We Have Decided Not to Die

Arakawa and Madeline Gins: Drawing for Container of Perceiving, 1984, acrylic, watercolor, and graphite on paper, 42½ by 72¾ inches.

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“Use these exercises as a series of ‘filters,’” reads the stenciled statement, “through which to pass subjective modes of interpretation and neutralize to some degree.” Painted by artists Arakawa and Madeline Gins on the first panel of their series “The Mechanism of Meaning,” this direction suggests a way to approach the sprawling work, which comprises eighty paintings adorned with geometric shapes and inscribed with didactic-sounding texts that the duo produced intermittently over the course of three decades beginning in the early 1960s.

Based in New York since that time, the two were well known in the city’s cultural community and celebrated by prominent critics. Yet their idiosyncratic output—poetry, painting, sculpture, film, and, later in their career, architecture—forms a singular body of work that has been somewhat neglected, or even dismissed, in recent years. The conceptual rigor of the artists’ early projects has been shaded by their apparently sincere belief—anticipating in part contemporary transhumanist philosophies—that they could extend mortal life through architecture.

A kernel of this ambition might be found in the diagrammatic imagery and oblique instructions that cover the seven-and-a-half-foot-tall paintings in “The Mechanism of Meaning.“ One panel depicts a box full of crossing lines, centered on a dot. A text instructs viewers: “Please think only of the dot not of the X’s.” On another painting, the sentence “This circle is blank” is inscribed in a circle that is connected by bidirectional arrows to a “blank” circle without text. “Fuck Intercourse!” is written as a stand-alone proclamation on another piece. Some of the canvases prompt viewers to interact with them: one includes a sheet of black fabric that can be lifted by visitors, provided that they consider, according to the instructions, “whether you have ever seen what is underneath.”

 “The Mechanism of Meaning” is dated 1963–71, 1978, 1996. If the early panels suggest exercises intended to neutralize subjectivity, subsequent pieces explore cognition in tactile terms, examining the “splitting,” “texture,” “mapping,” and “feeling” of meaning. The koanlike prompts that dominate the work are meant to inspire paradoxical thoughts that disrupt any settled sense of self a viewer may possess.

 This aim, however, appears to shift in the ultimate section, completed in the mid-1990s following an eighteen-year hiatus. Titled “Review and Self-Criticism,” this group of panels was added to the series a year before the pair’s 1997 retrospective at the Guggenheim Museum’s now defunct SoHo branch. “Review and Self-Criticism” replaces the stenciled letters and diagrams of the earlier sections with enormous rasterized computer renderings of an impossibly jumbled labyrinthine “city without graveyards.” This exercise in visionary urban planning is replete with labels indicating “layers of artificial terrain,” “module-based, paired and contrasted neighborhoods,” and “panoramic views at regular intervals.” 

This new emphasis on the city coincides with the artists’ earliest public pronouncements about radical life extension (the subtitle of the retrospective was “We Have Decided Not to Die”), summed up by the suitably paradoxical phrase that became their signature: “reversible destiny.” This was, in a way, an outgrowth of “The Mechanism of Meaning,” with its exercises meant to challenge one’s fundamental concepts, beliefs, and general approach to understanding the world. As Arakawa and Gins would later claim, they intended “The Mechanism of Meaning” panels “to present the embodied mind to itself,” now rescued from “a dualistic netherland.”1 

What could be a more fundamentally and thoroughly accepted truth than our having to die? Reversible destiny, as the artists wrote in their 2006 book Making Dying Illegal, “commences with the decision not to let the organism that persons (oneself after all) be locked into existing words or narratives, which is to say, with a refusal to let open-ended events be reduced back into limited and mortal ways to live as a person.”2 It was wrong to die, held Arakawa and Gins, and they knew how to avoid doing so.

 

It seems necessary, if not in the best taste, to point out that the two have since passed away: Arakawa in 2010; Gins, four years later. They left a half-century-long legacy both bewilderingly varied and remarkably unified, at times to the point of repetition. After finding early success as a member of the Japanese avant-garde collective Neo Dadaism Organizers, Shusaku Arakawa (usually referred to by only his family name) moved to New York in 1961, supposedly carrying just fourteen dollars and Marcel Duchamp’s phone number. There, he soon met Madeline Gins, a poet who had studied physics and philosophy, in a painting course at the Brooklyn Museum Art School. Arakawa began to exhibit paintings in a style that would culminate with “The Mechanism of Meaning.” His work features diagrammatic brain teasers as well as self-evident descriptions (a drawing of a tube labeled “tube,” for example). Over the decades his paintings would incorporate an interest in architecture. In the ’80s he encouraged people to view his work from special platforms he built of colored plexiglass, sometimes covering the floors with photographs, and installed at oblique angles to the wall. Gins wrote experimental texts (still under-recognized today) that meld poetry, prose, and philosophy. Her titles include what the president will say and do!! (1984) and Word Rain: or, A discursive introduction to the intimate philosophical investigations of g,r,e,t,a, g,a,r,b,o, It says (1969). 

Plotting out their individual careers can feel arbitrary. Even when a work can be attributed solely to one member of the pair, it seems conceptually intertwined with the practice of the other. The linguistic tics of Arakawa’s paintings are obviously indebted to his wife’s lyrical inventiveness, while Gins’s printed publications often feature graphics by her husband. The most important milestone in both artists’ professional lives, then, is their seemingly sudden commitment to reversible destiny, sustained through the last half of their nearly fifty-year collaboration. 

If they had sought previously to cultivate a persistent feeling of instability in regard to the production of meaning, Arakawa and Gins now wanted to wrench people out of the learned habit of dying. Their work acquired a teleology, a reversible destiny to accomplish. They extended the investigations in “The Mechanism of Meaning” with a purpose far more ambitious than simply stretching out one’s mental faculties. Their attention shifted to the embodied component of the embodied mind, and their primary concern became the built environment. As Gins wrote, following Arakawa’s death, in her unpublished manuscript Alive Forever

Human beings interact with their surroundings to so great an extent that it is plausible to think that there could be surroundings, ones constructed with great forethought, that could lead them to reconfigure their life circumstances for the far better (reversible destiny!).3

The two proselytized, as utopian-minded and experimental architects tend to, as much as they built. In two books from the early 2000s and Alive Forever, they established the principles of reversible destiny.4 New terminology proliferated as they developed their philosophy, which presumes an embodied subject compelled to escape death through architecture. Said subject became the aforementioned “organism that persons,” a materialist formulation that casts the living physical entity as primary and the person (one’s social identity) as an effect thereof. In turn, the organism that persons possesses an “architectural body,” which merges with the immediate surrounding environment, or “architectural surround.” To Arakawa and Gins, isolating the architectural body from the organism that persons was a dualism as pernicious as that of the mind-body split. Moreover, the artists identified this split as the greatest cause of mortality. 

Their “procedural architecture” offers a solution, or a series of solutions. Arakawa and Gins aimed to unsettle inhabitants through strategies with names like “tentativeness cradling procedure.” Life could be extended by forcing people into a continual awareness of their built environment by way of physical and mental discomforts that would enhance their faculties. The couple perceived no theoretical limit to how long an adherent of their approach could live.

Arakawa and Gins built, too, having completed five projects. The first three are in Japan, including Site of Reversible Destiny—Yoro (1995), a 195,000-square-foot bowl-shaped park in Gifu Prefecture full of mazes and rapidly shifting terrain divided into zones with names like “Body Enclave” and “Person Region.” The Reversible Destiny Lofts MITAKA—In Memory of Helen Keller—, completed in Tokyo in 2005, is a polychromatic apartment building equipped with echo chambers, undulating pebbled floors, and a set of instructions for use. (“Attempt to account for every single centimeter of your loft simultaneously. Do this as frequently as possible.”) As chronicled by the 2010 documentary Children Who Won’t Die, those who lived in the apartments have reported cured hay fever, weight loss, rekindled romantic longing, and the apparitions of long-lost friends in dreams. (Some of the lofts are currently available for rent via Airbnb; curious travelers can book a stay for a little more than $200 a night.)

The duo’s sole construction in the United States is a private residence built in 2008 in East Hampton, Long Island. Known as Bioscleave House (Lifespan Extending Villa), the structure is similar to an expanded version of one of the lofts, with a rippling floor rising up from the kitchen at the center of the house, surrounded by an unusual placement of windows, and walls painted more than forty colors. The building’s interior also conspicuously lacks doors. Speaking to an incredulous New York Times reporter, Arakawa favorably compared the experience of being in the house to walking on the moon: “If Neil Armstrong were here, he would say, ‘This is even better!’”5

After Arakawa died, Gins designed one more project, Biotopological Scale-Juggling Escalator (2013). Installed at Rei Kawakubo’s upscale fashion emporium, Dover Street Market in New York, the Escalator is a staircase inside a purple shaft. A bumpy, irregular floor rises alongside stairs of even height, if uneven color. In what seems a victory of accessibility standards, given the lack of supports proffered in other works of procedural architecture, handrails resembling veins guide shoppers through the structure. Models of rooms from the East Hampton house line the staircase, each with a tiny figure inset, as a sort of advertisement for reversible destiny: a quick stint on the stairs might briefly extend your life, but you’d need to have a more permanent (architectural) surround to live forever.

 

Arakawa and Gins’s career path invites obvious query: why the sudden assault on mortality? Had the “Mechanism of Meaning” caused them to swiftly ascend to another plane of thought? Did they realize something profound about death’s supposed certitude? Could their dedication to the idea and commitment to theorizing have arisen merely in response to a midlife crisis? It’s tempting to try to draw out an answer from “Arakawa and Madeline Gins: Eternal Gradient,” a new exhibition focused on the artists’ practice from the 1980s, the decade when they halted work on “The Mechanism of Meaning” to devise their notion of reversible destiny. Opened at the end of March at the Arthur Ross Architecture Gallery at Columbia University in New York, “Eternal Gradient” delves into the artists’ considerable archive. (Irene Sunwoo, the exhibition’s curator, gave me a preview of the show this winter.) Alongside snapshots of their studio, introductions to each of their individual practices, and a sampling of their research, the exhibition includes a little-known 1983 proposal for a building in Venice, which offers a glimpse into how their nascent theories of architecture and design developed.

Given several working titles like “Museum of ‘Forming Space,’”  “Container of Perceiving,” and “Container of Mind,” the Venice project arose from discussions with city officials eager to create cultural programming on an underutilized island in the lagoon. While it’s unclear why the project fizzled, archival notes do offer an overview of the building’s conceptual foundation. Visitors were to ascend a topographically irregular “Sloping Roof” before traversing the semi-transparent, obstacle-ridden grated floor of the “Free-Form Grid Perceptual Chamber(s),” which is entombed in what looks like a jumble of rocks. Next, they would enter the “Truncated Cone,” in which a film of their journey thus far would be projected in reverse. Finally, they would ascend into the skylighted, “Cube,” in which might occur, the notes tell us, “the stretching of previously unresolved and of only partially resolved configurated energies through the reflexive muscles of the diagram.” 

While perhaps more akin to the earlier sections of “The Mechanism of Meaning” in its funhouse-as-dissociative-experience vibe, the Venice project is a precursor to the Bridge of Reversible Destiny (1987), on view in “Eternal Gradient” in model and drawing form. The Bridge also originated as a proposal for a European site: it was designed to be suspended over the Moselle River in Epinal, France. Better known than the Venice project, however, the model was featured prominently in the Guggenheim retrospective. The large-scale structure on view there was composed of various geometric shapes—spheres, pyramids, cubes—in monochromatic black, encasing rooms built out of mesh panels. 

“Eternal Gradient” presents a smaller model of the Bridge from an earlier stage in its development, accompanied by dozens of drawings of “screen-valves,” modular sections of the bridge that resemble gridded prisms. The artists’ notes related to the project begin to articulate the philosophy that would become reversible destiny writ large. As architects, “the first of the Non-Dies,” the couple would “take destiny, or the inevitable, fateful progression of the human condition, and reverse that.”

“Eternal Gradient” makes clear that Arakawa and Gins’s thought and work developed gradually. There is no sudden tragedy on view that can explain their fascination with life extension, no aha moment that makes their work comprehensible in terms of biography.6 Indeed, it is uncomfortable that their dogged preoccupation cannot easily be explained away by some traumatic life event, whether you ascribe to the two actual belief or a fantastical commitment to what would be a prolonged, somewhat morbid joke. (To a journalist reporting on her husband’s death, Gins declared “she would redouble her efforts to prove that ‘aging can be outlawed.’”7

Most of the attention paid to Arakawa and Gins in the last decade has arisen from tragedy—their respective deaths, Bernie Madoff’s swindling of many of their millions—accompanied by people awkwardly trying to make sense of their work. Some were brusque, the Guardian going so far as to say that Arakawa’s death was “a flaw in his philosophy of transhumanism.”8 Others were perpetually bemused, especially the couple’s close friend Arthur Danto. “As much as I admired Arakawa and Gins’s work,” he wrote in an obituary for Arakawa in Artforum, “I was never a convert to their theory that architecture holds the answer to immortality.”9  Many insisted on a symbolic interpretation of reversible destiny. As the author of a Wall Street Journal article on the Madoff misfortune noted: “Many of their supporters don’t literally accept the couple’s message on immortality but appreciate it in a ‘metaphorical’ way.”10

But from biochemical and mechanical prostheses to hormonal antiaging treatments to pacemakers available for mass upper-middle-class consumption to blood infusions and dreams, à la Ray Kurzweil, of our fleshy body’s sublimation via an eternal melding with superintelligent machines, we live in an era of transhuman longing and literalism, a time when “minor” advances in life extension are commonplace and larger leaps seem plausible, by dint of having the resources of the latest cabal of outrageously wealthy capitalists thrown at them. Compared to 3D-printed organs and emerging nanotechnology, reversible destiny can seem somewhat quaint in its methodology: no pharmaceutical panacea, no surgical incisions, no bionic replacement or consciousness transfer. But this might itself be, depending on your opinion of Silicon Valley ideology, more impressive than stockpiling stem cells. What a wonder it is to dedicate your life (and your partner’s) to a holistic set of principles, to be reflected in your surroundings and your very consciousness, iterated continuously through visuals, texts, and buildings, in an attempt to rework the world in your mind and work your mind into the world in order that, by sheer twinned mental and physical presence, you might live forever for your efforts.