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Ambiguous Zones, 15

Dear Friends,

As we begin to wrap up 2023, we are pleased to bring you Ambiguous Zones, 15, written by our Graduate Fellow Emiko Inoue, whose essay centers on Arakawa’s film Why Not: A Serenade of Eschatological Ecology (1969). Emiko is a masters student in the Art History Department at Hunter College, CUNY. Supported by The Feminist Institute Research Award, she is currently completing her masters thesis on the Japanese woman artist Mitsuko Tabe. In this essay, Emiko employs the interpretive approach of art critic Junzo Ishiko, a contemporary of Arakawa, as her guiding framework for examining the unique relationship between Arakawa’s 1960s paintings and Why Not. We hope you enjoy this thought-provoking investigation into Arakawa’s elusive and enigmatic film.

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

Figure 1. Poster for the Whitney Museum film presentation of Why Not, 1970

In-Between Human and Objects in Arakawa’s Why Not: A Serenade of Eschatological Ecology (1969)

By Emiko Inoue

Throughout Arakawa’s career, he produced only two films, Why Not: A Serenade of Eschatological Ecology (1969; fig. 1) and For Example: A Critique of Never (1971; directed by Arakawa). Two hours and ten minutes long, Why Not features one female protagonist played by Mary Window and a narration by Madeline Gins. Shot in Arakawa and Gin’s apartment at 124 West Houston Street for the most part, the film shows the woman examining everyday objects that surround her—the table, the door, the plant, the toilet, the sofa, etc.—in a deviated manner that ignores the intended use of the objects. In the background, Toshi Ichiyanagi’s music rings out at a monotonous tempo, emphasizing the film’s structure that more closely resembles an assemblage of actions than a clear narrative. All the while, the woman is apparently obsessively haunted by a mnemonic image of a dead man, who she saw lying dead on the road with his head immersed in blood. Toward the end of the film, the music becomes less sharp and dissolves into a mumbling sound, leading into a scene in which the woman places a reversed bicycle wheel in between her legs as a tool for masturbation (fig. 2); as one may suggest, the use of a spinning bicycle wheel is an explicit reference to Marcel Duchamp’s Bicycle Wheel (1913). [1] In the next scene, the woman thrusts her body into a corner, which causes her head to bleed, and she collapses on the floor. A disembodied hand holding a stick suddenly appears from outside of the frame and says “open,” as a command directed at the woman’s closed hands. In the ending scene, a narrator says, “This is the end? Maybe not,” challenging the association of death with an end. 

Figure 2. Still from Why Not: A Serenade of Eschatological Ecology, 1969, 1:23:50

Why Not is an elusive and complex film. Its assembly of unfathomable scenes of objects used in odd manners, a mediation on eroticism induced by the motion of the bicycle wheel, and the imagery of death that opposes the idea of death as a termination of life, underscore the complexity of the film. The film is mostly known through film curator Amos Vogel’s writing in the acclaimed publication Film as a Subversive Art (1974), published four years after Why Not’s screening at the Whitney Museum of American Art in 1970.[2] However, it was when the film screened at the Sogetsu Kaikan Hall, Tokyo, on November 7th, 1969, that it received the most robust critical attention. Arakawa’s sudden turn to filmmaking was unexpected to the Japanese audience and the reaction varied on how to interpret this film.[3] Art critic Junzo Ishiko, who had written widely on topics ranging from art to underground culture, saw a continuity between Why Not and Arakawa’s mid-1960s paintings, while experimental filmmaker Takahiko Iimura, who was well-acquainted with Arakawa as a neighbor in New York, interpreted the film as distinct from the paintings.[4] Several other critics, such as Koichiro Ishizaki and Tasuto Oshima, also wrote in response to the screening.[5]

Why did Arakawa turn to the medium of film? How might we contextualize Why Not along with Arakawa’s earlier body of works? Ishiko’s interpretation outlines Arakawa’s interrogation of illusionism, the relation between humans and objects, and the evocation of eroticism through objects. By using his interpretation as a guide and introducing Arakawa’s own words on the filmic medium, this text will examine Why Not’s relationship to Arakawa’s paintings and seek an answer as to why Arakawa chose film as his medium for Why Not.

On the occasion of creating Why Not, Arakawa wrote an unpublished manuscript titled “On Everything and Film: Why Not” (fig. 3). In the beginning, Arakawa states: “History is a mistake; the sum of actions without revelations, the record of the misappropriation of these by media.”[6] For Arakawa, art was one of the ways to reveal the “mistake” of history. Refusing to identify the film with the concurrent art trends in the late 1960s such as conceptual art, Arakawa explicitly wrote that his usage of film was in tandem with the development of “categories,” or subdivisions, in his ongoing painting series The Mechanism of Meaning (a collaboration with Madeline Gins).[7] The following excerpt from the manuscript indicates that Why Not, as well as The Mechanism of Meaning, was based upon the idea of illusion as a “mistake”:

I use film as one of many means for developing these categories, not as a move away from painting, sculpture or writing, but as a complementary medium for working of ideas. Discussions of how to escape the illusion of pictorial space are childish at best; the problem is to understand the functioning of illusionism or non-illusionistic representation to work with controlled illusion to uncover explanations rather than to avoid or despise these through ignorance.[8]

Figure 3. Arakawa, excerpt from unpublished manuscript, “On Everything and Film: Why Not.” Reversible Destiny Foundation archives

Here, Arakawa importantly notes that the interrogation of illusionism is foundational to his creation of Why Not, which is inseparable from his painting practices of the 1960s. Illusionism, in Arakawa’s sense, is a visual system that directs a relationality in a predetermined way. What Arakawa explored both in film and painting was to debunk such mandated visual system called illusionism.

Similar to Arakawa’s doubt on the system of illusionism, Ishiko’s interpretation of Why Not mirrors Arakawa’s explanation of his use of film as a way to revolt against the system of illusionism. In the following excerpt, Ishiko calls illusionism’s falsity as “fiction (kyoko)” and elaborates its significance in terms of the relationship between the human and objects:

Similar to the moment when the thick barrier of a glass disappears from our perception, while you feel the tropical fish inside the aquarium is “beautiful,” the “fiction” that determines the relationship between object and human withdraws in the live filmed-moving image. Not that the moving image tries to narrate such an issue, but that the experience of “viewing” a two hour and ten minutes live filmed-moving image, becomes the process of dissolving the “fiction.” And then suddenly, the boundless field where humans and objects are able to equivalently cross each other, appears as the act of “seeing” itself. [9]

Later in his text, Ishiko describes illusionism as “the determined relationship in between humans and objects, approached from the side of human.”[10] If, as mentioned above, the act of seeing the film becomes the act of dissolving this relationship in between human and objects, the film’s focus was on the illusionism’s predetermined relationship in between human and objects. Consider the scene of the woman coming into physical contact with a table and a door (figs. 4, 5). Instead of using a table or a door normatively as an everyday tool, the woman focuses on a tactile exploration of the objects, investigating them with her hands and her body. Here, the woman approaches the table or the door not as a utilitarian tool with a pre-determined use, thus creating a commensurate relationship between the human and the objects. In the same vein, we may also reconsider the scene where the woman investigates the bicycle wheel prior to masturbating with it. Through such investigation, the woman and the bicycle wheel are able to blend with one another. A similar instance of human-object equivalence can also be found in the scene where the woman simultaneously massages her breast with one hand and a piece of fruit with the other (fig. 6).

Based on this in-between human and object relationship in Why Not, Ishiko further contemplates on a series of Arakawa’s paintings from 1964–65 in which Arakawa stenciled objects that result in dim yet illuminating shadow-like forms on the canvas. By stenciling the form of an object rather than actually depicting it, Arakawa eschewed the tradition of illusionistic representation. Fully citing Arakawa’s words, Ishiko rephrases that these paintings reconsider illusionism in such a way that, “to think about the illusionism and perspective will be the clue to discover our analysis of memory and the disappearance of objects.”[11] For Ishiko, what these paintings reveal is illusionism’s predetermined relationship created in-between the object and human. Certain scenes in Why Not follow Ishiko’s reference on these paintings very closely, including the one in which the woman mimes drinking from a cup without a cup (fig. 7). Another appears roughly thirty-seven minutes into the film, when the woman is shown sitting on the toilet (fig. 8), while the voiceover states: “I saw a girl in a movie, sitting on a toilet seat eating a peach. She was looking into the bowl.” The narrator provides a detailed description of the relation between humans and objects, in the ways in which we might remember an image. In both scenes, we are made to be aware of how the relationship between humans and object are predetermined, and what Arakawa does in Why Not is to dissolve the relationship by the act of “seeing,” which could be singularly found in the space for filmic medium.

Figure 7. Still from Why Not: A Serenade of Eschatological Ecology, 1969, 00:32:36
Figure 8. Still from Why Not: A Serenade of Eschatological Ecology, 1969, 00:37:17

While further investigating Arakawa’s paintings from the mid-1960s, we find additional hints about his interest and experimentation with film, including loosely transferred images of Muybridge’s studies of motion alongside stenciled objects or sometimes objects themselves collaged on the paintings. In the center of ‘Untitled’ (1964-65; fig. 9) is a wooden board covered with an image-transfer of Muybridge’s studies of motion with a stenciled image of an umbrella layered over it. An actual umbrella penetrated by a funnel sits above this board. The relationship between the funnel, the umbrella, and Muybridge’s motion studies is perplexing, though Arakawa’s description of another painting, quoted by critic Yoshiaki Tono in 1965, provides a hint as to how it might be deciphered. According to Tono, Arakawa once described to him a painting by the name “The Umbrella and Funnel Having Intercourse,”[12] (fig. 10) which derived from the idea “to intersect things what a woman and a man could not ever intersect.”[13] These words imply that funnels and umbrellas symbolize sexual attributes and that ‘Untitled’ is an exploration of the relationship in-between the objects and their states of motion. Even in examples without Muybridge’s images, such as Face of Masturbation (1964; fig. 11), which captures the spinning motion of an indeterminable object, Arakawa demonstrates “motion” as a phenomenon that carries a meaning of sexual intercourse.[14]  Given that movements are inherent to the filmic medium (“motion picture”), using a spinning bicycle wheel as a tool for masturbation in film shows Arakawa’s continued experimentation with “motion” as a representation of eroticism. In other words, Arakawa’s experimentation with objects and motion in his mid-1960s paintings becomes further emphasized in the elongated and concentrated masturbation scene in the filmic form of Why Not. In Film as a Subversive Art, Amos Vogel aptly noted the peculiar eroticism that arises in between the human and object in the film, which compels a reconsideration of the normative representation of eroticism as occurring between humans. As Vogel wrote, Why Not is steeped in a “cold, pervasive eroticism, which, oblique and displaced at first, finally becomes explicit in one of the most bizarre masturbation sequences ever filmed.”[15]

Figure 9. Arakawa, 'Untitled', acrylic, collage on canvas, 1964-65

Junzo Ishiko’s writing testifies to the intricate ways in which Why Not demonstrates Arakawa’s interest in the human-object relationship and in the state of motion, all of which could be traced back to his paintings from 1964–65. Arakawa seems to have turned to film intending to address the issues of illusionism embedded in the relationship in-between human and object. As Arakawa’s placement of objects together with Muybridge’s motion studies in his paintings suggests, Arakawa thought the relationship in-between the human and object, which is predetermined in illusionism, could be dissolved by placing it into the situation of film. Arakawa’s foray into film, then, was inevitable: if, as Ishiko posited, Arakawa sought to “dissolve the ‘fiction (kyoko)’” through the “act of seeing,”[16] the film would have certainly seemed like the most suitable means for such experimentation.

And yet, it is still questionable what exact value Arakawa saw in the filmic medium of Why Not. In the very end of his unpublished manuscript “On Everything and Film: Why Not,” Arakawa reiterates:

At this moment in history which is a mistake what I make is viewed somehow as art. I live best by calling myself an artist. I fit in here now. Of course when things are better, society begins to make sense (or purposeful nonsense) I will fit anywhere and everyone will fit in art. Film is particularly good way to effect this. Why not try. Why not try everything.[17]

With the spinning bicycle wheel, death that is not an end, and dissolving relationships between the human and objects, the film swirls without a closure. Following Arakawa’s words, one could only guess that Arakawa’s swirling experiments in film were made in this spirit of: “Why not. Why not try everything.”[18] 

[1] Duchamp had been a major influence on Arakawa since their encounter in 1962. By using the bicycle wheel as a masturbation tool, it is evident that Arakawa was trying to have dialogues with Duchamp’s sexual conceptions in his works, such as The Bride Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors, Even (The Large Glass), 1915/23.

[2] Before the screening at the Whitney, the film’s private screening was conducted at Virginia Dwan’s apartment in New York, on December 3, 1969.

[3] “Shoumen kara Sei ni torikunda Arakawa Shusaku no Hajimete no Eiga” (“Arakawa’s First Film that Confronts the Theme of Sex”), Bijutsu Techo, no. 322 (January 1970), 143. Why Not’s screening was first planned at the Film Art Festival in 1969, but it was canceled due to the organizer’s internal politics: some of the filmmakers accused the festival for becoming more of an establishment rather than maintaining the underground scene. In the same issue of Bijutsu Techo, Yasunao Tone wrote some of the details of this incident. See more in Yasunao Tone, “Uchinaru Geijutsu no Kachikiban Tadase” (“Revise the Value Base of Inner Art”), Bijutsu Techo, no. 322 (January 1970), 142-143.

[4] Takahiko Iimura, “Arakawa no Why Not ni tuite” (“On Arakawa’s Why Not”), Sogetsu Cinematheque, no. 69 (November 7, 1969), 4-5.

[5] Koichiro Ishizaki, “Dadaisuto no Dento–Arakawa Shusaku no Eiga Why Not” (“Dadaist’s Tradition–Shusaku Arakawa’s Film Why Not”), Eiga Hyoron 27 (January 1970), 50-52; Tasuto Oshima, “Eizou-Chitai ga Umareru Tokoro: Iimura Takahiko to Arakawa Shusaku no Sakuihin wo Mite” (“The Zone Where Moving Image is Born: On Seeing Takahiko Iimura and Shusaku Arakawa’s Work”), Space Design, no. 66 (April 1970), 104-105.

[6] Shusaku Arakawa, “On Everything and Film: Why Not,” unpublished manuscript, c. 1970, Box 2A03, Folder 9, Reversible Destiny Foundation Archives.

[7] In the manuscript, Arakawa wrote that twelve out of nineteen of the categories in The Mechanism of Meaning are explored in Why Not, including “Neutralization of Subjectivity,” “Localization and Transference,” “Presentation of Ambiguous Zones,” “The Energy of Meaning,” and “Degrees of Meaning,” among others.

[8] Shusaku Arakawa, “On Everything and Film: Why Not.”

[9] Junzo Ishiko, “Arakawa Shusaku no Eiga to Geijutsu-Zouhan: Ba ha Baitai de wa nai” (“Shusaku Arakawa’s Film and Art Rebellions: Space is Not a Medium”), Space Design, no.63 (January 1970), 105. All translations are mine.

[10] Ibid.

[11] Ibid. Arakawa’s words originally appear in Yoshiaki Tono’s article “Arakawa Shusaku no Kinsaku” (“Recent Works by Shusaku Arakawa”), in Gendai Bijutsu 2 (February 1965), 8-19. Tono focuses on Arakawa’s paintings in the exhibition Arakawa: Dieagrams, held at the Dwan Gallery Los Angeles in March, 1964.

[12] The full title of this work is As he was somersaulting through the air, he stopped in mid-air and he caught a glimpse of the umbrella and the funnel having intercourse, he saw the umbrella falling down onto the hook which was looking at the comb in the funnel-shaped garden, (1964). 

[13] Yoshiaki Tono, “Arakawa Shusaku no Kinsaku” (“Recent Works by Shusaku Arakawa”), Gendai Bijutsu 2 (February 1965), 19.

[14] Ibid.

[15] Amos Vogel, Film as a Subversive Art (New York: Random House, 1974), 28.

[16] Ishiko, “Arakawa Shusaku no Eiga to Geijutsu-Zouhan: Ba ha Baitai de ha nai” (“Shusaku Arakawa’s Film and Art Rebellions: Space is Not a Medium”), 105.

[17] Shusaku Arakawa, “On Everything and Film: Why Not.”

[18] ibid.


Ambiguous Zones, 14

Dear Friends,

We are pleased to bring you a special edition of Ambiguous Zones, 14,  written by our summer intern, Jlynn Rose, who joins us from Pratt Institute where she is completing a BFA in Fine Arts with a minor in art history and philosophy. In her essay, “WORD RAIN: Poetics of Friction and Conflation,” Jlynn shares her reflections on some of Madeline Gins’s work after reading The Saddest Thing Is That I Have Had to Use Words: A Madeline Gins Reader, edited by Lucy Ives, in the first week of her internship. Taking Ives’s invocation of Adrian Piper in her introduction as a starting point, Jlynn moves on to a rigorous investigation of Gins’s words. 

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

WORD RAIN: Poetics of Friction and Conflation

By Jlynn Rose

In Lucy Ives’s introduction to The Saddest Thing Is That I Have Had to Use Words: A Madeline Gins Reader, edited by Ives and published by siglio in 2020, she draws a parallel between Gins and another conceptual artist, wordsmith, and philosopher, Adrian Piper. Specifically, Ives notes that Piper’s Food for the Spirit (1971), a performance piece and series of fourteen black-and-white self-portraits, is a documentation of the pervasiveness and intrusion of the written word, something Gins is likewise concerned with throughout her work[1]. Piper, secluded one summer in her New York loft, spent her time meditating, fasting, and reading Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason. Entering a dissociative state brought upon by this isolation, Piper sought to retether herself to reality. She set up a camera and tape recorder near her mirror to photograph her body and record herself reciting key sections of the text—the physical form concretely rendered as it processes ideas external to it. She did this sporadically, whenever she felt the need to regain immediacy with herself. Piper evinces the desire for transcendence through thought, juxtaposed with anxiety about the body’s displacement or relegation. There is a difficulty in reconciling our physical form with the exaltation of words, the promise of a priori knowledge. The self, inextricable from objecthood and the exigencies of a fluctuating life and body, remains tethered to the external world through sensation, inhibiting the ascent implied on the page.

Poignantly revealed in Ives’s comparison is how Piper and Gins both collapse differentiations of body, self, medium, and messaging. Critique of categorical frameworks is quintessential of postmodern art and theory. Conceptualism signaled the primacy of the idea, philosophy, or sociopolitical imperative behind an artist’s work. This meant that to be bound by medium, conventional modes, and forms for an art object, was to limit intellectual expression. Thus, artists increasingly worked irrespective of formal concerns. Likewise, a critique of the arbitrariness of signifiers along with a visual culture of readymade images, simulacra, is a common sentiment in postmodern thought and media theory. But unlike philosophers and theorists who in some sense rely on the tools and frameworks they critique, Piper and Gins express and embody this criticism through their creative practices. A threat to stable boundaries is both the content of their work and their mode of expression. Working in this way, they not only render our condition tangible but suggest alternatives by lingering in ambiguous zones. Case in point: Piper took a series of photographs documenting a performance she did in solitude, a bodily response to a written philosophical treatise—a collision of means of expression, private experience, and shared cultural objects. There is no catharsis from authorial control and resolution. Written language imbricates mental space, which tapers off into the physical space of the body. In this submersion in language, with ideas detached from the identity of both authors, internal and external worlds come crashing into each other. Is this transmission invasion?

Because Piper’s piece is a response to a written work, we may ask how Gins manages to address similar themes as an author, from within the book itself. Linguistic intrusion vividly rears its head in WORD RAIN (or A Discursive Introduction to the Intimate Philosophical Investigations of G,R,E,T,A, G,A,R,B,O, It Says), 1969, in which it is a force, distraction, and variable atmosphere.[2] There is of course tension and potential violence in the extraction-exchange of subjects. Verbal language is a time-based medium—it is a site that necessitates reaction, reciprocity, and mutual contexts. The written word to some extent allows the author to escape the opposition inherent in verbal language. Text imposes itself without a body or voice and creates a difference in time and space to that of the recipient: it is a medium of disembodiment and disassociation. But, as Marshall McLuhan would have it, media are ultimately derivative of each other—the content of writing is speech and the content of printed text is writing.[3] Thus, the pristine, airtight cohesion of text, sound, and symbol translated to code, masks the author’s desire for reception.

The mise en abyme inner cover of the book by Madeline Gins, WORD RAIN (or A Discursive Introduction to the Intimate Philosophical Investigations of G,R,E,T,A, G,A,R,B,O, It Says). New York: Grossman Publishers, Inc., 1969.

Gins does not assume the authority a printed voice would usually imply. Some pages of WORD RAIN read vaguely like varying executions of a script of a happening: there are recurring story elements (like a package delivered or a birthday party taking place in the next room), as well as actors who roam around the narrative, perhaps entangled in its grasping/gasping. Gins also persistently describes the author as she sits in front of the page, including her moods, her appetite, and the positioning of her body—a kinesthetic, draining depiction of the writing process. The page is not an empty, pure receptacle, but an object subject to whim, fatigue, and interruption within the reach of other (microphytic) agents. Thus, language takes the form of weather: naturally occurring, constant yet non-binding, formative yet fleeting. Linguistic expression is an extension of consciousness and therefore of the body in situ—the aforementioned mind-body dichotomy is reiterated in these scenes but also subsumed through the creative process: “I am warmer than paper. I can hold more words. My erasures can be made to reappear. Words need not merely press themselves parallel to me; any angle of entrance is acceptable and useful”[4]. Words move in and out of the body and vice versa, like breathing. Permeable to exterior influences and the mundanities of physical reality, it is rather different than a language abstracted from the site that created it and is exacting enough to write philosophical treatises or political manifestos.

Flux threatens the stasis of the written world created by Gins. Despite this, we can perhaps still sense her desire to assert authorial control. Perhaps the most arresting passages are the ones in which the reader is directly addressed. The author is cognizant of the need for a recipient. Her work, abstracted and contained within the book, must be re-activated through reading. Gins plays on the fact that the activity in the reader’s mind is orchestrated by the author, yet at any time, the reader can withdraw, denying transmission:

In this case a good idea which I have given you is to do the opposite of what I say in spite of yourself: please don’t touch the book and no kissing. Think of others before you think of yourself. Don’t think of your family and the danger they are in at every moment. This is not the place for that. Perhaps the best way you could help me now would be to disappear. Vanish. Don’t read the next paragraph on this page. Forget that you have ever seen this book. Scream for every word you will not see. Perceive nothing. Lose track of me. Kill me. And I hope that I am assured that you will not read between the lines.[5]

The author seems to resent her dependency. If the need for reciprocity is this visceral, what is the function of additional barriers? She seeks the other through metaphors and literary devices, a word instead of sound and a symbol in place of a look. Perhaps the otherness posited by books, art objects, and their expressive devices creates an unresolved space in which both subjectivities are negated enough so as to have the necessary distance for seeing. The published work seeks expression and recognition outside of intimacies, through and to foreign subjects. So while the author is capable of speaking to the reader, she makes use of a character, an unnamed “she”, to mediate:

I appear on a page which would otherwise be blank. I, the mist, the agent, she, appear to swoop you and stratify you, circle you, and synthesize, just as I do now in this short paragraph into which I have fallen. I am not telling you but you are thinking that the two pages between which I fall were made by me in her for you to see you against the same word rain, through the mist, against different patterns of breath, similar but different accents to your attention. I have taught her how to make this special ruler by which you can measure yourself. In order to make the words move, you must give your attention to them. Notice I am gone.[6]

A spread from WORD RAIN. The reader’s hand makes an appearance, but this self-recognition obstructs reading the text.

The author’s influence only exists through obscuring itself, creating a mist of meaning and recognition. If we see ourselves in the character or the character of a word, we come to know the author via extrapolation. Full disclosure would be not only too easy but ineffective. Distances emerge so we may imagine surmounting them. There is a creative value we assign to “mist”-ifying ourselves, for through abstraction between objects (body to book) and subjects (lived, subjective experience to shared language) the author gives the reader a way in via self-denial. If the work was just that, excess positivity of the self, the self consuming itself in production, it would be an art that caves in on itself. The familiar yet ambiguous presence of the symbol serves to unveil parallels between experiences. This is the intimacy and dedication within the site of artistic encounters: “I am thinking of you. I must always think of you and scribble in your outline. I write you. I read you. And it seems furthermore that I must read and write for you.” [7]

Authorship and the desire for the reader bring up another site of conflation: between externality and internality. The author or artist makes things to be encountered by those who exist beyond the scope of their life. The internalization of words, the lingering remnants of the other’s expression, makes them a part of our private selves. Translation through channels of a medium becomes appropriation by and into subjectivity. But is the delayed message of the other, particularly that of an author or artist one has never met, “more” private and inner than the happenings of life, inhabited space, the living body of perceptions, and the flux of one’s time? Is the exteriority of the physical world further than a nearby, resonant phrase? It seems that “internal” is merely something we shift our perspective towards. What we find, then, is that internality and externality imply not merely opposite spatial configurations, but relative, subjective understandings of distances, familiarity, and ownership: a question of what, through seeing and perception, paradoxically becomes an extension of the body. An intimacy exists in a recircuited thought, even if the reader created it through yearning for that which threatens to elude them. Gins expresses the literary voices she herself has internalized by quoting the likes of Woolf, Beckett, Dostoevsky, Stein, Sartre, Nabokov, and Minnie Mouse. These excerpts form a rich network, originating externally yet presented in the bound object with echoes of the author’s fingertips. Gins knows that she must be admitted into the reader’s internal space and that she can only do so by writing a message that will linger: “The paragraph which you are about to read has never been written. You are writing it now. I will write you. I will telephone you. I will ring your doorbell. I am not finished with you. I will answer for you.” [8]

To suggest boundaries, to draw a line or write a word, is to declare an existence of at least two separate entities, to render an opposition and make it legible. But to contradict or reverse a boundary is in itself creative. Gins lists “temporary” definitions of words and uses them to constitute a paragraph. Then, she makes an opposing list, canceling what she envisioned on the previous page. She also uses neologisms, fragments, and rearrangements. This is not merely to negate language as function but also to resist the rigid dichotomies and ontologies only felt in binaries. To halt the original trajectory of words through conflating opposites is to carve new routes.

Reversibility thus describes either the condition in which meaning, content, and distinction collapse, or alternatively, it is the poetic unveiling of new meanings. It becomes transformative in Gins’s hand and in the reader’s engagement, an exchange outside well-weathered channels. If language were a transparent medium, we could rely on its direct cohesion to reality. But it is in fact a filter sifting all it touches. The tensile condition of language posits that we keep searching for the other within it, despite and because of its opaque haze. Negation of the self becomes liberation from determinism, not only of language but of a confining subjectivity as well. The author’s transformative destruction would not be so without her concern, desire, and care for the reader: “I feel I am ready to talk now. You are talking. I cannot prove that I (you) am reading. Is there enough space for you?”[9]

The illustration on the back endpaper of WORD RAIN. A list of words used throughout the book connect to a black rectangle, then back, forming a rich network. Writing, rather than moving in a single intended direction, recoils and is mirrored back to its source.

[1] Lucy Ives, “EVERYTHING I RECEIVE WILL BECOME PART OF A NOVEL: An Introduction to the Work of Madeline Gins,” in The Saddest Thing Is That I Have Had to Use Words: A Madeline Gins Reader, ed. Lucy Ives (Catskill, NY: Siglio, 2020), 25.

[2] Madeline Gins’s WORD RAIN (or A Discursive Introduction to the Intimate Philosophical Investigations of G,R,E,T,A, G,A,R,B,O, It Says) was originally published by Grossman Publishers, New York in 1969 and is reproduced in facsimile in its entirety in The Saddest Thing Is That I Have Had to Use Words: A Madeline Gins Reader, 78–213.

[3] Marshall McLuhan, Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man, [Critical Edition], ed. Terrence Gordon (Berkeley, CA: Gingko Press, 2015), 19.

[4] The Saddest Thing Is That I Have Had to Use Words: A Madeline Gins Reader, 152.

[5] A Madeline Gins Reader, 144.

[6] A Madeline Gins Reader, 140.

[7] A Madeline Gins Reader, 92.

[8] A Madeline Gins Reader, 206.

[9] A Madeline Gins Reader, 206.


Ambiguous Zones, 13

Dear Friends,

In Ambiguous Zones 13, RDF’s project archivist, Kathryn Dennett, delves into the story behind a mysterious find in an archival box: a Lincoln Center playbill from May 1979…mentioning Arakawa. This playbill was for an evening performance by composer Edvard Lieber that included a composition entitled “Neither Arakawa Nor Jasper Johns Are Each Other.” Taking this intriguing piece as her starting point, Kathryn outlines Lieber’s career, highlighting a second piece inspired by Arakawa’s work, in this case, Blank Stations II, 1982, performed at the Wadsworth Atheneum in Hartford. 

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


*Ambiguous Zones has now moved to a quarterly schedule. We’ll be sharing AZ content with you every three months and any important news updates as they arise!*

Figure 1. From “Lincoln Center Playbill from Edvard Lieber program including ‘Neither Arakawa Nor Jasper Johns Are Each Other,’” 124 W Houston Documents, Box 4N14, Folder 50, Reversible Destiny Archives.

As the archivist at the Reversible Destiny Foundation, I am familiar with a variety of types of sources: poem drafts, preliminary sketches for paintings, scientific research articles, digital renderings of architectural projects, and many other traces of the multifaceted artistic practices of Arakawa and Madeline Gins, but I have never found any evidence of the pair as composers. Accordingly, I was surprised to come across a playbill from the Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts in a folder labeled “copies of press,” which mainly included reviews of Arakawa exhibitions from the 1960s.

The playbill from May 1979 documented a night of music by the composer Edvard Lieber,[1] including a composition entitled “Neither Arakawa Nor Jasper Johns Are Each Other.” We have a few pieces of scattered correspondence from both Johns and Lieber in our collection that point towards their shared membership in the downtown New York City contemporary art scene of the period (fig. 2). Among these items, there is a Christmas card from Lieber to Arakawa featuring a drawing similar to the visual included in the Lincoln Center playbill. So far, I have yet to find any record in our archive of how this piece came to be and what collaboration, if any, there was between the composer and his titular subjects. The two artists did, however, each contribute a work that was incorporated into the poster for the evening, a copy of which is now in the Library of Congress collection.[2]

Figure 2. Holiday card to Arakawa from Edward Lieber, 124 W Houston Documents, Box 1A07, Folder 4, Reversible Destiny Archives.

Unable to find a recording of the piece itself, I was left to imagine the performance based on descriptions from the time. In Lieber’s program notes, he summarizes the work as follows:


[a] chamber opera exploring connectivity vs. paradox, sound collision, elimination of established reference points, physical fact vs. psychic effect, form as a closed object, ready-mades (canned laughter, Marcel Duchamp, pieces of the Long Island Expressway, etc.), multiplicity vs. heterogeneity, and investigation into process.[3]

While conceptually rich, this synopsis is not much help in determining what this would have sounded like. Thankfully, the critic John Rockwell reviewed the evening, not particularly positively,  in the New York Times. The article, despite the writer’s misgivings, gives us a clearer picture of the composition: “26 performers alternately speaking, hissing, chanting, moaning, singing, playing percussion and other instruments or manipulating cassette recorders.” Rockwell does admit that the resulting piece held a “dim allure” reminiscent of earlier avant-garde works of choral composition from the 1960s.[4]

I could now imagine a crowded stage, and, while I could not quite imagine what sound these disparate sources would come together to create, having not listened to much 1960s avant-garde choral music, I was starting to see possible connections between Arakawa’s art and artistic practice and Lieber’s composition. As Helen A. Harrison pointed out in a 1979 article in the Times about Lieber’s work when it debuted on his native Long Island, visual art inspired by music is much more common than the opposite approach, at least stated as explicitly as Lieber does. He explained that he did not approach the process as a literal translation; rather, he based his works “less on the visual impact of the canvases and more on their suggestive qualities.”[5] By creating music based on his subjective experience of paintings, Lieber was externalizing the process that takes place in the brains of many viewers of art. A process that, at the time, was relevant to Arakawa’s work, particularly in regard to the Mechanism of Meaning and other diagram paintings meant to externalize the process of how cognition, imagination, and other internal processes take place.

With this intriguing echo in mind, I went searching for more information about Lieber, given the relative lack of traces he left in our archive. A concert pianist in addition to a composer and filmmaker, Lieber would go on to compose extensively in relation to the work of Willem de Kooning, publishing both a book and CD, Willem de Kooning: Reflections in the Studio. Lieber later worked for de Kooning as a secretary and curator in the late 1980s.[6] An early work in this vein, entitled “Montauk”, was presented immediately preceding “Neither Arakawa Nor Jasper Johns[…].” Lieber told Harrison that when putting together a program of his art inspired pieces, he “arranged them in the way you hang paintings in an exhibition. You have to keep moving them around and see which go best together.”[7]

One can then think of “Neither Arakawa Nor Jasper Johns[…]” as a kind of dual exhibition. Crafting a composition suggested by the qualities in paintings by both Arakawa and Jasper Johns, while making the clear distinction, in the title at least, between the sounds their works evoke to Lieber’s ear.

In addition to the Times articles from 1979, my research turned up a 1982 exhibition pamphlet from the Wadsworth Atheneum Matrix ‘72 Arakawa show that includes an announcement that Lieber will be performing a “new piece inspired by Arakawa’s Blank Stations II” in conjunction with the show.[8]

Figure 3. Arakawa, Blank Stations II, 1981-82. Acrylic on canvas (6 parts), 305x1284cm. Collection of Museum of Contemporary Art Tokyo.

In the pamphlet, Danielle Rice, the Wadsworth’s Curator of Education at the time,  wrote that Arakawa’s paintings demonstrated his awareness “of the shortcomings of language and language based thought. Since his arrival in the United States in 1961 he has been attempting to map the thinking field, as he came to call it, by combining words, numbers, lines, shapes and colors in his works.”[9]  This intrigued me about Lieber’s choice of the work in question, which Rice goes on to describe as “[t]oo large ever to be encompassed in one glance, a work like Blank Stations II requires that we allow our eyes to drift over the surface, picking up images at random while we slowly decipher the written message,” a process she describes as a kind of “meditation.”[10] Although, unfortunately, I was also unable to find a recording of this piece, I was left wondering if Lieber’s piece in response to this painting could be described as his own meditation, a document of his response to Arakawa’s invitation to contemplation.

This is where I find the most interesting similarity between Lieber’s work and Arakawa and Madeline Gins’s project at this time, though at first glance, or to a traditionally trained eye (like a music critic from the New York Times) the end results can appear chaotic—clanging bells and manipulated tape recorders or arrows and seemingly impossible directions—both Lieber and Arakawa and Gins are working to use their own mediums to express something that language does not quite capture.

In the end, I came out of my research rabbit hole with more questions than I began with, but that is often the case with archives. We are left with intriguing traces of history that point to the gaps in our collections and our understanding, but my work of cataloging and describing our seeming chaos is ongoing, and I hope to find, if not more answers, more interesting questions as I carry on.

[1] Referred to elsewhere as both Edward and Eduard Lieber, I have chosen to go with the name on the playbill and Lieber’s published book.

[2] “Edvard Lieber.” 1979. 2004.

[3] Lieber, Edvard. “Neither Arakawa Nor Jasper Johns Are Each Other.” Program for Edvard Lieber’s Three World Premiers at Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts, New York. Playbill, May 1979.

[4] Rockwell, John. “Music: By Eduard Lieber.” New York Times (New York), May 10, 1979.

[5] Harrison, Helen A. “The Lively Arts: De Kooning’s Art Inspires Composer.” New York Times (New York), March 18, 979.

[6] Lieber, Edvard and Willem De Kooning. 2000. Willem De Kooning: Reflections in the Studio. New York: H.N. Abrams.

[7] Harrison, 979.

[8] Arakawa: Matrix 72. 1982. Hartford: Wadsworth Atheneum.

[9] Rice, Danielle. “Arakawa.” In Arakawa: Matrix 72. 1982. Hartford: Wadsworth Atheneum., 2.

[10] Rice, 4.

Top image: Cover of Lincoln Center Playbill, May 1979, 124 W Houston Documents, Box 4N14, Folder 50, Reversible Destiny Archives. 


Ambiguous Zones, 12

Dear Friends,

The new year brings with it the twelfth edition of our Ambiguous Zones newsletter, written by guest author Chaeeun Lee who thoughtfully considers Arakawa and Madeline Gins’s concept of Blank. Chaeeun is a PhD Candidate in Art History at CUNY Graduate Center and a research intern at the Reversible Destiny Foundation. She is writing her dissertation on the politics of abstraction and aesthetics in the work of Asian American and Asian immigrant artists during the 1960s and the 1970s, exploring the ways in which their work problematized the established norms of racial, cultural, and gender identification in search of alternative constructions of the self and the world.  Chaeeun’s beautiful essay offers readers an accessible introduction to Blank that serves as a novel way to meditate on seasonal themes of fresh starts and shifting perspectives.

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


by Chaeeun Lee

Figure 1. Arakawa, Study for “Shifting Blank,” 1979. Acrylic and graphite on lithograph and paper, 42 1/2 x 59 7/8 in. (108 x 152.1 cm).

In Arakawa’s Study for “Shifting Blank,” a legion of tiny arrows forms layers of swirling patterns that fill the entirety of the canvas. In the background is a diagram of a city map, overlaid with a block of text on a neutral-toned ground (fig. 1). The work is part of a body of drawings and paintings created circa 1980 that drew on the term Blank, which began to appear frequently in Arakawa and Gins’s work starting in the mid-1970s. Contrary to the term’s implication of absence, the multidirectional arrows seem to indicate an abundance of movement and energy that overflows the boundaries of the city, rendering their Blank paradoxically full.

Figure 2. Arakawa, Blank, 1968. Acrylic, graphite and art marker on graph paper, 34 x 26 in. (86.4 x 66 cm).

The history of Arakawa and Madeline Gins’s engagement with Blank may be traced to the 1960s, evidencing the centrality of this concept to their broader artistic and intellectual journey. A drawing by Arakawa titled Blank (1968) presents the viewer with two blank check boxes labeled “YES” and “NO” along with an unexpectedly simple question that debunks the pretense of objectivity in art appreciation, “Do you like this painting?” (fig. 2). In the spring of the following year, Arakawa and Gins participated in “Street Works,” a series of happenings by artists and poets convened by Vito Acconci and Bernadette Mayer. During the event, Gins handed out to passersby a questionnaire full of blanks to be filled in and mailed back to her, which would become part of “a group novel” that would explore “the nature of consciousness”[1] (fig. 3). What at first sight looks like an ordinary questionnaire asking for the responder’s name and age quickly reveals itself as a series of provocations that compel radically unorthodox manners of self-reflection. Midway through the text reads:

I move according to ____________________________. I am composed of ____________________________ and _________________. This falls into _____ parts. The heaviest part to move is ______________.

I felt my thoughts to physically be in (out) ___________________________ (Be Specific). The material of which they are made is _________________ which operates ___________________________.

Here, the blanks stir up an inquisitive attitude directed toward our existence and functioning as humans, which we are habituated to perceive as given or unknowable: What moves us (physically or emotionally)? What are we made up of (biologically or spiritually)? Where do our thoughts reside, and how do we feel their presence? The open-ended nature of the blanks and the unconventional angle of approach evidenced by Gins’s sentence fragments invite a myriad of creative answers to these questions, a good example of which is the whimsical, somewhat comical, response she received from Robert Cordier (fig. 3). In these early experiments by Arakawa and Gins, blanks appear literally as unmarked boxes or holes in sentences that are constituent parts of their works. Urging the audience’s response yet not so easy to fill in, the blanks function as a questioning device in the manner of the interactive, game-like panels in The Mechanism of Meaning (1963-71), which was at the time a work-in-progress.[2]

Figure 3. Madeline Gins, Untitled, connected to the Street Works edition of 0 TO 9, edited by Vito Acconci and Bernadette Mayer, 1969, mailed-back response by Robert Cordier, typescript, 1969, Box 2A05, Folder 2, Reversible Destiny Foundation Archives.

Between 1973 and 1980, Arakawa and Gins’s inquiry into the Blank sharpened through a compound word “point-blank.” In Arakawa’s 1973–74 painting Point Blank, densely arrayed beams emanate from six cylindrical forms[3] located along the sides of the canvas, rendered in primary colors and in grayscale (fig. 4). Behind the intersecting lines that spread through the entire field, the following text is stenciled in white: “POINT BLANK: / DISTANCE OF FOCUS, / HOW ANONYMOUS IS / THIS DISTANCE / WHICH IS A TEXTURE.” As is the case with many of the couple’s invented aphorisms, the meaning of the text is not instantly decipherable. Yet what is clear in its repeated invocation of the distance of point-blank is an interest in challenging the perceived immediacy associated with the term—what mysteries and complexities might lie in the space between the main actor and the target, no matter how close they seem to be? This is further confirmed in the preface to the 1979 edition of The Mechanism of Meaning, in which Arakawa and Gins clarify their aims to investigate “what takes place . . . when anything is ‘thought through.’”[4] “What is emitted point-blank at a moment of thought, anyway?” ask the artists, seeking to scrutinize the seemingly instantaneous mental process we call “thinking.”[5]

Figure 4. Arakawa, Point Blank, 1973–74. Acrylic and maker pen on canvas, 48 x 70 in. (121.9 x 177.8 cm).

An unpublished sketch by Arakawa evinces that his focus was already moving on to the concept of “blank” itself by 1975 (fig. 5). On both the front and back of the paper, Arakawa drew spinning conical forms from which numerous lines extend out, a variation, it seems, on the cylinders from Point Blank (1973–74). Underneath one of the drawings he scribbled the following: “Who is sending blank?!! / Mystery which comes through clarification / Lines cannot contain moment of representation / Possibility of experience.” In some of his later works, such as Distance of Forming/Model by Model/The (1978–79) and Voice Drinker / The Artificial Given (1978–79), Arakawa implemented the motif of spinning cones in a more complex form while raising the question of “who” in a still enigmatic manner (a line from the stenciled text goes “BOTH SENDERS AND RECEIVERS CONFIGURATIONAL COVERINGS . . . ”) (fig. 6). Moreover, his notes provide a glimpse of the continuity in his conceptualization of Blank—that Blank is what is uncharted (mysterious) and filled with possibilities, and that knowing this unknowability is itself a form of enlightenment (clarification).

Figure 5. Arakawa, Unidentified (Who is sending Blank?!!), 1975. Pencil on paper, 13 1/2 x 21 in. (34.3 x 53.3 cm).
Figure 6. Arakawa, VOICE DRINKER / THE ARTIFICIAL GIVEN, 1978–79. Acrylic on canvas, 72 13/16 x 120 1/16 in. (185 x 305 cm).

One of the major documents on Blank in its mature stage of development is the 252nd issue of Derrière le Miroir (1982), the French art magazine founded by gallerist Aimé Maeght. Published on the occasion of Arakawa’s solo show at Galerie Maeght, the issue contains a short text by Arakawa and Gins titled “Properties of Blank” along with nine full-page reproductions of Arakawa’s recent paintings and drawings. A sort of treatise on Blank, the text seeks to explicate the concept, describing it as an “area” or “activities” therein that are “non-activated,” “unspecified,” and “capable of behaving in many different ways at once,” and are integral to our subjectivity as a “neutralizing” or “changing” force.[6] In other words, Blank is an open-ended sphere of activity that is already part of us, which has a potential to upturn what we perceive as given ways of thinking, feeling, and acting. As such, Blank is distinguished from any implication of nonbeing, as the authors make it clear through a series of comparative exercises.

Void, Nothingness, Emptiness, Tabula Rasa, Vacuum. None of these quite covers what we wish to point out by the notion “Blank.”

First of all, Blank is above all a neutral positing—in the sense of a holding open; it is what is there but undifferentiated, so it is not nothing; it can accumulate: it is not void. It probably has its own laws of operation, so it, itself, is not a “tabula rasa.” It is what fills Emptiness. It may draw upon or feed whatever it is the vacuum is but is not identical with it.[7]

Interestingly, the text is followed by a string of excerpts from a variety of thinkers, writers, and scholars from across time and regions, ranging from Aristotle to Laozi, and from Swami Nikhilananda (a Hindu spiritual leader) to Edwin Boring (an American psychologist). They amount to a total of 32 authors with 47 excerpts, attesting to the breadth of readings Arakawa and Gins had immersed themselves in over the course of their ongoing research. Reading these excerpted texts closely, it becomes apparent that they speak similarly of human consciousness, sensory perception, cognitive process, and language, particularly from the point of view of a skeptic. They question the reliability of the mind’s operation (“Thus that in the soul which is called mind . . . is, before it thinks, not actually any real thing. – Aristotle”); explore counterintuitively the activity of non-activity (“Tao never does; Yet through it all things are done. – Tao Tê Ching”); and pursue alternative approaches to understanding human consciousness (“Whatever conscious content can be easily reported is focal and available to introspection. What cannot be reported at all is unconscious. Is there some intermediate level, some marginal zone? – Edwin Boring”).[8]

Compiling these quotes from a range of sources, Arakawa and Gins have created a transdisciplinary, transhistorical, and transcultural archive of thoughts around their concept of Blank. By inserting their own contribution into this archive, they stake out a position for themselves within the framework of this global collective intellectual pursuit. It is my suggestion that this archive is in a way enacting “forming Blank,” in that its transdisciplinarity, transhistoricism, and transculturalism counteract—“neutralize”—the normative methods of categorizing and interpreting knowledge. Against the modern era’s prevailing tendency to compartmentalize and classify according to a linear sense of time and space, their collection of ideas is mixed together almost haphazardly, without a clear organizational scheme, allowing unexpected similarities and resonances to emerge amongst them. The boundaries that tend to structure our ways of thinking, such as between art and science, between the ancient and the modern, and between what is considered the “East” and the “West” become obscured, and we encounter the thought fragments openly as being “there but undifferentiated.”

The transculturalism of this archive is particularly noteworthy given how their exploration of Blank risked being misunderstood as a manifestation of Arakawa’s “Asianness.”[9] While the element of culture seldom appeared as an explicit subject in their work, there is sufficient evidence that they were keenly aware of and critically responding to the cultural essentialism surrounding artists of Asian descent.[10] The following remark by Gins in an email exchange with Martin E. Rosenberg encapsulates this point.

[Nicolas Calas] became upset and annoyed when Arakawa started discussing and evoking blank on his canvases. “It will hurt your trajectory as an artist to do so. People will toss you back into the oriental pile. They will cease admiring you as a critical artist.” Although Arakawa, who loved Nicolas Calas and respected his judgment, admitted the grave danger he faced, he went on writing about and painting blank. His blank was, in any event, a critical blank.[11]

The collection of excerpts demonstrates that despite this “grave danger,” Arakawa and Gins not only kept on working with Blank but also continued to evoke the voices of Asian thinkers and masters. Instead of categorically rejecting sources from Asia, which would have inadvertently confirmed the view of Asia’s “otherness” (i.e. its incompatibility with “critical art”), this gathering of ideas affirms their place in this transcultural dialogue while subverting the very binarism of “East” and “West.”

From blank check boxes and a questionnaire to conceptual explorations of “point-blank” and of Blank itself, Arakawa and Gins’s attempt to explicate and materialize Blankness took various forms. In the course of these endeavors, they methodically questioned diverse aspects of reality that one tends to take as givens, including the construction and operation of our body, taste, and mind, and the ways we classify culture and knowledge. Instead, they envisioned Blank as a neutral and open state full of not-yet-concretized energies and possibilities, like the swarming arrows that keep on moving in all directions, permeating our existence in space-time. In this sense, perhaps Blank is a concept farthest away from the condition of absence or lack that we tend to associate with the term. In their work as well as in our daily lives, if we train our senses enough for it, we might recognize Blank to be, in Gins’s words, “loudly there and shifting about and tumbling into view.”[12]

[1] See Lucy Ives, “EVERYTHING I RECEIVE WILL BECOME PART OF A NOVEL: An Introduction to the Work of Madeline Gins,” in The Saddest Thing Is That I Have Had to Use Words: A Madeline Gins Reader, ed. Lucy Ives (Hudson River Valley, NY: Siglio, 2020), 12–15.

[2] This “fill-in-the-blanks” type of question continues to be utilized in Madeline Gins’s later work, sometimes with an explicit reference to the concept of Blank. One example begins with a sentence “Feeling blank is __________.” See Gins, What the President Will Say and Do!! (Barrytown, NY: Station Hill, 1984), 118.

[3] While the two furthest back shapes may not immediately read as cylinders, I am interpreting them to be a set of perfectly angled frontal renditions of the same cylindrical forms as the others.

[4] Arakawa and Madeline Gins, preface to The Mechanism of Meaning: Work in Progress (1963–1971, 1978) Based on the Method of Arakawa (New York: Harry N. Abrams, Inc., 1979), n.p.

[5] Ibid.

[6] The issue was published in French and English. Arakawa and Madeline Gins, “Properties of Blank,” in Derrière le Miroir No. 252 (Paris: Galerie Maeght, 1982), n.p.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Ibid.

[9] The question of where and in what form does “Asianness” play a role, if any, in the production and reception of Arakawa and Gins’s work is an interesting one that merits further investigation. If Arakawa was prone to being (mis)taken as representing something of Japan or Asia (whatever that might be) on the basis of his ancestry and biography, Arakawa used to say Gins is “more oriental” than him, referring to her deeper intellectual engagement with Asian philosophical traditions. This quote by Arakawa can be found in Paul Gardner, “ARAKAWA: ‘I am looking for a new definition of perfection,’” Artnews 79, no. 5 (May 1980): 64.

[10] See, for example, Helen Keller and Arakawa, especially Chapter 6 “I to I or East to East,” and Chapter 26 “The March of the Transitive.” Madeline Gins, Helen Keller or Arakawa (Santa Fe, NM; New York: Burning Books with East-West Cultural Studies, 1994).

[11] Madeline Gins in Martin E. Rosenberg, “An Interview with Arakawa and Gins: February 10, 25; March 12, 2010,” 9. The interview was conducted as part of the Ag3 Online: The Third International Arakawa and Gins: Philosophy and Architecture Conference, which is archived on the Reversible Destiny Foundation’s website.

[12] Ibid.

Top image: Portrait of Arakawa and Madeline Gins in the studio at 124 W Houston St.


Ambiguous Zones, 11

Dear Friends,

For Ambiguous Zones 11, we are pleased to introduce guest author Keenan Jay, who wrote an insightful essay on Arakawa’s solo exhibition of mainly coffin works at the Zuni Gallery in Buffalo, NY, in March of 1964. Jay is a researcher of modern and contemporary art with an interest in diasporic art and the neo-avant-garde. He was a 2021 research fellow with PoNJA-GenKon and Asia Art Archive in America and has recently presented at the annual conference of the Association for Asian American Studies among others. He has been conducting a series of oral history interviews on Montez Press Radio since 2019.

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

Figure 1. Container of Sand (1958-59), an example of a coffin work made in Tokyo. Photograph by Masataka Nakano.

In a January 1967 Artforum article, critic Yoshiaki Tono recalls his surprise at a new group of artists who had appeared in Tokyo during the late 1950s. He frames these artists, who called their collective Neo Dada (initially the Neo Dadaism Organizers), through their formative postwar upbringing, writing that “they desired an art which could respond more directly . . . to the chaotic realities of the world they knew.”[1] This world was that of Japan during reconstruction, a world trying to come to terms with its wartime imperialism against a backdrop of leveled cities and widespread famine. More recently, it was the world of the ensuing development and consumerism that had turned “the teeming city of Tokyo” into an “immense junk-yard”[2] and of the Anpo treaty’s re-signing, which would establish Japan’s Cold War role despite popular protests against it. Given that the works of Neo Dada were inextricable from these circumstances, Tono argued that the group’s activities should be understood primarily in sociological terms.

Figure 2. Installation shot from 1964 Zuni exhibition, photograph by Sherwin Greenberg Studio, Inc.

With regard to one of the group’s members, Shusaku Arakawa, Tono goes on to observe in the artist’s work an “obsession with death and nothingness,” reflecting the sensibilities of the “post-Hiroshima generation.”[3] Tono felt this was particularly true of Arakawa’s coffin-like sculptures, perhaps Arakawa’s best-known works outside of his diagrammatic paintings and architectural projects with Madeline Gins. These ominous boxes confronted the viewer with proportions suggestive of the human figures, requiring the viewer to remove the lids to reveal the biomorphic and mutant masses contained inside (fig. 1). Made primarily of cement and cotton, Arakawa also sometimes embedded objects from Tokyo’s industrial refuse into these compositions. However, he typically used such discarded objects sparingly, turning their original use-values alien through their isolated appropriation.

Tono then moves on to a discussion of Arakawa’s immigration to New York in 1961 and, jumping to 1963, his abandonment of the coffin works in favor of the diagrammatic paintings with which he would establish his reputation internationally. 1963 saw Arakawa’s first Galerie Schmela exhibition in Düsseldorf and the beginning of his collaboration with Madeline Gins on The Mechanism of Meaning, with his work at this time employing diagrammatic and informational visual languages that departed from his sculptural practice. By Tono’s condensed account, it would therefore indeed seem that “Arakawa left his boxes in Japan” as has since been commonly assumed.[4]

In the years immediately following Arakawa’s move to New York, however, he not only continued to produce new coffin works but also substantially developed their materials and forms. An exhibition at Zuni Gallery in Buffalo, NY, showcases the culmination of this brief but compelling period (figs. 2-5).

An unpretentious gallery in a basement in Buffalo, New York, artists Ben Perrone and Adele Cohen started Zuni in 1963 and operated it for two years with Arakawa’s solo presentation occurring in March of 1964. At first glance, the works in the show are familiar: the coffin-like sculptures that gained Arakawa notoriety in Tokyo populate the space and are interspersed with diagrammatic drawings that evoke his painterly output in New York. Yet we soon notice a difference in these coffin works, with their unusual mechanical parts conjuring an image of reanimation rather than the mortuary stillness of their predecessors. The Zuni exhibition therefore reveals a distinct period within Arakawa’s already established body of coffin works that has gone relatively unstudied, marked by an increased complexity and modification via mechanical apparatuses.

The Zuni show had been coordinated by Bill Dorr, whom Perrone described to the Reversible Destiny Foundation as “somewhat of an entrepreneur in the arts.”[5] Dorr also helped organize a group exhibition a few months prior to Arakawa’s solo show, featuring Arakawa, Ay-O, Masunobu Yoshimura (another central Neo Dada artist), Robert Morris, Dorr himself, and other artists including John Chamberlain, Robert Motherwell, Claes Oldenberg, and Jim Dine (fig. 6).[6] While no known documentation from the Zuni group show remains, the first four of these artists had shown together in a separate group exhibition almost a year earlier entitled Boxing Match at Gordon’s Fifth Avenue Gallery in New York City.

Figure 6. Announcement for the Zuni group exhibition, 1964.

Viewing Arakawa’s works in the Boxing Match show in relation to the works presented in the solo exhibition reveals the increasing orientation toward mechanization as more than a passing whim by the artist.[7] For example, we know from a letter sent by Dorr to Arakawa that Dorr intended to exhibit at least some of the works from the Boxing Match show at Arakawa’s Zuni solo show. In the letter, Dorr specifically mentions Mechanized Plant (1963), which was ultimately not included. Be Kind Enough to Turn the Switch On (1962), with its distinctive mechanical device perched atop the coffin-like box’s right-hand corner, does appear to have been exhibited in both shows according to available documentation. It is impossible, however, to verify whether the contents of the coffins were the same in both exhibitions as the documentation from Boxing Match only shows it with its lid closed.

Figure 7. The Law of Perspective Discovered for the Second Time (1960).
Figure 8. The Method of Advancing a Great Distance by Descending (1962). Photograph by O.E. Nelson. Installation shot at Gordon’s Fifth Avenue Gallery.

In a review of Boxing Match, Donald Judd writes about two other works that reiterate this differentiating development in Arakawa’s first few years in New York. Judd describes the earlier of the two works, The Law of Perspective Discovered for the Second Time (1960) as “[a] four-by-eight black box, with a lid, [that] contains, laid out on pink silk, a bifurcated ray with a wide crest and a phallic tail of foam rubber, a body of cotton and three eyes which are lenses.” (fig. 7) [8] In the photographic documentation, this work appears with its lid closed behind Yoshimura’s sculptures. This coffin is dated to 1960 in the Dwan Gallery archive, although an October 1963 issue of Bijutsu Techo seems to suggest that its production occurred after Arakawa’s move in late 1961.[9] Regardless, it seems this work was produced prior to the other coffin work that Judd describes, which appears to be The Method of Advancing a Great Distance by Descending (1962) (fig. 8) with its “parts of a chemical apparatus, a reversed plaster hand, a plastic case and a minute blinking light.”[10] This work can be seen peeking out from behind Robert Morris’s Untitled (Cloud) (1962) in the background of one of the exhibition’s installation shots.[11] While the materials used in The Law of Perspective Discovered for the Second Time are congruent with the materials and forms Arakawa used in the coffin works in Tokyo, The Method of Advancing a Great Distance by Descending displays an increased use of mechanical and manufactured parts to new effect.

Figure 9. Unidentified work in Zuni exhibition.
Figure 10a. Work (1963) in Zuni exhibition.
Figure 10b. Work (1963), in Mizue (January 1964). Photograph by Eric Pollitzer.

The Zuni solo exhibition of 1964, nearly one year after the Boxing Match show, further supports such a trend through a new set of coffin works.[12] These works contain long tubular glass rods arranged in organized rows, compartmentalized plexiglass structures, and an abundance of wires, switches, buttons, and hinges (fig. 9). In general, the Zuni works are distinct in their language of technological complexity uncharacteristic of the coffin sculptures before Boxing Match. One such piece, referred to simply as Work (1963), makes apparent the extent to which the industrial parts Arakawa utilized no longer adorn the corporeal masses and instead have become incorporated in ways that imply elaborate functions (fig. 10a).[13] This large coffin sculpture holds a smaller one within its complex apparatus, as if expropriating a vital resource from it. Appearing in color in a January 1964 issue of Mizue magazine, the nesting coffins entombing their respective grotesque objects on beds of lilac satin produce a humorous mise en abyme effect. (fig. 10b). In this remarkable instance of self-referentiality, the smaller coffin—reminiscent of the earlier and more rudimentary coffin works—is hooked up to a series of conduits and wires housed in different interconnected compartments. One cord spills from the frame of the larger coffin, connecting it to a bulbous glass fixture suspended above a small vitrine on the floor, with the sinister apparatus expanding beyond its rectilinear container in a hitherto unseen manner.

Arakawa’s drawings in the Zuni solo show also seem to be caught in a state of transition, though this time moving backwards from the visual languages of instrumental reason seen in the diagram paintings toward the biomorphism in his preceding works. While these drawings employ the schematic style familiar from his mid-career paintings, they also feature more organic, growth-like forms and compositions recalling early drawings like Le temps perdu (1958-1959) that reflect Arakawa’s interest in medical science and ontogeny. Arakawa’s choice of watercolor in the Zuni drawings, whose transparent wash preserves the presence of hand by indexing the duration and weight of its application, heightens this effect as the brushwork does not yet display the removal or contrivance of his touch seen in the later paintings. Accordingly, these drawings may be seen to link the corporeality of the coffin works and the diagrammatic space of the paintings through a visceral sense of embodiment.

Figure 11. Unidentified works in the Zuni exhibition.

Arakawa’s relationship with Duchamp, which began upon the former’s arrival in New York in 1961, provides a productive place to start. According to an oral history interview conducted by Reiko Tomii and Midori Yoshimoto, Arakawa called Duchamp from the airport immediately after landing and the two met in Washington Square Park that day.[14] They remained friends until Duchamp’s death in 1968 and his influence would have profound consequences for Arakawa’s practice.

Abundant references to the older artist in his later coffin works such as the positive and negative casts of body parts, which recall Duchamp’s own casts in With my tongue in my cheek (1959), and his “erotic objects” indicate this. We also observe allusions in Arakawa’s titling, such as the previously-mentioned The Method of Advancing a Great Distance by Descending, which pays homage to Duchamp’s Nude Descending a Staircase No. 2, (1912). Although this work was not shown at Zuni, likely due to its inclusion by John Weber in the Dwan Gallery’s own box-themed show that took place from February 2nd-29th just prior to the Zuni show, another smaller, unidentified work that was shown at Zuni shares many of its distinctive features. These include its mouse-eared silhouette and the body’s framing of a gridded, topological plane akin to the Euclidean space of the diagrammatic drawings (fig. 12). Such recurring features suggest that this smaller work might have served as a study or model for The Method of Advancing a Great Distance by Descending.

Figure 12. Unidentified work in the Zuni exhibition.

These associations help to contextualize the series of square doors set into the base of the smaller Zuni work, a feature also found in Arakawa’s Diagram with Duchamp’s Glass as a Minor Detail (1964). These doors mirror the three square “draft pistons” in the gaseous form emitted by the Bride in the upper domain of the The Bride Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors, Even (1915-1923), also known as The Large Glass. Here, a dialogue between The Large Glass’s bachelor machines and Arakawa’s more cyborgic coffin works becomes apparent: both reimagined the figure through technologies of absurd expenditure. Like the bachelor machines’ fruitless endeavoring, the mechanization of Arakawa’s inert masses suggests a state between living and dead, a laboring restricted to the maintenance of a diminished existence. Formal details such as these in the Zuni exhibition underscore the importance of Duchamp to Arakawa’s new integration of technological advancement into his coffins during this period and leave many questions to be explored.

Diagram with Duchamp’s Glass as a Minor Detail was shown in Arakawa’s following exhibition, Die-agrams, which definitively marked his divergence away from the coffin sculpture format while maintaining a connection to his fascination with death in the next major period of his oeuvre. A further nod to Duchamp with its use of pun, this inaugural solo exhibition at the Dwan Gallery, Los Angeles, opened on March 29th of 1964, less than a week after the Zuni exhibition closed. It seems that it would then be more accurate to say that Arakawa left his boxes in Buffalo than in Japan as suggested in Tono’s article cited at the beginning of this essay. This misunderstanding was further perpetuated by Arakawa’s omission of the Zuni solo show from his exhibition record altogether by the time of his show at the Stedelijk van Abbemuseum in December 1966. His reasons for this were never stated, though it suggests that he no longer saw the exhibition and its works as representative of his artistic identity and preferred them off of the art historical record. That this body of work coincides with his moving to New York, befriending a cult hero of the avant-garde in Duchamp, and his first solo shows with successful commercial galleries in America and Europe does not seem to be without significance. Further study of the late coffins works as an intermediary period between leaving Tokyo and his establishment in New York would therefore not only yield new insight into these relatively obscure works, but also tell us much about Arakawa’s perception of the artistic field at this crucial, diasporic juncture in his career.

[1] Yoshiaki Tono, “Shusaku Arakawa, Tomio Miki, and Tetsumi Kudo,” Artforum (January 1967): 53.

[2] Tono, “Shusaku Arakawa,” 53.

[3] Tono, “Shusaku Arakawa,” 53.

[4] Tono, “Shusaku Arakawa,” 55.

[5] Email correspondence between Ben Perrone and Amara Magloughlin, June 9th, 2018.

[6] These latter artists appear to have come from Dorr’s own collection. Email correspondence between Ben Perrone and Amara Magloughlin, June 9th, 2018.

[7] This exhibition was revisited by Castelli Gallery in 2019. The exhibition catalog includes materials crucial to this research and may be accessed at

[8] Donald Judd, “Reviews for Arts Magazine, April – May/June 1963,” in Donald Judd: Complete Writings 1959-1975: Gallery Reviews, Book Reviews, Articles, Letters to the Editor, Reports, Statements, Complaints (Halifax: Press of the Nova Scotia College of Art and Design, 1975), 90.

[9] Yusuke Nakahara, “Shusaku Arakawa,” Bijutsu Techo (October 1963): n.p.

[10] Judd, “Reviews,” 90.

[11] ARTnews reviewer K.L. writes that “Cloud, a horizontal box (a grey plane) suspended at eye level, gives a curious effect of blindness.” K.L., “Boxing Match,” ARTnews (March 1963): n.p. Re-printed in Boxing Match: 4 Sculptors: Arakawa, Ay-O, Morris, Yoshimura, ed. Castelli Gallery (New York, NY: Castelli Gallery, 2019): 24.

[12] The possible exception of Be Kind Enough to Turn the Switch On is mentioned above.

[13] Yoshiaki Tono, “Statement by Japanese Vanguard Artists from Saito to Arakawa,” Mizue (January 1964): 26.

[14] Oral History Interview with Shusaku Arakawa, conducted by Midori Yoshimoto and Reiko Tomii, April 4, 2009, Oral History Archives of Japanese Art (URL:


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.


Ambiguous Zones, 6

Dear Friends,

Happy New Year of the Tiger!

We hope you had a restorative holiday break. At the dawn of 2022, all of us here at the Reversible Destiny Foundation and the ARAKAWA+GINS Tokyo Office are looking resolutely toward the new horizon, fresh with limitless possibilities, following Arakawa and Madeline Gins’s commitment to a positive mindset coupled with (serious) playfulness.

We begin the year with the sixth issue of Ambiguous Zones, which features a video recording of a lecture by Dr. Ignacio Adriasola that took place on December 9th of last year, live from the exhibition ARAKAWA: Waiting Voices at Gagosian Gallery in Basel (on view until January 22nd). In his lecture, Dr. Adriasola illuminates some of the recurring themes and motifs present in the works of Arakawa on display at the gallery, which range in date from 1964 to 1984, and brings to the fore the sensuality of texture and materiality in the artist’s paintings.

Our next webinar will be on January 12th at 12pm EST with guest speaker Tiffany Lambert, Curator of the Gallery at Japan Society in New York. Her lecture will focus on the connection between Arakawa’s art and Arakawa+Gins’s architecture. We hope you will join us to continue learning more about their work! (click here to register in advance).

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

Lecture and virtual tour by Dr. Ignacio Adriasola of the exhibition ARAKAWA: Waiting Voices at Gagosian Gallery in Basel, December 9th, 2021

Top Image: Arakawa and Madeline Gins, Study for Sites of Reversible Destiny, digital rendering, ca. 1994


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.


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


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.


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


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.