What Happens When the Artist Drops Away? The Legacy of Arakawa and Gins

by Charles Bernstein on May 11, 2014

Arakawa _Madeline--Dimitris Yeros, 2008_

Shusaku Arakawa and Madeline Gins (2008) (photog by Dimitris Yeros)

Beauty is momentary in the mind—

The fitful tracing of a portal;

But in the flesh it is immortal.

The body dies; the body’s beauty lives.
So evenings die, in their green going,
A wave, interminably flowing.
So gardens die, their meek breath scenting
The cowl of Winter, done repenting.

–– Wallace Stevens

As a poet interested in the social material of writing, I found a deep connection with the early paintings of Shusaku Arakawa and with Arakawa and Madeline Gins’s paradigmatic The Mechanism of Meaning (1971), as well as various early writings by Gins, particularly her essay on multidimensional architecture, which I published in 43 Poets (1984) in boundary 2 30 years ago (this work that anticipates much of Gins & Arakawa’s later work in what they called “procedural architecture”). Gins is the author of two literary masterpieces, The Mechanism of Meaning and Helen Keller or Arakawa (1994). These works, as well as Arakawa and Gins’s later works share a space with many of the poets and artists with whom I have been most engaged.

Susan Bee and I met Arakawa and Gins through Hannah Weiner in the late 1970s. Indeed, Susan and I wrote our only collaborative essay, in 1981, “Meaning the Meaning: Arakawa’s Critique of Space” in which we looked at Arakawa’s early painting and The Mechanism of Meaning in terms of a critique of Euclidean and Cartesian conception of space-time, what Robin Blaser — thinking of Olson and Whitehead, called the Western Box, but which also relates to Donald Ault’s work on Blake, Visionary Physics.

logic of meaning

From ‘The Mechanism of Meaning’ (courtesy Arakawa + Gins, Reversible Destiny Foundation)

Here’s a brief quote from our essay collected in Content’s Dream: 1975-1984:

This synthesis is achieved in two different ways. In The Mechanism of Meaning … the individual panels are swatches of discrete design and the simultaneity takes place at the level of the book as a whole, that is, serially. This serial simultaneity is also relevant to the paintings before 1972, each of which is concerned with a particular modality or genre of visual ideology or organization. Thus we are presented with examples, artifactualized specimens, of the different atmospheres or “scales” or “textures” of meaning that suggest the range of possible modes –– swatches of perspective, grids, cubist analytic and synthetic space, diagrammed optical illusions, maps and charts, constructive hypostasizing, geometric abstraction, modified abstract expressionist elements (all over fields, linear layered surfaces, erasure, bleeding, drips), conceptual ideations, the variety of decorative surfaces. In this multidiscourse art, any style, any technique, can seemingly be included into the investigative cataloguing.

In my poetics, art work takes on its greatest significance when seen in the context of works by other contemporary artists and in terms of the social and historical and indeed biographic contexts in which it emerges. For this reason, and going against the grain of Arakawa and Gins’ own troubling self-projections as working beyond comparison, I want to be explicit in refusing to isolate the collaborative work of these two artists via a romantic exceptionalism or philosophical idealism both of which risk subliming the material grounding, generic specificity, and social force of the art work, which is fundamentally embedded in its time and is always and primarily part of a collective project.

For this reason, I would want to emphasize the value of placing work of Arakawa and Gins among their contemporaries in poetry and the visual arts (painting, site-specific and installation work, conceptual art) rather than considering their work as disembodied ideas relating primarily the speculative philosophy. While I appreciate the references to Deleuze or to Nietzsche, or indeed Blake in my own account, I find it more telling to think of Gins in the context of Hannah Weiner, Richard Foreman and Ron Silliman, Leslie Scalapino, Robert Grenier, Joseph Kosuth, and Eva Hesse; and, specifically in the visual arts, let me use the shorthand “Poetry Plastique,” the show I co-curated with Jay Sanders in 2001, which focused on work with words that moved off the page. We were happy to have Gins and Arakawa as part of that show, where they found a solid grounding, along with — and I mention these these names advisedly — Jackson Mac Low, Robert Smithson, Philip Guston, and Wallace Berman.

In 2002, Hank Lazer and I published Arakawa and Gins’s Architectural Body in our modern and contemporary poetics series. Like the essay on multidimensional architecture, I consider this and related work not to be theory, philosophy, or science, but rather to be a conceptual poem or more precisely pata-conceptual, for I see Alfred Jarry, as much as  Duchamp, as the presiding angel of these works. If we read Arakawa and Gins as philosophy than they will seem, like so many Sancho Panzas, and come out short. But as pataphysics, Arakawa/Gins enter into a still active set of swerving quests.

Arakawa and Gins’s swerve to architecture and the folly of their assertion of efficacy was not only a turn from poetry and art but also from pataphysics. Yet it is the refusal of that turn, returning their procedural architecture to the realm of imaginary solutions, which reclaims their most significant work for poetry and art.

In his 1860 William Blake: A Critical Essay Critical Essay, Swinburne writes, “All that was accepted for art, all that was taken for poetry, [Blake] rejected as barren symbols, and would fain have broken up as mendacious idols.” Arakawa and Gins have resisted, with increasing scale, the ability of readers/viewers to absorb their work as painting or poetry — or indeed as art. While they may be described as architects of the “Reversible Destiny” projects, the point is not to make aesthetic objects to be appreciated but to construct “stations” that will transform perception. The temporal modeling of Arakawa and Gins’s visual and architectural projects is configured to warp and reform the space-time continuum.  Language is embedded into these works not as something to be read, as on a page or even a screen, but as something to interact with in an unfolding/enfolding web. The constructed “landing sites” of Reversible Destiny challenge rote perceptual patterns and activate underutilized cognitive paths.

energy of meaning

From “The Mechanism of Meaning” (courtesy Arakawa + Gins, Reversible Destiny Foundation)

The idea that genres, if not the aesthetic itself, are a barrier to perceptual transformation connects the projects of Arakawa and Gins to the poets and artists I mentioned earlier and also, as I’ve just intimated, to Blake and to a range of practitioners from Mallarmé and Williams to Duchamp and Cage to Olson’s “Prioprecption,” all of whose antifoundational investigations have a visual and verbal component. In retrospect, we might say that these artists do not so much abolish the aesthetic as extend and transform it, partly because the boundaries of the aesthetic — our willingness or ability to see something as a work of art – are surprisingly mobile.

But if the aesthetic is not a static category, then it may be possible for the “same” object to be viewed, alternately, as aesthetic and not aesthetic. Indeed, aesthetic oscillation is potentially a rhythmic dynamic in a work; that is, a work may be configured in a way that pops out of the aesthetic and then is sucked back in, creating a “hyperaesthetic” environment, to extend an idea of Misko Suvakovic. Such a work would be as far from the heightened aestheticism of Mallarmé as from the post-aesthetic of Conceptualism. In the case of Reversible Destiny, the goal is neither to aestheticize the nonaesthetic nor to deaestheticize the aesthetic but rather to create a zone that is no longer subject to this oscillation.

We used to say the artist would drop away and there would just be the work. With Reversible Destiny, can we go further and say the work drops away and there is just the station, a nonplace or point blank of radical metamorphosis? Only when we experience this as an emplacement of textuality into concrete sensory-perceptual fields – turning ever further away from ideality in the pursuit of an ultimate concretion.

Art is made not of essences but of husks. Hazard will never be abolished by a declaration of independence from causality. But such a declaration, as of reversible destiny, may change how hazard is inscribed in our everyday lives.

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