Toukou Museum

Born in Nagoya in 1936, Shusaku Arakawa is perhaps Japan’s most celebrated contemporary artist. Like many others of his generation, he participated in the dynamic Japanese art scene of the ’50s, and then moved to New York. Among Arakawa’s few supporters in Japan was the critic Atsushi Miyakawa. Although Miyakawa is as obscure as Arakawa is prominent, his writings have been quite influential in Japan. Instrumental in introducing contemporary French thought and art informel to the Japanese art community, he had an important formative influence on many artists of his generation. Arakawa’s recent works represent an homage to Miyakawa and provide an opportunity to reexamine the critic’s ideas. At the same time Arakawa’s presentation seems to suggest that Miyakawa’s writings provide an avenue toward a greater understanding of his own work.

Upon entering the gallery, the viewer is presented with pairs of two-dimensional images. One image in each pair is mounted on the wall as a painting, and one on a low sloping platform. The paintings are meant to be viewed from these platforms. It’s difficult to tell what sort of relationship the platform images of subjects as disparate as Egypt, the body, a U.S. passport, a dollar bill, and fragments of other artworks, have with the paintings, or with each other for that matter. The paintings tend to consist of two sides, and though it is possible that nothing here relates to anything else, it’s just as possible that each painting is a diagram of its relationship to its partner. Explorations of the possible meanings of mirrors, reflection, and distortion figured prominently in the writings of Miyakawa. These paired paintings are in a sense mirrors—faulty mirrors—of each other. Arakawa seems to be hinting that the gap between idealized conception and its representation is due to the flaws inherent in the mechanism of meaning itself—that in an otherwise perfect optical device, only the flaws are visible.

The relationship between the platforms and the paintings, however, is a different matter. Though the gap between them is pronounced, the texts on the paintings—in one case, “The entire body was perception. Making Space”—seem to fit the platform images rather well as titles. At the same time, in order to see the platform images clearly, one must turn one’s back to the wall paintings. Arakawa does not want us to see them clearly, but if one looks closely, one can see that the paintings are made by applying gray lines and then blanking portions of them out with white paint. Seeing these works involves constant mental and physical advances and retreats. Arakawa and his collaborator Madeline H. Gins refer to another project of theirs as “post-utopian,” but I would maintain that the idealized vision of human perception and cognition which seems to be the intent and prerequisite for these works is in fact utopian in origin, and plainly esoteric.

Arturo Silva