Gins and Arakawa: Building Sensation

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Gins and Arakawa: Building Sensoriums

Madeline Gins Has been described to me as a genuinely advanced poet, by a genuinely advanced poet, of whom there are not all that many. Her advancedness is defined by the boundaries of writing and thought, which it is her mission to extend, even to transcend. So one would not expect sonnets, sestinas, odes or limericks from her, save in the spirit of verbal mischief; nor would one read her for evocations of childhood lost and innocence vanished, love thwarted of fulfilled, hopeless passion or settled melancholy, daffodils at eventide, white swans in black waters, or laments and ornamental suspirations of the ordinary metrical sort. She is metaphysical, cosmopolitical, medico-practical, epistemographic, sci-fi, phi-psy, cognito-cerebral, semiological, postutopian, aristico-heroical, visionary and wickedly funny. Her topics are spacetimematter, the limits of language, the transcendence of mortality and the salvation of the world through art and what one might call spiritual engineering. She reads like Einstein as adapted for Wittgenstein by Gertrude Stein.

Gins is the wife of Arakawa, a genuinely advanced artist, of whom much the same characterization would be true, allowing for the differences between writing and painting; and the two have been collaborators in everything the other has done, so that the mind of Arakawa cannot be thought of in abstraction from the mind of Gins, and reciprocally, Arakawa is present in everything Gins has done. Their chief explicit collaboration until now has been the remarkable book The Mechanism of Meaning, first published in 1971 as Mechanismus der Bedeutung in Munich, with an introduction by lawrence Alloway, my predecessor as art critic of The Nation. Europe has been more receptive to genuinely advanced artists than the United States has, and so far as I know, no American museum has given Arakawa-Gins the sort of exhibition their work merits for its ambition, intelligence, cleverness and (to use an expression that has recently become controversial in the art world) its high quality. It is somewhat ironic that the book should have appeared in German, since most of the paintings in it are done in Englis--a kind of concrete poetry. So a readership unequipped with English would be hard pressed to respond as peremptorily demanded by the works: Each of the images is an exercise designed to awaken illumination in regard to the nature of language, written and spoken; to treacheries of meaning, the ambiguities of form, of color, of space, designation, direction, depth, reality, pictorial identity, truth, illusion, possibility and option, perception and decision, memory and imagination, deception and revision. The viewer is issued instructions and given what is required to comply with them--but is also given to see that in certain ways compliance is hopeless. Wittgenstein wrote that there could be a philosophical work consisting only of jokes. The Mechanism of Meaning (whose latest version was published by Abbeville Press in 1988) comes close to filling this prescription, and not surprisingly has become a cult text for logicians. It is a masterpiece of valuable disappointments and conceptual wrong turns, but it leaves the participant/reader (both "reading" and "looking" are too passive to characterize the proper relationship to the text) some distance further along the path to understanding the processes of reading and looking than when he or she set forth. A bit like aesthetic bodhisattvas, Gins and Arakawa are determined to nudge the rest of us onto higher and higher planes of awakened consciousness.

At the same time, they have attained to a view according to which the designations "poet" and "artist" are archaic, and belong to the language of an era it is their ambition to pass (and perhaps even their claim to have passed) beyond, into one in which we are to speak instead of "engineers of softness and of impressionable stretching. …