PRINT September 2010



THE ARTIST AND VISIONARY ARCHITECT Shusaku Arakawa, known by his surname alone, was in his mid-twenties when he left Japan, under some kind of cloud, in 1961. Legend has it that he arrived in New York with fourteen dollars and Marcel Duchamp’s phone number in his pocket. The following year he met Madeline Gins, a Barnard College graduate, in the art classes both were taking in Brooklyn, he to satisfy some visa condition, though he was already exhibiting his work. They became a couple almost immediately, and collaborators as well, soon embarking together upon their best-known artwork, The Mechanism of Meaning, 1963–73, consisting of eighty-three eight-foot panels that use images and peremptory commands to exercise our semantic intuitions. It was published as a book (in German) in 1971. In the 1980s, the couple would turn their attention to architecture, designing living spaces that put the tenant through situations of constant discomfort not dissimilar to the viewer’s experience working through The Mechanism of Meaning.

Nothing, it seems, was so elementary or obvious that Arakawa was unable to find a way to question it. Once, at a conference of scientists organized by Werner Heisenberg to help them with their research (or so I was told), Arakawa unassumingly asked what the smallest thing was—which provoked a heated and inconclusive discussion. It was a typical Arakawa question, simple and evidently unanswerable. On another occasion, he and Gins took me with them to meet a figure said to be second only to the Dalai Lama in the Tibetan hierarchy. Arakawa asked why some people count with their fingers one way, some another way. The religious functionary stammered, having expected to field an easier question, like, What is the meaning of life?

I first met Arakawa in 1974 at Ronald Feldman Fine Arts in New York, where he was showing a painting that quoted Hume’s Treatise of Human Nature. Punningly titled A Forgettance (Exhaustion Exhumed), 1973–74, the text was about memory, which Hume appealed to in explaining personal identity. Hume’s thougvht was that there is no idea of the self, since if one looks within, one encounters only a bundle of ideas and impressions but no idea of the self as such. I guess “a forgettance” refers to the question of what does the looking within. The work was a large horizontal canvas, with the proportions of a middling billboard, lettered in stencil capitals, which was the fashionable font of advanced New York art at the time. Arakawa and I became friends, and I became drawn more deeply into the art world than I would have anticipated. My review of The Mechanism of Meaning for the Print Collector’s Newsletter (September 1979) was, I think, my first effort at art criticism.

As much as I admired Arakawa and Gins’s work, I was never a convert to their theory that architecture holds the answer to immortality, but I do consider that their Bridge of Reversible Destiny/The Process in Question, 1973–89, bears serious comparison with Duchamp’s “Large Glass”—less erotic than it for sure, but about as practical (though, as far as I know, Duchamp never promised any use for his work). When first shown in New York in 1990, at Feldman, Arakawa’s bridgelike construction was forty-three feet long and meant to evolve into a permanent structure ten times that length. A handsome, precisely engineered sculpture, it was intended as an apparatus for transforming its users. As the work was exhibited at Feldman, however, one did not so much cross the bridge as walk alongside it on a kind of diagram of its interior compartments or stages.

As near as I understand the matter, by the time of Arakawa and Gins’s 1997 retrospective at the erstwhile Guggenheim Museum SoHo, the catalogue cover of which bore their declaration “We have decided not to die,” “Reversible Destiny” no longer referred to a specific artwork but to a device, the use of which prolongs life, perhaps indefinitely. Typically, a destiny reverser is a houselike structure, built according to certain principles, that stimulates the immune system through discomfort. The pair’s 2008 Bioscleave House (LifeSpan-Extending Villa) in East Hampton, New York, is intended to serve this function, as are the Reversible Destiny Lofts (In Memory of Helen Keller) (2005) in Mitaka, Japan.

Interestingly, Arakawa and Gins continued to live and work in the same NoHo building they had always lived in, as if, having made the decision not to die, they had plenty of time and didn’t yet need an architectural prosthesis to reverse their destinies. Arakawa’s death this past May does not prove wrong their basic theory, but it remains a terrible loss to the art world of a great artist-thinker.

Arthur C. Danto is a contributing editor of Artforum.