Remembering Arakawa (1936-2010)

Shusaku Arakawa has passed away. I had the opportunity to meet the artist, who was known professionally outside of Japan by his surname, several times over the course of my career. In the 1980s while I was running the ICA Nagoya, I was introduced to Arakawa at Gallery Takagi in Nagoya by the gallery owner, Keitaro Takagi. That time, rather than conversing, Arakawa only inquired about the situation in Japan in a slightly muffled voice, as though mumbling.

Several years later, I went with Takagi to visit Arakawa at his studio in New York. Takagi was enthralled with Arakawa. It seems that they first met when Arakawa was in Paris, where Takagi received his initiation into contemporary art from Arakawa. Since then, Takagi has been one of the artist’s biggest supporters.

Arakawa had been active in Japan in the 1950s, but in 1961 he moved to New York, where he met the poet Madeline Gins, his lifelong partner and collaborator. First exhibited in the 1960s, Arakawa’s series of “Diagram Paintings” was shown worldwide and became representative of his style of conceptual painting. From then on through to the 1970s, he earned broad international recognition as a leading Japanese artist. Written jointly with Gins, The Mechanism of Meaning (1971) became the definitive publication on Arakawa’s conceptual approach to art. Through such work, his interest shifted from the relations between linguistic, semantic and perceptual expression to a syncretic questioning of human life.

Arakawa was deeply concerned with how to resist death, and as an artist, he attempted to carry this out through material methods. Ultimately, his art grew closer to architecture and landscape design. When I visited his New York studio with Takagi, it was exactly this development that we discussed.

Over a substantial period of time, Takagi pushed Arakawa to realize his ambitions. Through a friend of his in Gifu, Takagi obtained both land and money from the prefectural government, whereby in 1995, Arakawa’s Site of Reversible Destiny – Yoro Park in the town of Yoro, Gifu, was completed and opened to the public. An enclosed space utilizing a park-like landscape, this work provided Arakawa a site to physically manifest his worldview. Once he articulated this approach, he no longer considered himself an artist. Instead pronouncing himself a “coordinologist,” he frequently engaged in dialogue with philosophers and scientists. As a result, he has become a model for many young people today.

The last time we met was about two years ago, for a meal with the architect Arata Isozaki at a restaurant in Roppongi Hills. Almost to the point of confounding Isozaki, Arakawa could not stop telling us about his ideas. His train of thought was illogical – he was most likely channeling his partner Gins, and thinking in poetry.

Currently, the Osaka National Museum of Art’s exhibition “Funeral for Bioengineering to Not to Die – Early Works by Arakawa Shusaku” (through June 27) features three large-scale works whose whereabouts had been unknown until 2007, 20 early sculptural works from the period between 1958 and the move to the US, and two-dimensional works made in New York from the 1960s and ’70s, all drawn from Japanese collections. It was ironic that Arakawa should pass away while an exhibition with that title was taking place. Be that as it may, a major star has fallen, and now is the time to cement his place in the history of post-war contemporary art.

Shusaku Arakawa was awarded the Japan Art Grand Prix in 1996, and the Japanese Medal of Honor with Purple Ribbon in 2003.

– Fumio Nanjo (Director, Mori Art Museum, Tokyo)

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