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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 rather than artistic terms.

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

Having introduced Arakawa in this way, 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 dimensions suggestive of human proportions. The works required 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 his compositions. However, he typically used such discarded objects sparingly, turning their original use-values alien through their isolated appropriation.

In this same article, Tono 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 for which he would become known. 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 marked a definitive departure from his sculptural practice. By Tono’s condensed account, it would indeed seem that “Arakawa left his boxes in Japan.”[4]

In the period immediately following Arakawa’s move to New York, however, he not only continued to produce new coffin works but also substantially developed their concept and form. In March of 1964, an exhibition at Zuni Gallery in Buffalo, NY, showcases the culmination of this brief but compelling period (figs. 2-5). At first glance, the works in the show are familiar: the coffin-like sculptures that gained Arakawa notoriety in Tokyo populate the space, punctuated by 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 the image of reanimation rather than the mortuary air of their predecessors. The Zuni exhibition therefore reveals a distinct period within an already established body of coffin works that has gone relatively unstudied, marked by an increased complexity and modification via mechanical apparatuses.

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. Arakawa’s show had been coordinated in early 1964 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] The first four of these artists had in fact shown together in a separate group exhibition almost a year earlier entitled Boxing Match at Gordon’s Fifth Avenue Gallery in New York City, suggesting a relationship between Dorr and the gallery.

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

The Arakawa works in the Zuni solo show appear to be related to the works shown in the Boxing Match exhibition roughly a year earlier, both of which reveal an increasing orientation toward mechanization relative to the previous coffin works.[7] We know from a letter sent from Dorr to Arakawa that Dorr intended to exhibit at least some of the works from the Boxing Match show at Zuni, with Dorr specifically mentioning Mechanized Plant (1963), a work that was ultimately not included. Be Kind Enough to Turn the Switch On (1962), in which a distinctive mechanical device perches 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 Method of Advancing a Great Distance by Descending (1962). Photograph by O.E. Nelson. Installation shot at Gordon’s Fifth Avenue Gallery.
Figure 8. The Law of Perspective Discovered for the Second Time (1960).

In a review of Boxing Match, Donald Judd writes about two other works that further support mechanization as a distinctive development within Arakawa’s practice. He describes a work that has “parts of a chemical apparatus, a reversed plaster hand, a plastic case and a minute blinking light.”[8] The work in question appears to be The Method of Advancing a Great Distance by Descending (1962) (fig. 7), which can be seen peeking out from behind Robert Morris’s Untitled (Cloud) (1962) in the background of one of the installation shots.[9] Judd also mentions The Law of Perspective Discovered for the Second Time (1960) (fig. 8), describing it 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.”[10] This work most likely appears with its lid closed behind Yoshimura’s sculptures in the photographic documentation. In the Dwan Gallery archive, this latter coffin is dated to 1960, although an October 1963 issue of Bijutsu Techo contradicts this, suggesting that its production occurred after Arakawa’s move in late 1961.[11] Regardless, comparing these two works described by Judd reveals the progression that had occurred in Arakawa’s coffin works within his first year of moving to New York. 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, confirms such a trend through a new set of coffin works.[12] These works contain long glass tubular rods arranged in organized rows, compartmentalized plexiglass structures, and an abundance of wires, switches, buzzers, and hinges (fig. 9). In general, the Zuni works are distinct in their language of technological complexity uncharacteristic of the coffin works prior to Arakawa’s move to the United States. One such work, simply titled 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 work holds within its complex apparatus a smaller one, as if expropriating a vital resource from it. In this remarkable instance of self-referentiality, the smaller coffin—reminiscent of the earlier and more simple coffin works—is hooked up to a series of conduits and wires housed in different interconnected compartments. A cord spills out from the frame of the larger coffin, connecting it to a bulbous glass fixture suspended above a small vitrine resting on the floor. This work also appears in color in a January 1964 issue of Mizue magazine, showing a central object on its bed of lilac satin in the smaller coffin, which itself is nested on a lilac bed within the body of the larger coffin, producing a humorous mise en abyme effect (fig. 10b).

Arakawa’s drawings exhibited in the Zuni show also seem to be in a state of transition, en route to the diagrams of his mid-career work. While these works employ the visual language familiar from the later paintings, they also feature more organic, growth-like forms and painting methods not characteristic of them. Arakawa’s choice of watercolor, whose transparent wash preserves the presence of hand, heightens this effect as the brushwork does not yet display the removal of his touch seen in the later paintings. Accordingly, these works may be seen to link the corporeality of the coffin works and the diagrammatic language of the paintings to follow (fig. 11).

Figure 11. Unidentified work in Zuni exhibition.

In this simultaneous mechanization of the coffin works and atypical biomorphism of the diagrams, we observe Arakawa thinking through new artistic ideas in his existing practice. A significant factor in this development was Arakawa’s relationship with Duchamp, which began in 1961. According to an oral history interview with Arakawa conducted by Reiko Tomii and Midori Yoshimoto, Arakawa met Duchamp immediately upon his arrival in New York.[14] The two maintained a friendship until Duchamp’s death in 1968 and his influence would have profound consequences on Arakawa’s practice.

The fact that Arakawa made reference to the older artist in his later coffin works indicates this. For example, Arakawa’s use of both positive and negative casts of body parts in these late coffin works recalls Duchamp’s own casts in With my tongue in my cheek (1959) and his “erotic objects.” We also observe references in Arakawa’s titling, such as The Method of Advancing a Great Distance by Descending, which directly alludes to Duchamp’s Nude Descending a Staircase No. 2, (1912). Although this coffin sculpture was not shown at Zuni, likely due to the work’s inclusion by John Weber in the Dwan Gallery’s own box-themed show that took place around the same time, another smaller, unidentified Zuni work 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. This association helps to contextualize the series of square doors set into the base of the smaller Zuni work, a feature that also appears in Arakawa’s Diagram with Duchamp’s Glass as a Minor Detail (1964). This latter sculpture, which was not a coffin work, paid homage to The Bride Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors, Even (1915-1923), also known as The Large Glass.

Figure 12. Unidentified works in Zuni exhibition.

Instances such as these in the later coffin works underscore the importance of Duchamp in their new integration of complex machinery. As the coffin works became more cyborgic, they also entered into close dialogue with the bachelor machines of The Large Glass. Both reimagined the figure through a mechanics of absurd expenditure: like the bachelor machines’ fruitless endeavoring, the late coffin works labor futilely. These parallels suggest that Duchamp played at least some role in the mutation of Arakawa’s sculptural practice after his arrival in New York.

Arakawa’s next exhibition, Die-agrams, 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 ode 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, then, that it would be more accurate to say that Arakawa left his boxes in Buffalo than in Japan as suggested in the article by Tono cited at the beginning of this essay, a misunderstanding further perpetuated by Arakawa’s omission of the Zuni solo 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. Analysis of the late coffins works, therefore, has much to tell us about Arakawa’s thinking at this crucial juncture in the trajectory of his career. Further study would not only yield new insight into these relatively obscure works, but also into Arakawa’s own self-conception as an artist within the social context he encountered in New York.

[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 https://www.castelligallery.com/publications/1963-boxing-match-revisited.

[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] 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.

[10] Judd, “Reviews,” 90.

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

[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: https://oralarthistory.org/archives/arakawa_shusaku/interview_01.php).

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Ambiguous Zones, 7

Dear Friends,

Ambiguous Zones 7 features a video recording of our January 12th, 2022, webinar with guest speaker Tiffany Lambert, curator of the Gallery at Japan Society in New York.  Tiffany’s lecture focused on the connection between Arakawa’s art and Arakawa+Gins’s architecture. We hope you find it as illuminating as we did!

Moving forward, Ambiguous Zones will arrive at your inbox every two months, which will give us time to explore certain topics in greater depth. In the meantime, please join us for the international conference AGxKANSAI 2022: Art and Philosophy in the 22nd Century After ARAKAWA+GINS, organized jointly by the Studies of the Architectural Body Research Group at Kansai University and Kyoto University of the Arts. The event will take place from March 11–15, 2022 at Kyoto University of the Arts with a combination of in-person and virtual presentations and a live broadcast of all sessions available online. We look forward to seeing you there, whether virtually or in person!

Yours in the reversible destiny mode,


Reversible Destiny Foundation and ARAKAWA+GINS Tokyo Office

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

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

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Ambiguous Zones, 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

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Ambiguous Zones, 5

Dear Friends,

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Ambiguous Zones, 4

Dear Friends,

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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Ambiguous Zones, 3

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

Dear Friends,

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Newsletter

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

Categories
Newsletter

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.