Magazine article Artforum International

Arakawa: (1936-2010)

Magazine article Artforum International

Arakawa: (1936-2010)

Article excerpt

THE ARTIST AND VISIONARY ARCHITECT Shusaku Arakawa, known by his surname alone, was in his midtwenties 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?

[ILLUSTRATION OMITTED]

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 bur no idea of the self as such. 1 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. …

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