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Highlights of Shusaku Arakawa Exhibition――
From Diagrams to Reversible Destiny and beyond

Fumi Tsukahara
The Director of Aizu Museum, Waseda University

1・Aizu Museum and Shusaku Arakawa

Shusaku Arakawa giving a lecture

Waseda University Aizu Museum was founded in 1998 inside of architecture derived from the former university library. The museum is based on the collection of Waseda University Professor Emeritus Dr. Yaichi Aizu, a famous poet and author who was a pioneering researcher of Nara Period art history. Every year, the Aizu Museum holds exhibitions in different fields such as Oriental art, Archaeology and Modern art Due to the museum's background, we never had a chance to feature modern art. However, I am pleased to say that necessary conditions have finally been met this year and we have started retrospective exhibition of Shusaku Arakawa (1936 to 2010), an artist who performed internationally in fields including painting, sculpture and architecture. Entitled “The Path of Shusaku Arakawa—From Reversible Destiny and Beyond,” the exhibition was made possible by the entrustment of woodcuts from Arakawa + Gins Tokyo Office (ABRF,Inc. Representative: Momoyo Homma). Interaction between Shusaku Arakawa and Waseda University can be traced back to 1995, before the founding of the Aizu Museum. Arakawa visited our campus numerous times to give lectures and engage in discussions, leaving a deep impression on all of his listeners, including students, faculty and staff members. I can still vividly recall how Arakawa spoke seriously with young students who gathered around him after his lectures.

Arakawa was born in Nagoya in 1936. While participating in the Neo-Dada avant-garde art movement which took place in Tokyo in 1960, he released his own unique three-dimensional works in the shape of coffins. In late 1961, Arakawa moved to New York to be instructed by Marchel Duchamp, one of the founders of Dadaism. It was in New York that Arakawa met his life partner Madeline Gins and began to be popular with diagrams which featured characters and symbols positioned in ground plans of a three-dimensional shape. In the 1970s, Arakawa gained international acclaim for his work the Mechanism of Meaning (paintings and books). In the 1990s, he challenged the conventional belief and began to create architecture based on his thought experiment of Reversible Destiny, which seeks to reverse the destiny of death. Together with Gins, Arakawa realized the Site of Reversible Destiny-Yoro Park and the Reversible Destiny Lofts Mitaka. Arakawa passed away in New York in 2010, and Gins died earlier this year. As such, the current exhibition at Waseda University also serves as a memorial.

2・Introduction of works: Diagrams and Reversible Destiny

the Reversible Destiny Lofts MITAKA —In Memory of Helen Keller

The current exhibition remembers the path walked by Shusaku Arakawa, a prominent figure of philosophy and beauty who continues to exert great influence on many fields after his death. Specifically, paintings, woodcuts, letters and other documents are displayed in the 1st Floor Exhibition Room, and panels introducing architectural projects are displayed in the 2nd Floor Exhibition Room. In this article, I will introduce some of the unique works and exhibitions.

First, let's discuss Reversible Destiny, the key concept of Arakawa and Gins. This philosophy challenges the conventional belief that all human beings must die. Even before publicly announcing his decision not to die, Arakawa had declared that “death is outdated” in his work the Mechanism of Meaning. Arakawa's work as an avant-garde artist began with the work Coffin, which was created by spreading a futon in a wooden box and then placing lumps of cement inside. Therefore, the shift in his work from physical coffins to diagrams while he was in New York may be viewed as a gap before and after Reversible Destiny. However, the embryo-shaped stones found in Coffin already hinted at a dimension beyond death. Furthermore, an arrow-like symbol is written on the stones.

©Shusaku Arakawa's LIVING ROOM

As shown by the work Living Room (1969) at our museum's exhibition, diagrams can be interpreted as phase shift from three-dimensional shape to two-dimensional surface. However, diagrams are ground plans (sketches) of the three-dimensional shape, thus creating an invisible three-dimensional image. Indeed, one recalls Duchamp's statement that “if a shadow is a two dimensional projection of the three-dimensional world, then the three-dimensional world as we know it is the projection of the four dimensional universe.” In Living Room, the artist's angle of vision is positioned directly above the ground plan of the picture. Various locations within the room are shown by notes and arrows which indicated various directions. If we recall that Arakawa shared Duchamp's idea that dimension n casts shadows which are n-1, then, in addition to the two-dimensional horizontal plane Living Room being the shadow (sketch) of Living Room as three-dimensional reality, the work also hints that the three-dimension occupied by viewers of Living Room is actually the shadow of a fourth dimension which lies above.

Here, “above” does not refer to a spatial “above” or temporal foreground; rather it is a different dimension of existence. This dimension cannot be recognized through experiential sensation and thus requires conversion to the idea of new landings sites for direct-viewing. Stated somewhat dramatically, this shift may be a path to the unknown procedures for reinterpretation of the conventional belief “destiny of death” in the known dimension as being reversed in an unknown dimension to achieve immortality.

©Shusaku Arakawa's Through Shards of Between

In addition to giving three-dimensional form to ground plans without the laws of perspective, a quick glance at Arakawa's diagrams reveals the diverse characters and numbers which are a prominent feature of his works. A precedent for this type of method is collages in which characters and images are cut out and affixed. The first such practical example was Picasso's Still Life with Chair Caning which was released in 1912. This works contains the large letters JOU (part of the word “journal”). However, a decisive difference between collages and the use of characters in diagrams is characters Arakawa used are more than just symbols. For Arakawa, characters were an important element which conveyed significance.

Needless to say, Arakawa viewed messages expressed through the alphabet as literal meaning which was an important element of his work. This would have been impossible without the collaboration of poet Madeline Gins, a native English speaker. Arakawa's encounter with Gins was a crucial event in guiding him from Coffin to diagrams. The Aizu Museum's exhibition features the diagram Through Shards of Between (1977-1978), a work made by Arakawa when he was in his 40s, after he had achieved international acclaim. Through Shards of Between is a precious tableau which hints at Arakawa's expansion to practical architecture while also reflecting the creative collaboration which he had with Gins.

3・Reversible Destiny and beyond

Later in his life, Shusaku Arakawa worked with Gins in pursuit of Reversible Destiny in a new dimension. He worked to realize an architectural model which creates an unknown interaction between the human body and surrounding environment. Arakawa's main theme became the creation of architecture which resists death; in other words, life architecture. Our museum's exhibition introduces such architecture including the Site of Reversible Destiny-Yoro Park (Gifu Prefecture), the Reversible Destiny Lofts MITAKA (Tokyo), and the Bioscleave House (New York). Furthermore, a panel exhibit introduces the plan for a Reversible Destiny City which changes the destiny of impending death by pursuing the various possibilities of the human body and community. Now that both Arakawa and Gins have passed away, what can we do to further the concept of Reversible Destiny?—I hope that our exhibition will encourage visitors to consider this question.

Exactly one-hundred years ago in 1914, Yaichi Aizu made the following statement to his students: “Each day should bring something completely new.” (In addition to the Arakawa Exhibition, there will be a special exhibition of the Aizu Museum's famous works Meian (a collaboration of works by Taikan Yokoyama and Kanzan Shimomura) and Envoy to Rome (Seison Maeda). Through this works, visitors can experience the encounter between avant-garde and classical art.)

Fumi Tsukahara
The Director of Aizu Museum, Waseda University