokyo Office. All rights reserved.

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Distraction Series, 17

Dear Friends,

A few months ago, Reversible Destiny Foundation’s project archivist Kathryn Dennett came across a folder labeled, “Man Repellent Archive.” Kathryn was “instantly intrigued. Inside there were sticker labels and invoice forms from perfume bottle companies. What was this mysterious perfume? Why would Madeline be developing a ‘man repellent’ that ‘works paradoxically?’ And what does ‘working paradoxically’ even mean?”

For Distraction Series 17, we present to you snapshots of the Man Repellent, a perfume project developed by Madeline Gins around 2011, as well as excerpts from a recorded conversation with Aviva Silverman, Madeline’s former assistant and main collaborator on the project.

The Man Repellent was a perfume, originally meant to be part of a line of “repellents” including “woman” and “baby” versions, that would “paradoxically” attract the supposedly repelled category to the wearer.  The “man” version was the only one ever designed. The process unfolded over the course of 4 or 5 months, the logo design developing from an antique cameo to the final collage of various athletic balls.

Conceived of originally as a product to be sold in museum stores, it was never put into production, but the project illustrates the collaborative and iterative nature of Madeline’s creative process, particularly in the years after Arakawa’s death. The project was one of many ideas that arose from group conversations, often prompted by a problem Madeline was trying to solve. For instance, how to fix the lack of sunlight in Finland.

We hope you enjoy the images of this project and are attracted to it as much as we are.
 

Yours in the reversible destiny mode,
Reversible Destiny Foundation and the ARAKAWA+GINS Tokyo office

Sketch rendering of sticker for Man Repellent, 2011
Sketch rendering of sticker for Man Repellent, 2011
Early sketch renderings for Man Repellent, 2011
Early sketch rendering for Man Repellent, 2011
Sketch rendering and notes for Man Repellent, 2011
Sketch rendering for Man Repellent, 2011
Poster for Man Repellent, 2011
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Distraction Series, 16

Dear Friends,

As a part of a series in which we focus on archival materials revealing “friends of Arakawa and Gins” (tentative title), we are happy to share with you, in Distraction Series 16, a glimpse into the friendship between Arakawa and the animation film director Hayao Miyazaki.

Miyazaki perhaps needs no introduction even to those who are not so keen on animated movies. Just think of the global hits like My Neighbor Totoro (1988) and Spirited Away (2001). However, his friendship with Arakawa is not widely known. They developed kinship after Miyazaki visited the Site of Reversible Destiny—Yoro around late 1997 or early 1998. Thanks to this encounter, they began to appear together in public talk programs and they also frequently visited each other’s office to have private discussions. On many occasions, they became so engaged in their conversation that they both had to cancel their other appointments to continue talking. Seeing them converse with such enthusiasm was like watching two imaginative kids planning their ideal secret fort in their own world.

Hayao Miyazaki at Reversible Destiny Lofts Mitaka

There is an article from 1998 in a Japanese monthly magazine Gekkan Adovataizingu [Monthly advertising] that captures their passionate dialogue, particularly about architecture:

Miyazaki: Your concept of a city is fascinating. It turns everything about modern architecture on its head. …The moment I saw this plan of yours [Sensorium City, Tokyo Bay], I thought that, if this plan is realized, it will prove that Japan is thinking seriously about the future, towards the 21st century. So, I really want to make it happen.

Arakawa: You are the architect. (laugh) …Creating a landscape and buildings, which people can inhabit. But that in itself is still far away from architecture. “Architecture” is to create new life. You see, in your films, so many things happen. Those happenings create life. In truth, you are already creating life.*

Arakawa + Gins, Sensorium City, Tokyo Bay, city plan proposal, digital rendering, 1998

Ultimately, in 2001, Studio Ghibli, Inc. realized Miyazaki’s vision as the Ghibli Museum in Mitaka, Tokyo—a place where every visitor can enjoy and experience at their own pace using their whole body and spectrum of senses; in order to be true to this motto, since the museum first opened its doors, admission has been by reservation only.
 
And four years later, Arakawa, together with Madeline Gins, realized their Reversible Destiny Lofts Mitaka—In Memory of Helen Keller, a visionary architectural work that was a long time in the making. Its core concept is “architecture that prioritizes the body” and is a proposal for “architecture against death.” It is an actual residential building currently being inhabited but is also accessible to visitors through guided tours. 
 
Mitaka, a small corner in the megacity Tokyo, connects Arakawa and Miyazaki through these two buildings that embody their philosophies. It is a curious destiny. Because of their proximity to each other, there is a constant flow of visitors—the general public, scholars, and educators—from all around the world to these two buildings. And the visions and hopes of Arakawa and Miyazaki for the future generations are being transmitted at a ground level.

Ghibli Museum, photograph of exterior, © Museo d'Arte Ghibli
Reversible Destiny Lofts Mitaka—In Memory of Helen Keller, exterior walkway, photograph by Ken Kato, 2016

These two buildings share some unique qualities: a mere look at their exteriors will excite you; then, as soon as you step inside, they will fill you with joy and cause you to smile; and they will energize you. Such seemingly simple changes in our state of being are truly difficult to achieve. What is revived by these changes are the sense of awe toward nature, the childlike sense of wonder, and the awareness that we owe our life to the Earth. The friendship between Arakawa and Miyazaki was formed because they both believed that these are important qualities and changes in our state of being. Today, these changes are most crucial to pursue and to pass on to the future generations.

Mr. Miyazaki continues to create his animations.
We wonder what Arakawa is creating today.

Yours in the reversible destiny mode,
The ARAKAWA+GINS Tokyo Office and Reversible Destiny Foundation

[Text by Momoyo Homma]

Special thanks to Hayao Miyazaki and Studio Ghibli, Inc.

Reversible Destiny Lofts Mitaka—In Memory of Helen Keller, entrance, photograph by Ken Kato, 2016
Reversible Destiny Lofts Mitaka—In Memory of Helen Keller, exterior walkway, photograph by Ken Kato, 2016
Ghibli Museum, photograph of exterior, © Museo d'Arte Ghibli
Hayao Miyazaki and Arakawa at the Reversible Destiny Lofts Mitaka—In Memory of Helen Keller, rooftop, photograph by Momoyo Homma, 2005

Top image: Hayao Miyazaki and Arakawa at the Reversible Destiny Lofts Mitaka—In Memory of Helen Keller, photograph by Momoyo Homma, 2005

Follow us on instagram for more content: @reversibledestinyfoundation

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Distraction Series, 14

Dear Friends,
 
For Distraction Series 14 we share with you a handful of mail from Arakawa and Madeline Gins’s archives to remind us of the significant role our postal service has in our larger architectural body. Arakawa and Madeline were embedded in a vibrant community of friends from all over the world and their correspondence reveals what a unique and playful relationship they had with many of those around them.

In their book Making Dying Illegal (2006) and Arakawa’s painting Who Is It? No.2 (1970) we see examples of how this intimate letter format is used in their work. As Madeline would say, “Reversible Destiny will be achieved communally or it will not be achieved at all.”

We have selected a small number of letters and cards primarily from the 1960’s and 1970’s to share with you today, including ones from A+G’s friends such as Kate Millett, Ray Johnson, their physical therapist, and a 12-year-old named Martine Rubin. As many of us prepare for the holiday season ahead and begin writing cards to family, friends and loved ones, hopefully something here might inspire you.

Love,
RRRRReversible Destiny Foundation and the ARAKAWA+GINS Tokyo Office

P.S. If you have received any mail from Arakawa and/or Madeline Gins in the past, please do share them with us. We would love to hear from you!

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Distraction Series, 13

Dear Friends,

Distraction Series 13 brings us to November. In the United States in 2020, this month has started out with the stress of the election in addition to rising numbers of Covid-19 across the country. Madeline Gins’s book What the President Will Say and Do!! (1984) captures this feeling, and moment in time, quite well. In addition to the first essays, which seem eerily prescient of the current events, later in the book Gins brings us a particularly useful text for how to approach or try to maneuver through these times: “How to Breathe”. In order to help us move through November and to celebrate Madeline’s birthday on November 7th, we present a brief discussion of this text. We hope you are all taking good care and we wish you a safe and healthy November.

Yours in the reversible destiny mode,
Reversible Destiny Foundation and the ARAKAWA+GINS Tokyo Office

How to Breathe

by Amara Magloughlin

 

What the President Will Say and Do!! (1984) by Madeline Gins could easily be read as a series of essays written for the present moment. Gins’s short entry on “How to Breathe”, a part of a longer essay entitled “All Men are Sisters”, seems especially poignant when taken as a potential approach to the current socio-political upheaval. This includes the hyper-alert way we are experiencing the physical act of breathing as something essential that now comes with an added sense of danger during an airborne pandemic. As narrator, Gins is instructing her readers on how to best go about breathing against the backdrop of the political primary season before the election in 1984. Gins takes care to advise the reader in the first few sentences not to start breathing until she has explained how to do so properly, lest they “too willingly succumb to the contaminated will engendered by the gay abandon of the societal rot of centuries.” In no less than fifteen steps, she goes on to describe the bodily system of breathing through the mouth or nose and into the lungs using poetic prose, avoiding those banal names for parts of the body. Gins has us focus in on the minutiae of something we do automatically, often without thinking about it, over the next two pages. Possibly without the reader even realizing it, she leads us through something quite common in 2020 – a breathing meditation, in which she eventually begins to question who the subject doing the breathing is. What else is this process of breathing subjected to, Gins asks:

Mother? Money? Memory? Are these fitting [fitted] subjects? Falsehood? Debt? Contradiction? Confession? Honor? Sympathy? To what are these subjected, after all? A subjugation of shapes dominates the impressionism of physiognomy, and what else adheres?

Each breath during inhalation asks a question, perhaps one of the above, and each exhalation provides time and space for an answer, a process Gins suggests starts at birth. We might take in one of the items in Gins’s above list as we hold in our breath, with the option to let some or all of it remain a part of us before releasing it. Gins describes the breath as a “sway”, back and forth or in and out, that now encompasses our dreams. These dreams are “galvanize[d] from within”, by which Gins might mean an electric spark flows through them, igniting them and spurring them on, but by the next sentence they are solidifying into sculptures that they have inspired, perhaps literally. Each breath, then, becomes a dream and a sculpture, in this case if not literally, then as records of sculpture of “ancient origin”, evoking Ovid’s tale of Pygmalion, who breathes life into a statue of his own creation, making Galatea, his dream, come alive. Each breath becomes a “reenactment” of such ancient events, bringing atmosphere in and then pushing it out.

At this point, Gins cautions that the reader is still not ready to breathe. They do not even know yet, for example, that they should take in oxygen, and expel carbon dioxide. Are we able to read this as a metaphor? Before we act, we need to be sure of what precisely it is that we want to keep and make use of from each experience, and what we need to let go. Gins goes into some specific physiological detail at this point: “An 860 square foot surface is to be oxygenated (the path is 1,500 miles long) in less than 1 second” (referring to the lungs, this is a bit alarming to consider if we are thinking of an airborne virus). She asks us to consider carefully whether we can feel this process inside of us or if we think our lungs are useless appendages. We learn here that lungs are asymmetrical, with three lobes on the right and two on the left, for “ghosts too”, and that they can coalesce with other parts of the body in other species. Regardless, lungs are useless unless you use them. They gain “sophistication” and “generate waves” once engaged.

We have not yet taken a breath, if we have followed her instructions carefully, but we now learn that we have been breathing all along, unaware and separated from the experience. In reality, having followed this breathing meditation, we have been preparing ourselves to make a choice: do we remain passive and stay in a relatively painless state, or do we choose to engage, becoming active creators of our own lives?

               Breathed. History was. Breathing will be found to be a prerequisite for:

               1. Getting a license

               2. Finding a job

               3. Having children

               4. Starting a revolution

               5. Being an idiot

               6. Laughing

We might rightfully add voting to this list.

The moment to breathe has arrived, but it comes with a warning:

Once you have begun and are breathing, nothing will be the same. You will, however, find yourself gaining weight under this regimen. There will be an accompanying hum which you might find disturbing at first…and a faint, erotic trembling comes with it…one which totally eludes prefiguring (the purest of aporias).

In thinking of our current moment, this weight gain is perhaps the result of being active and engaged in civic life, taking on more worry and responsibility than you would get with just the passive act of taking breath in and out. An anticipatory anxiety appears with no discernible shape that might allow us to puzzle out what comes next. If you are ready for this, Gins suggests it is time to open your mouth and just see what it feels like to let some atmosphere in, but not actually inhaling, maybe practicing by waving it into your ear. Then think of desiring that air, wanting to pull it in with the movement of the diaphragm, up and down. With a slight delay as you grasp that the knowledge of this procedure must be innate within you and is about to happen alongside the first gasp of your earliest ancestor, “[y]ou might breathe now.”

We breathe with Gins for the duration of the next page and she asks us to “determine the instant in which breath first started in [us]” while we were reading her text. We might not have been aware that it was happening, but at some point, if we look back, the text will “appear fogged”, a clear indication that we were indeed breathing. How to move “through” breathing, Gins informs us, is another question best left for the “experts”, but she has now instructed us on “in and out”. She leaves us with a final question: “Never in, one enters, as today, but once put out, how can one ever get back in?” This sentence is a bit curious, since we have just been focusing on breathing in and out in succession. It is true, though, that each breath is composed of a specific sampling of air and is therefore always different from the next. The lungs take it in, use the oxygen, and expel carbon dioxide – something you can never breathe in again.  If we take away one thing from this text for our present time, perhaps it should be that each individual moment is unique, and we can choose to either engage or not engage with it, but, regardless, the opportunity will never again present itself in this precise way, except in the larger sense that all time is cyclical. All each moment asks of us is that we breathe it in, let it ask its question, and then consider it and let it go in the time and space of our exhalation. We can choose to feel its weightiness for as long an interval as we wish, but we always release it as we prepare for our subsequent steps with the next breath of fresh air. Hopefully, breathing with Gins has left you inspired.     

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Distraction Series, 12

Dear Friends,

In honor of Blindness Awareness Month, Distraction Series 12 focusses on Madeline Gins’s book Helen Keller or Arakawa (1994) and the influence that Helen Keller had on Arakawa and Gins’s architectural practice. While Helen Keller is an extremely well-known figure in both the United States and Japan, Gins’s in-depth meditation on Keller’s thought and experience goes well beyond the usual elementary school focus on Keller’s childhood and tutelage under Annie Sullivan. Gins incorporates direct quotes from Keller along with poetic imaginings of her experience of being both blind and deaf and employs these against a backdrop of Arakawa’s paintings in particular to probe the ways in which we experience the world as well as what it means to inhabit an architectural body. 

Her Socialist Smile (2020), a new documentary film on Helen Keller by filmmaker John Gianvito, was available to stream last week as part of the New York Film Festival. With its focus on Helen Keller’s political activism, it highlights Keller as an historical figure who is still very relevant, something Arakawa and Gins felt deeply. From the festival:

“In his new film, Gianvito meditates on a particular moment in early 20th-century history: when Helen Keller began speaking out passionately on behalf of progressive causes. Beginning in 1913, when, at age 32, Keller gave her first public talk before a general audience, Her Socialist Smile is constructed of onscreen text taken from Keller’s speeches, impressionistic images of nature, and newly recorded voiceover by poet Carolyn Forché. The film is a rousing reminder that Keller’s undaunted activism for labor rights, pacifism, and women’s suffrage was philosophically inseparable from her battles for the rights of the disabled.” (https://www.filmlinc.org/nyff2020/films/her-socialist-smile/)

The film is no longer streaming, but we will send a follow-up message once it becomes available to rent.

We hope you enjoy this month’s newsletter and will be in your inbox again on November 6th – the day before Madeline’s birthday – at the end of what is sure to be a very important week.

Yours in the reversible destiny mode,
Reversible Destiny Foundation and the ARAKAWA+GINS Tokyo Office

 

 

(Top image: Front cover of Madeline Gins’s Heren Kerā matawa Arakawa Shūsaku (Helen Keller or Arakawa). Translated by Momoko Watanabe. Tokyo: Shinshokan, 2010)

On Helen Keller or Arakawa

by Amara Magloughlin

Helen Keller (1880-1968), who became blind and deaf at a very young age, is an extremely well-known figure in the U.S. for her considerable achievements as an activist and advocate on behalf of those with disabilities. Many of us first became acquainted with Keller through a book in elementary school, and, as an adult, Madeline Gins practiced her Japanese by reading an equivalent book included in the Japanese curriculum, writing notes to herself in the margin. Helen Keller was a huge source of inspiration for both Gins and Arakawa, which is especially apparent in their architectural projects. In the mid-1990s, Gins wrote a work of ‘speculative fiction’ entitled Helen Keller or Arakawa (1994).

In this book, Gins weaves together (or ‘cleaves’) quotes and anecdotes from Keller into a narrative that is equally her own and Arakawa’s, one in which Keller’s lack of vision and hearing becomes the ‘blank’ evoked in both Arakawa’s artwork and the pair’s own philosophical praxis. From the very first sentence, Gins communicates to the reader that we are in an experimental world that will follow rules to which we may not be accustomed. In this experiment, she elides the persons of Helen Keller, Arakawa, and herself into an overarching sense of ‘I’ that encompasses these three beings. Throughout the entirety of the book, it is not always clear which of the three is expressing a story or memory at any given moment and this primes the reader to be prepared and more accepting of yet another elision – in this case, between a person and their environment (or ‘surround’ to use Madeline and Arakawa’s term) into an ‘architectural body’, or a ‘puzzle creature’, or an ‘organism that persons’.

Gins makes use of a number of Helen Keller anecdotes that could each be read as a detailed ekphrasis of a painting by Arakawa. This coalescence of thought opens up further avenues of investigation into the philosophy and architectural practice of Gins and Arakawa. Despite the main intent of the book, it has the extra value of offering a very cogent interpretation of Arakawa’s body of work.

Yamaguchi, Masashige. Kodomo no denki zenshū 3: Heren Kerā [Collected biographies for children 3: Helen Keller], Tokyo: Popura-sha, 1968.
Montage - Helen Keller standing on one of the floor panels of The Process in Question, 1987-99

A jazz musician, in one story told from Arakawa’s perspective, asked for a portrait of herself and was disappointed with the result. Arakawa had “found” her, and therefore sketched her, in all corners of the room, showing the conceptual beginnings of the architectural body. The room became the frame and everything within was the portrait. This mode of configuring space reminded Arakawa of a blueprint, and in this format, he recognized the way in which his imagination was ordered. For him, it made complete sense to stage or frame identity in this same way. Taken as a ready-made, he saw each blueprint as a “perfect example of the condensed perception of the other.” Diagram of Part of Imagination (1965) is an example of a painting resulting from this line of thought, consisting of a diagram of a living space with each room or area labeled. Dots and lines become loaded symbols that delineate space or situate things within space, but they also embody time and movement across spacetime. At the same time, as the title suggests, what is missing from the canvas is equally present. Part of the imagination is focused on or within this room, but the rest of it is “busy with a great number of other things and events.”

Arakawa, Diagram of Part of Imagination, 1965
Arakawa, Talking or Walking, 1969

In Talking or Walking (1969) we find dots breaking the body into parts that are then correlated with things found in the environment, further ordering space. The body is clearly in motion as you can see from the specific position of the dots representing arm, forearm, hand, and foot, given their progression, forward in space, from the head. As Gins quotes Karl Marx: “We have sufficiently explained the world, the point is to transform it.” Gins goes so far as to interpret Marx’s ‘point’ as an object, conflating this point with the symbol Arakawa utilized to great effect in his work, and then personifying it as a being named Voluntar. As Voluntar, the dot becomes the “darling of place markers of plasticity, limning character and will.” While Voluntar marks where something is in a given moment, she also represents all potential movements and transformations, which imbues each dot with all the weight of an ‘organism that persons’, as it is always on the verge of initiating any of an infinite number of potential actions. These potentialities can all be understood to be present in Arakawa’s paintings.

 

From the perspective of Helen Keller, Gins relates a variety of experiences including an anecdote in which rope was used to demarcate an area outdoors, where Keller could then run freely. Gins imagines that Keller must think in diagrammatic terms in order to situate herself in space so that she can move within and between rooms, much like the mapped space of an Arakawa painting. Through another foray into Keller’s lived world, Gins forges a connection between her sense of light – something Keller dreamed of – and Arakawa’s employment of it, in part as something that helps give character to a window and also as something that can fill a space. Keller went through a phase in which she loved to count things, and Annie Sullivan, her teacher, feared she might get the idea to count the hairs on her own head. Arakawa’s painting, Name’s Birthday (1967), brings all of these themes together. A few horizontal lines denote walls, diagrammatic space, as well as the boundaries of objects that are labeled with their names on one half of the painting and numbers corresponding to seemingly different things on the other. Whether these numbers refer to different objects or simply indicate that the objects have moved is open to interpretation. The lines on the right side are broken up into dots. Faint vertical lines further divide the space. Arrows pointing to each word and number stem from a knotted rope, perhaps indicating the connection between these objects, all parts of a whole, unified in a single organism. One open window at the top on the right side allows the light into the room to become almost another object in and of itself. The evidence of this light is really only found around the string and rope, which serve as placeholders for a composite being, and here, to use Gins’s phrase again, we find that the light is “limning character and will” in a more literal way.

Arakawa, Name’s Birthday (A Couple), 1967

This investigation of light reaches its zenith in Arakawa’s installation Ubiquitous Site X (1987-91). Walking under the pink rubber drapery into a dark enclosed space may at first seem to be providing an experience devoid of light, and with the uneven terrain of the base of the structure, one would indeed need to focus in on other senses in order to be able to move around, and, in the process, one might become more aware of their own body in general. The heart beats and breath moves in and out of the dark inside of the body. Since this darkness is now all around you, does the sense of your personal boundary become more indefinite? Does it get pushed outward to find its limit at the external edges of the installation where you know the light was? If the light is not within, it must be without, or does it ring each person like a halo as Keller describes? With Keller’s influence, we find that light, the thing that is excluded, has perhaps become the most important point of focus in this particular setting. The lack of light allows you to engage the space on many levels. When we can see, we can observe limitations; when we can’t see these limits, the space becomes ubiquitous — without clear definition, you could in theory move your body however you want to, as long as you can overcome any trepidation. Gins tried to put her own thoughts on the matter in poem form and came up with two possibilities with which she was comfortable.

Many of the ideas discussed so far are featured prominently in the Reversible Destiny Lofts MITAKA – In Memory of Helen Keller (2005). Archetypal, diagrammatic forms are scaled up and repeated; along with multi-textured surfaces, this allows people to navigate the space using other senses. Tours are sometimes given blindfolded to underscore the fact that this architectural surround teaches you how to exist in the space even without the use of sight, in a matter similar to Ubiquitous Site X (1987-91).

This brief exploration of Helen Keller or Arakawa (1994) has offered a mere taste of what can be found in Gins’s mellifluous prose, which is worth savoring in its full complexity. We have gone from ekphrasis, to the concept of architectural body, to spacetime, to the experience of light within that spacetime. Let’s end on a more lighthearted note with the invocation of a sense thus far ignored – taste. In the book, Gins juxtaposes Keller’s dream of a long string of peeled bananas hanging in her dining room, bunched in such a way that she could easily eat her fill, alongside Arakawa’s painting of a recipe for Banana Cake, Untitled (Banana Cake), 1968. In both instances, boundaries are at play. For Keller, the removal of the peel makes the fruit more accessible and she is able to enjoy them immediately. In Arakawa’s work, the viewer is presented with a boundary they must overcome – the cake is not yet made and gratification is therefore delayed. In this recipe painting, we again see separate objects that come together to form one unique thing, but we can imagine the taste of each separate ingredient, some with more pleasure than others, before imagining the texture and taste of the ingredients coalescing in cake form. As Gins indicates, the banana adds moisture and volume to the cake in addition to its familiar sweet flavor, and in this cake form, the many seeds within a banana are suddenly diffuse and visible. We can only do this, though, if we have had banana cake before. It would be very difficult to simply imagine what the combination of a set of ingredients would taste like and what texture they would have when mixed and baked together had we no previous experience of it, something Gins refers to as the “report of the thinking field in action.” And so, she concludes, why not “[p]ropose a recipe rather than a theory. Another thing to consider is how much preferable it would be to end up with a banana cake than with a weak and misleading metaphysics.”

 

Arakawa, Untitled (Banana Cake), 1968

Sources:

Gins, Madeline. Helen Keller or Arakawa. New York and Santa Fe: Burning Books, 1994.

Gins, Madeline. Heren Kerā matawa Arakawa Shūsaku (Helen Keller or Arakawa). Translated by Momoko Watanabe. Tokyo: Shinshokan, 2010.

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Distraction Series, 11

Dear Friends,
 
For Distraction Series 11, we are delighted to share an interview Arakawa gave in Tokyo, 1997, at the NTT InterCommunication Center (ICC), available for the first time with English subtitles. You can find the English transcript of the interview in the link below.
 
In this roughly thirty-minute interview, Arakawa discusses what it means to him to think across two languages as well as the concept of the architectural body. He then waxes philosophical on human-made nature, civilization and architecture, and the relationship between computers and art. Conducted by Yukihiro Hirayoshi (professor of design and architecture at Kyoto Institute of Technology; formerly, curator at the National Museum of Art, Osaka), this interview not only provides insight into Arakawa’s approach to his work and his thoughts on a variety of related subjects, it also offers an interesting snapshot of the late 1990s from the point of a view of an artist. 
 
In the following year, the ICC held an exhibition of Arakawa and Madeline Gins’s work, entitled The City as the Art Form of the Next Millennium ARAKAWA/GINS (January 24th–March 29th, 1998), which featured a large model of a Reversible Destiny city along with large-scale prints of their digital architectural renderings and physical installations. As Arakawa discussed in the interview, the transition from painting to architecture was a necessary step toward realizing their vision of civilization, and the exhibition introduced their further exploration into city planning. During the exhibition, Arakawa and Gins’s experimental films “Why Not (a Serenade of Eschatological Ecology)” (1969, 110min.) and “For Example (A Critique of Never)—A Melodrama” (1971, 95min.) were both screened; they gave an artist talk; Arakawa and architect Arata Isozaki held a symposium; and artist Toshinori Kondo performed a work entitled, Soundscape for the Next Millennium.  
 
We hope you enjoy it!
 
Yours in the reversible destiny mode,
Reversible Destiny Foundation and ARAKAWA+GINS Tokyo Office

Video Source: ICC Open Video Archive (https://hive.ntticc.or.jp/contents/interview/arakawa)
ARAKAWA Shusaku Interview, at the NTT InterCommunication Center (ICC), Tokyo, 1997. 33 minutes 52 seconds. English subtitles by Reversible Destiny Foundation and ARAKAWA+GINS Tokyo Office, 2020
 
The contents of this interview are licensed under a Creative Commons: Attribution – NonCommercial – ShareAlike license. Please refer to the Deed for further details.

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Distraction Series, 10

Madeline and Arakawa with Mesoamerican statues in Tula, Mexico

Dear Friends,

Given the current limitations on travel, Distraction Series 10 is here to bring you on a round-the-world armchair vacation with Arakawa and Madeline. From Mesoamerican ruins in Tula, Mexico, to Italy, France, Japan, and various locations in New York state, join us as we travel through time and space from the point of view of our two founders. We’ve pulled around twenty photographs from our archive for your viewing pleasure – scroll down for the images with descriptive captions. Winter, Spring, Summer, and Autumn, you’ll find Arakawa and Madeline posing, taking photographs, examining their environment, and planning their day over breakfast. Enjoy!

Yours in the reversible destiny mode,
Reversible Destiny Foundation and ARAKAWA+GINS Tokyo Office

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Distraction Series, 9

Photograph of Madeline Gins (seated in the second row from the front at the far left) in Grade Six, Radcliffe Road Elementary School, Island Park, NY, 1952

Dear Friends,
 
For the ninth iteration of our Distraction Series, we have pulled a questionnaire from our archive that Madeline had her mother give to her Fifth-Grade class on January 20th, 1969, the day Richard Nixon was sworn in as President of the United States. Lucy Ives, editor of The Saddest Thing Is That I Have Had to Use Words: A Madeline Gins Reader, wrote a lovely piece about this questionnaire for the Poetry Foundation in April of this year. Madeline’s questions focus in on thoughts – where do you feel them, from where do they come, where do they go, what are they made of? And she then has the children conduct a practical exercise (drawing a circle), before asking about their thoughts while carrying out this particular activity. Finally, the questionnaire asks the children to explain the difference between children and adults, state their most interesting thought, share their oldest memory, and come up with an interesting question to ask their teacher.
 
The fascinating responses from the children have thoughts taking the shape of duck feathers, words, air, gold, nothing, silk, soft tissue, sugar, fur, emerald, steel, fluffy cotton, brain tissue, leather, and marbles. One child, Nancy, explains that “an adult has to be mature, not only in size, but in mind. A person could be six feet tall, 26 years old, and still act like a child, as an 8 year old could act like a professor of Math according to his mind.” So true, Nancy. A few students had some thoughts to share about our planet: Susan has imagined that the world was completely covered by water and asks if her teacher would like to live under the ocean, while Tracy imagined a land where everything was sweets and sodas. Tybert once thought that the middle of the earth was hollow and that you could go inside, and, finally, Peter made the chilling declaration that “the earth is dead.” 13-year-old Zoë, responding in 2020, has a scary thought about her own world: “What if my life is a game and someone is just controlling me and everyone in my life is fake?” Contrary to the assumption that this would be a frightening scenario, she thinks it would be “cool.”
 
An interesting thought exercise to try at home for adults and children alike!
 
Yours in the reversible destiny mode,
Reversible Destiny Foundation and ARAKAWA+GINS Tokyo Office

 

Madeline Gins, the first typescript page from Questionnaire, 1969
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Distraction Series, 8

Arakawa, 35’ by 7’ 6” and 126 lbs. No. 2, 1967-68, acrylic and collage on canvas, 7 panels, overall: 420 x 88 1/2 inches Collection of Nagoya City Art Museum, photograph courtesy of the museum

Dear friends,

For Distraction Series 8, we are very pleased to present a ten-minute excerpt of a two-hour lecture by curator Satoshi Yamada on a work by Arakawa entitled 35’ by 7’ 6” and 126 lbs. No. 2, 1967-68. This lecture was given on May 13th, 2012, at the Nagoya City Art Museum, where Mr. Yamada was a curator at the time. NCAM houses sixteen works by Arakawa in its permanent collection, along with an additional five works on long-term loan from the Estate of Madeline Gins. As the museum is located in the artist’s hometown of Nagoya, NCAM has focused on developing a collection that covers a broad range of Arakawa’s artistic experiments: it spans from the sculptures of the late 1950s (his so-called ‘coffin’ series), to sketches revealing his thought-process, and finally to the large-scale paintings of the 1980s that anticipated his move toward architecture in collaboration with Madeline Gins. 

Satoshi Yamada, currently the chief curator of the Kyoto City Museum of Art, conducted a 2-year-long study of Arakawa’s work in 2003–2005 with two other fellow curators, forming the organizing committee of the 2005 exhibition “Analyzing the Art of Arakawa Shusaku” at NCAM. This in-depth research project and his years of experience working with the museum’s collection pieces have formed Mr. Yamada’s opinion that Arakawa thought through everything in great detail and created his work with a view to communicating ideas as clearly as possible to the public—an assessment that may bewilder some people who are familiar with the enigmatic works of the artist.

We hope that this lecture will provide another foray into the world of Arakawa and invite you to exercise your own analytical thinking while looking at the artist’s work. For Closed Captioning, please click on the “CC” at the bottom right of the YouTube video.

Yours in the reversible destiny mode,
Reversible Destiny Foundation and ARAKAWA+GINS Tokyo Office

 

Arakawa, Look at It, 1968, screenprint (5 screens) on chromium-plated Mylar, 36 x 48 inches
Arakawa, Landscape (Mistake), 1970, screenprint (11 sheets) on 12-gauge chromium-plated Mylar, 35 x 46 inches Collection of Kitakyushu Municipal Museum of Art, photograph courtesy of the museum
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Distraction Series, 7

Dear Friends,

In 1968, Arakawa produced a number of works that took his use of stenciled and written language in a more playful direction than we saw in the paintings included in documenta 4. In canvas and print form, he reproduced recipes for lamb stew, fried pork with sweet-sour sauce, banana cake, and coconut milk cake. These recipes were, in a sense, readymades, found in one or more cookbooks that Arakawa and Madeline had on their shelf. They all follow a similar formula: Arakawa copied a page onto the surface of each work and then diagrammed the ingredients.

For Distraction Series 7, we present you with our playful response to Sky No. 2, 1968, which involved baking the Coconut Milk Cake recipe as it is written in cursive over the surface of the canvas, up until we are left hanging with this final sentence: “To serve, fill between the layers with:”. This incomplete direction seems to demand that the viewer fill the layers by filling in the blank. They may immediately look to the diagram at the bottom to see if that offers any hint. When it does not, they must search within their own frame of reference for coconut cake to complete the recipe rather than be left with the image of two, completely bare, single-layer cakes.

While this painting introduces language as a readymade, it also brings us away from our visual sense to a certain extent. We might picture what the completed cake would look like, and certainly had to when we turned to baking it, but, more importantly, the painting makes palpable the cake’s sweet taste, the scent of freshly grated coconut and the aroma wafting from the oven as the cake bakes, and finally the texture of the light and airy crumb and the creaminess of whatever the viewer’s brain has sandwiched between the layers and perhaps over the cake’s entirety. Another work in the series is entitled “Recipe (taste it)”, which we could take as a literal direction.

Sky No. 2, 1968, does not ask you to bake an actual cake; your mind has already produced a vivid replica, but the diagrammed ingredients at the bottom of the canvas provide the perfect mise en place to get any would-be bakers started. As in earlier paintings, Arakawa has placed these word-objects in space, and in our mind’s eye we might find ourselves standing before a kitchen table or countertop (though in real life, we would be missing the baking powder, which would keep the cake from reaching the “sky” of the title.) This is perhaps the writer’s subjective response to the painting, and in this case by someone who loves to bake and has indeed had coconut cake before. The title made it easier to conjure up images of whipped, fluffy egg whites and airy sky-high cakes; yet this created some cognitive dissonance when contrasted to the first Sky painting (Sky, 1968), which included a recipe for lamb stew.

Every person viewing any work of art will have their own individual response or interpretation.  In terms of taking viewer participation to the next level, we thought a fun, easy way to demonstrate this subjectivity would be to have at least two people make this recipe and see how their cakes differ. Please scroll down for more images of our cakes, and if you try this recipe, share your results on Instagram and tag us @reversibledestinyfoundation!

Yours in the reversible destiny mode,
Reversible Destiny Foundation and ARAKAWA+GINS Tokyo Office

Arakawa, Sky No.2, 1968, acrylic and oil on canvas, 48 x 36 in
Coconut cake with buttercream by Kathryn
Coconut cake with lemon curd and Italian meringue by Amara