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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, 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, 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.


Distraction Series, 18

Dear Friends,

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Distraction Series, 17

Dear Friends,

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Distraction Series, 16

Dear Friends,

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

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

Hayao Miyazaki at Reversible Destiny Lofts Mitaka

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[Text by Momoyo Homma]

Special thanks to Hayao Miyazaki and Studio Ghibli, Inc.

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

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

Follow us on instagram for more content: @reversibledestinyfoundation


Distraction Series, 14

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

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

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

RRRRReversible Destiny Foundation and the ARAKAWA+GINS Tokyo Office

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


Distraction Series, 13

Dear Friends,

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

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

How to Breathe

by Amara Magloughlin


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

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

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

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

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

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

               1. Getting a license

               2. Finding a job

               3. Having children

               4. Starting a revolution

               5. Being an idiot

               6. Laughing

We might rightfully add voting to this list.

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

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

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

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


Distraction Series, 12

Dear Friends,

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

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

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

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

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

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



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

On Helen Keller or Arakawa

by Amara Magloughlin

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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


Arakawa, Untitled (Banana Cake), 1968


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

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


Distraction Series, 11

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

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


Distraction Series, 10

Madeline and Arakawa with Mesoamerican statues in Tula, Mexico

Dear Friends,

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

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


Distraction Series, 9

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

Dear Friends,

For the ninth iteration of our Distraction Series, we have pulled a questionnaire from our archive that Madeline had her mother give to her Fifth-Grade class on January 20th, 1969, the day Richard Nixon was sworn in as President of the United States. Lucy Ives, editor of The Saddest Thing Is That I Have Had to Use Words: A Madeline Gins Reader, wrote a lovely piece about this questionnaire for the Poetry Foundation in April of this year. Madeline’s questions focus in on thoughts – where do you feel them, from where do they come, where do they go, what are they made of? And she then has the children conduct a practical exercise (drawing a circle), before asking about their thoughts while carrying out this particular activity. Finally, the questionnaire asks the children to explain the difference between children and adults, state their most interesting thought, share their oldest memory, and come up with an interesting question to ask their teacher.

The fascinating responses from the children have thoughts taking the shape of duck feathers, words, air, gold, nothing, silk, soft tissue, sugar, fur, emerald, steel, fluffy cotton, brain tissue, leather, and marbles. One child, Nancy, explains that “an adult has to be mature, not only in size, but in mind. A person could be six feet tall, 26 years old, and still act like a child, as an 8 year old could act like a professor of Math according to his mind.” So true, Nancy. A few students had some thoughts to share about our planet: Susan has imagined that the world was completely covered by water and asks if her teacher would like to live under the ocean, while Tracy imagined a land where everything was sweets and sodas. Tybert once thought that the middle of the earth was hollow and that you could go inside, and, finally, Peter made the chilling declaration that “the earth is dead.” 13-year-old Zoë, responding in 2020, has a scary thought about her own world: “What if my life is a

game and someone is just controlling me and everyone in my life is fake?” Contrary to the assumption that this would be a frightening scenario, she thinks it would be “cool.”

An interesting thought exercise to try at home for adults and children alike!

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


Distraction Series, 8

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

Dear friends,

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

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

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

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


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

Distraction Series, 7

Dear Friends,

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

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

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

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

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

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

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