This discussion with Momoyo Homma about the work of artists/poets/philosophers/architects Arakawa (1936-2010) and Madeline Gins (1941-2014) took place in the Reversible Destiny Lofts Mitaka where the Tokyo part of the Arakawa/Gins office is situated. We begin by introducing their work through a biographic approach, then through our interpretations of the manifesto “We Have Decided Not to Die,” which fuels the creative process of the five architectural projects built in Japan and in the United States, as well as the multitude of non-built ones. We conclude the conversation by describing the space around us, one of the Reversible Destiny Lofts: its bumpy floor, its sphere room, its colors, and all the others architectural apparatuses that challenges and strengthen any body whether young or old. This conversation comes as a useful complement to the many contributions made by and for The Funambulist about Arakawa and Gins’s work
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Léopold Lambert: Hello everyone. Today my guest is Momoyo Homma, who is a director of the Arakawa Gins office in Tokyo, situated in the Reversible Destiny Lofts Mitaka in memory of Helen Keller. And, that is precisely what we are going to talk about today and, more generally, the work of Arakawa and Madeline Gins. And that has been coming back quite often in my editorial line on the Funambulist, and even a little bit in Archipelago with a previous interview with Madeline Gins herself.
Momoyo Homma: Hi, hi, hi everyone.
L: Thank you for receiving me in the lofts today. It’s a place I always love to be in. Obviously there could not be a better space to do this conversation.
M: Welcome back, Leopold. It’s the second time…
L: …Which actually, allow me to say maybe what is my personal relationship to the work of Arakawa and Madeline Gins.
I’ve been collaborating with Madeline in the New York office for a year and a half, and I’m more than ever very, very interested in the architecture that is being purchased by this office, even though we should also say that Arakawa passed away in 2011 and Madeline Gins more recently in January 2014. So maybe the first thing we should be doing is to really introduce who Shusaku Arakawa and Madeline Gins were. I mean, we usually see that they’re often described as Arakawa being an artist and Madeline being a poet, but I mean it’s actually a little bit more complex than that. It’s one of the rare lifetime collaborations in artistic works that’s very, very impressive. So maybe in a few minutes, for some of our listeners who might have never heard of them, could you maybe describe their artistic biographies, so to speak?
M: Well, Arakawa was born in 1936 in Nagoya, Japan and Madeline, in 1941 in New York. Arakawa started his career as an artist since late-’50s in Japan. And he joined a group named as Neo-Dadaism Organizers. […]But, he found that action through the group activities are not regarded as serious things. So, he left the group and he started exhibiting his own artworks. And I think at that time he was making coffin-shaped-like sculptures. But for people at that time it was very sensational to see something which make[s] you feel uncertain and a little bit…
M: …Disturbed, mhm.
So, many art critics started chasing Arakawa’s artworks. And among them there was a very important person whose name is Shuzo Takiguchi: art critic, poet, a friend of Marcel Duchamp. He knew Arakawa and he was so happy to see a young artist in Japan who was willing to express his passion through his artworks which seemed very new to him. So, Shuzo Takiguchi recommended Arakawa to visit New York to see Marcel Duchamp. And, also, besides Shuzo Takiguchi, there were some more important people important for Arakawa to decide that he’s going to New York.
And in the year of 1961, Arakawa went to New York. According to Arakawa, with only $14 in his pocket and also a recommendation letter by Shuzo Takiguchi to great Marcel Duchamp. And he called Marcel Duchamp from the JFK airport. And he immediately saw Marcel Duchamp. And they got to knew each other. And Marcel Duchamp was surprised to see a young Japanese artist coming to see him. So, according to Arakawa, since then Marcel Duchamp became a kind of supporter of Arakawa.
And the year 1962 Arakawa met Madeline Gins at, I think, art school of Brooklyn Museum. And Madeline was, I think she [had] already started her career as a poet. But, at the same time, she was also painting and she [was] making her own artworks. And they met each other. They really probably felt a kind of …connection and heartbeat.
So, after 1962 they started working together, being together, and they got married in 1965. And I’ve asked once Arakawa, “Why you started working with Madeline? How did you meet her?” And he said, “Well I met her at an art school and some friends of mine told me, ‘She’s crazy’ and ‘Be careful.’ So I became very interested in knowing her. And we started talking [to] each other, and we found that both of us were thinking like, in some points, thinking in kind of [the] same way. Especially about the fear [of] death. So we started talking [about] how to overcome death and how we can create things to let people know that we can probably change the concept or commonsense of death because it’s regarded as a destiny already decided which we never can change. But who says that? Probably, we have more opportunity to see how we can change[…] destiny. So through our conversation we have decided to make a series of work which is entitled as The Mechanism of Meaning.”
Well The Mechanisms of Meaning is a very important work of Arakawa and Madeline Gins, and it consists of more than [a] hundred paintings together with some three-dimensional work. And it’s published in [a] very beautiful book. Firstly, in Germany, and then in the States and Japan, and many other countries. But their first show—of course, the project is still ‘working on progress,’ they say; They never say, ‘this is completed work’; They always say, ‘Our work is working on progress’—Well, The Mechanism of Meaning’s first show was held in Germany. And it was so sensational because people have never seen that kind of paintings. It’s…I would say it’s like a huge notebook of exercises…diagrams and indications and instructions, [about] how to exercise yourself and how to make your mind in different way. It’s hard to describe. But anyway, people really liked it and it was lucky for Arakawa and Madeline because the famous physicist, what’s his name, Werner Heisenberg[…] happened to see the show and he really liked the show and he was so interested in knowing Arakawa and Gins, and personally they met each other. And Mr. Heisenberg was very happy to see a person from Japan and New York working together. It was like a marriage of Oriental and Occidental way of thinking which, really, Arakawa and Madeline wanted to do. And Heisenberg decided to invite them to Max Planck Institute, a special school for physicists and mathematicians, I think, and a very famous school.
L: That’s where it’s getting really interesting and that’s why I was saying it’s so much more complex than just one artist and one poet because they wrote many books together that, if you would need to absolutely put it on a shelf, it probably would be in the philosophy department as they’ve been building architecture as we already briefly introduced […]. And they’re very interested in biosciences in the fact that, as you already introduced, the goal of their work is to rethink of the way we think of life and death, and death in particular.
And so, it’s quite interesting we’re having this conversation because they are no longer here and we all have our own way of interpreting this philosophical scream of, “We Have Decided Not to Die”.[…] I have been trying to articulate an idea around it as well, mostly based on some sort of interpretation of Spinozist philosophy and the sentence of the definition of life given by Xavier Bichat in 1800, who [said], “Life is the ensemble of functions that resist to death.”
But you obviously have your own interpretation as well. So, I would very much want to ask you because every time we say explain that to someone who never heard about it, we say, “Oh, Arakawa and Madeline Gins are the artists or architects […]who wants to build spaces for people not to die.” And people interpret that as…their immediate—and that is why we see we are so much influenced in the way we think about death—what they hear is not the sentence, “A space for people not to die” but, “A space for people to be immortal,” which is a very, very different thing. So, could you maybe introduce to the listeners what would your own interpretation of this sort of manifesto gathered in this one sentence: “We have decided not to die.”
M: “We have decided not to die.”
Well, it is also the title of a big show of Arakawa and Madeline at Guggenheim SoHo in 1997. And in that show they also exhibited a series of The Mechanism of Meaning. I mean, The Mechanism of Meaning is the beginning of the whole work of their life and if you see carefully you will notice that everything is related to our body. Arakawa once told me he wanted to be a doctor when he was very young. And he really was about to start studying medicine, but he realized doctors are just kind of repairmen: They try to repair the part which you have damaged. And doctors are never achieved to make you healthier than before.
So, he thought, well, maybe the concept of ‘overcome death’ is something very new to the world, and so I think it is better to be an artist because artists always give us the new way of thinking and a very new aspect to the world. So definitely, to change your life, to be a person immortal, is definitely [a] very new thing to the world.
Well, so, the title “We Have Decided Not to Die” shows their determination and also manifesto, as you say. And also, they were expecting people’s reactions, like, “Well what does it mean, we have decided not to die? But we all die? So, How can I, how can you do that?” So it’s kind of calling-the-reaction title. And Arakawa said, or Arakawa and Madeline always used to say, “Using your body.” And so people would say, “Well, but how? We all know our bodies are also aging and will die someday.” And Arakawa said, “Well, so maybe you’re thinking [of] death from [a] very narrow aspect, because death…we never know what[…] death means.”
We will probably disappear from this world. But it doesn’t mean you die. Well it doesn’t mean the end of everything because your something will remain in this world. For example, we talk about our great grandmother and [being reminded of] her cooking. Probably it’s part of her remaining in this world. So, in that moment, she’s here with us. We would say, “She’s here with us.” Of course she’s not in the same shape as she used to be but somehow we can feel her when we talk about her. So [does] that mean she died forever? Probably she’s alive at that moment, and those moments, if we connect those moments, maybe without seeing her shape, figure, we can have her together. So, but it’s hard to experience that sort of thing in our ordinary life, everyday life, because we are so busy, everybody is so busy in this world today. So Arakawa decided to study architecture by himself because he thought that architecture is a container of your body…
L: To be creators, as well; It’s everywhere.
M: It’s everywhere, yeah. So, Madeline and Arakawa started concentrating on architecture, and maybe from [the] ’80s-’90s, and try to find how they can create space for people who would be immortal.
L: Maybe before going to the next aspect of the work: There [were] those two quotes that I found particular interest in this vision of death. One is coming from Duchamp himself and his epitaph on his own grave, “It’s only others who die.” Which I find very interesting for all the reasons I try to write about in the past. And another one in Madeline’s book What the President Will Say and Do!!, written in the late ’70s if I remember correctly, which has a chapter which is for me the most beautifully written feminist manifesto called, “All Men are Sisters” with a whole lot of humor as well. But who kind of jokes —Is she joking, I don’t know—but we take the Socratic axiom that all men are mortal. And Madeline says, “All men are mortal, but maybe women are not.” I really recommend reading a bit as well, because it’s fantastic.
But, so, let’s go back to the architecture. Now that we are at this point of [the] biography where Madeline and Arakawa are interested in creating spaces for the body—what we call architecture—where this could be thought as only one thing: The body and the architecture all together. They call that the ‘architectural body’ which has an entire book dedicated to it. But one thing that I’m very, very interested in and, in a sense, I’m asking this question in this space that is called Reversible Destination Loft Mitaka — In Memory of Helen Keller. I would like to talk about Helen Keller and maybe by introducing my question by some sort of fascination that I have in the fact that when architects design buildings, they always think of a very limited amount of bodies they’re building it for. Actually, sometimes they only think of one, and it’s the most normative body. It’s usually a man, not a woman. Everything that takes its measure in architecture would be dedicated to this one body, this idea of normal body. And so, we really limit ourselves by doing so because somehow it develops a violence on every body that does not fit with this image of the normal body for which architecture has been designed.
And so, this is not to say that Arakawa and Madeline Gins don’t have a body in mind when they develop their architecture. But maybe they’re a little bit more humble in what a body is and what a body can do, to again quote Spinoza, “What a body can do.” But they might have one particular body they’re thinking of when they’re designing their architecture which is the body of Helen Keller. So Helen Keller who is called by society as being ‘blind’ and ‘deaf’ and ‘mute.’ Obviously one is never ‘blind’ and ‘deaf’ and ‘mute’ by a sense. There [are] only blind people because there [are] non-blind people, and the world is built for the others. So what if there was an architecture built for these bodies that [are] marginalized by society and Helen Keller? Could you tell us more about this particular aspect of their work?
M: Well, Helen Keller…Well, Madeline told me once when she knew Helen Keller first through Arakawa, she thought, “Well, this story is maybe too sentimental.” But Madeline one day found Helen Keller’s signature and she was surprised because the signature of Helen Keller was so similar to Arakawa’s paintings, some lines on Arakawa’s paintings. So she changed her mind and became interested in Helen Keller’s life.
Arakawa, well…In Japan, it’s very popular to learn about Helen Keller’s story when we are children. Almost everybody in Japan knows the story of Helen Keller. And we[‘re] told she’s, like…I forgot the word…miracle, a miracle-person…we are told that Helen Keller is a miracle-person because she lost her hearing and sight before she became two years old. But she, according to Arakawa, she recreated her body by herself and with great support of her famous teacher Ms. Sullivan, and her family, friends. So the circumstance surrounding her encouraged her to recreate her body. That’s what Arakawa told us.
So, if Helen Keller achieved in doing that, that probably means we can do that too. So that means our body has incredible ability inside, but we will not realize that. Helen Keller could never see something with her eyes but using her body, using other senses, she could see things. And that means our bodies has possibility to create more number of senses, like hundreds or thousands. So Arakawa and Madeline tried to find a way to pull out your extension of your body, try to pull more senses, a number of senses from your body using architecture. So that’s why they always regard Helen Keller as a model when they think of [an] architectural project.
L: And so in the second part of this conversation I would like to focus maybe on the space we are in right now. It is one of the lofts in which visits are organized to show people this architecture. And maybe with the help of photos I will add to the page, could you maybe describe to us the various tactics, procedures, that Madeline Gins and Arakawa have been using to design this space in relation to this manifesto we have been talking about.
M: Ok. First of all, you’d be surprised with this bumpy floor and, well, as you know, Bioscleave House in East Hampton, New York, also has bumps on the floor and the floor itself is slanted. If you see carefully, you will notice that the ceiling is also slanted. Arakawa always said that these bumps will stimulate your arches of your feet. And if you look at your feet, you will find almost everybody has arches, right? There’s no straight line on our feet. So, that means that compared to the flat floor, this bumpy floor is more natural to our body. If we imagine[…] animals, they never sleep on a very flat floor in nature. They try to find a kind of cave or some safe space protecting themselves. And so you will see many corners, like corner space, in this apartment as well.
So once we had residents who had a cat and dog, and I asked them how they are. And they say, “Well, they really love this floor.” So this floor is very natural to animals maybe.
In addition to that, we’ve received many people who are already in 70’s or even 80 and, first of all, we were a little bit worrying about them because some people appeared here with a cane. We were about to say, “Well, it’s dangerous, please be careful.” But we tried to put up in saying that because Arakawa used to say, “Well, this is perfect for elderly people. So you better see them, how they manage the floor.” And that’s true. They came in and they of course [were] surprised…They say, “Wow, what a floor, this is so bumpy.” But, gradually, they start walking. And once, it was a very great experience, I took my mother her…She’s handicap, she cannot walk without her cane. But, when she was here, she said, “Well I don’t need my cane here, because this floor is so secure for me. I can feel like my foot, each foot, is grabbing each bump. I feel so secure with this floor.” And I was very happy. And, obviously, for children it is kind of [a] playground and they immediately start running on this bumpy floor.
So you see the photo. It’s very unique. But I would say please come and experience the floor. Maybe you cannot understand through the photos only.
But, anyway, the floor is the first thing I have to mention. And also slanting floor and ceiling. Slanting floor and ceiling is Arakawa and Madeline’s try to break your image of the size. So, one day you seem[…] taller than you are. Or, if you move to the other side, you become shorter. Or, you can switch that with your family. Maybe your partner becomes so big and you become very small, depending on where you are. So moving your body, moving inside of this apartment, your size may change all the time, so it means that the scale is not only one scale in this world. Your body could be [a] scale of your world. And it’s also trying to say that you don’t have to believe in your common image that that person is tall or short or whatever.
L: It’s something we find a lot—I hope I won’t be, that won’t be some kind of orientalism from me to say—but I feel that’s something you find a lot in Japanese gardens as well in how maybe a little garden of moss can[…], if you try to fathom, that this entire garden could be an entire world in itself. All of a sudden your relationship to your own body completely changes. This is something we find a lot in [their] architecture. Maybe we should say there’s been five built architecture by Arakawa and Gins, and this is definitely a recurrent thing always.
So moving maybe to the ceiling, we see all those silver hooks. Could you tell us about it?
M: Yeah. This is also very unique suggestion to maybe develop a housing complex in Japan I think. But you’ll see in this apartment that you never see any closet-closet space. You will find some drawers but you don’t have big closet as other apartments today always have. So Arakawa and Gins suggestion is try to put your belongings, put your things, to the ceiling so that you will have more space. And looking at the ceiling you see many hooks, silver rings. You can just hang your things from the ceiling. And each hook is quite strong. Like, it’s available to hang like 100 to 150 kilos. So some residents[…] set big furniture to the ceiling and put everything on the ceiling.
L: What about the sphere room?
M: Oh, sphere room. Yeah…yes, yes, people just love it.
L: I slept in it.
M: Oh yeah, that’s right, that’s right. This sphere room, I think, it’s one and only in the world completely sphere room in a residential apartment. Well, you can enjoy the echo of your voice inside of the sphere. It’s also space to feel your weight[…]. And, also, Arakawa and Madeline used to work so hard on studying suitable space for autistic people. And they found that something like sphere room is perfect for them, perfect for them to be released. Have you ever seen the machine for autistic person[s]?
M: There is a very sad machine to calm those people down.
L: Oh yes, yeah.
M: It’s like folding your body.
L: It was invented by Temple Grandin, I think.
M: Oh yes?
L: She got this idea from the slaughterhouses’ mechanism to calm the cattle that goes to slaughterhouse. That says a lot about the fact that you called it sad.
M: Mhm. Well, I would say sad because when I saw it, it’s so obvious that there is a purpose for the machine to certain type of people. So, if we said that the sphere room instead of the machine, we never realized who wants to be quiet, who wants to calm him down or something. And, actually, we received a group of people who have difficulties, like some blind people, some deaf people, and some autistic people all together. One of them, he was a child of like ten years old and he’s [autistic]. And when he was walking on this bumpy floor, he was maybe too excited, and he became too excited and a little bit confused. So we encouraged him to go into the sphere room. And he went into the room and he, all of a sudden, became very quiet and started singing in a very beautiful way. So we were very happy to see the evidence that Arakawa and Madeline always used to say, “This is also, this loft is also for people like autistic people.”
L: You were talking about corners earlier, and maybe the place where animals and obviously humans being animals as well, go to find to have the little territory. And I’m thinking [how] the sphere room might be[…] geometrically defined: Every point of a sphere is somehow a corner, it’s an inclination. And so maybe the sphere room is the absolute corner in the fact that it becomes so many corners that it becomes atmospheric, maybe even more than architectural, it is very interesting.
Maybe to finish this conversation, can you tell us a little bit more about what the Tokyo office is doing, specifically in this housing buildings. I think you are hosting some tours as you mentioned and some workshops. I think it’d be great to finish the conversation by this aspect of things.
M: Okay. Well, it’s been almost ten years since we completed this Reversible Destiny Loft. But our office has established in 2002 because until then, Arakawa and Madeline Gins, those artists [were] basically in New York and they’ve been working based in New York with New York office. But, at that time, Arakawa was coming to Japan so often because he was looking for possibilities to make [an] architectural project in Japan. And, among other possibilities, he found that Nagoya city is willing to study more on architectural project of Arakawa and Madeline. So he wanted to establish their office in Japan.
So, we just made a small, simple office for the Nagoya project. And, along with the Nagoya project,—it was housing complex owned by Nagoya city designed by Arakawa and Gins—but Arakawa and Madeline, at the same time, wanted to make their own, 100 percent Arakawa and Gins designed housing complex. So, we started doing research on where to make [it], and we have selected of course Tokyo. And so that was the story. We needed…first of all, they needed [an] office in Japan.
And we opened the office, and the first project was Nagoya city housing complex and this loft in Mitaka. And I was appointed as a director of the office, so I started working with Arakawa. But, since then, I became more, how can I say…Well, before I met Arakawa, I used to work as an art promoter specializing in Latin American and Central American art because I used to live there. But after I met Arakawa, I [became] so interested in architecture [by] them, because architecture by Arakawa and Gins is so different from architecture we know already. So, yeah, I became so enthusiastic in supporting and working with them.
L: And so in this office—and again we’ll come back more specifically to those lofts, to those housing apartments designed by Arakawa and Madeline Gins—but once again just to introduce a topic, could you tell us maybe about the visits and workshops you have been doing consistently here. And, actually, I just attended one with like thirty second year students doing architecture in Taiwan. That was fascinating to observe.
M: Yeah, yeah. It’s amazing to see such many people here. But, this Reversible Destiny Loft is consisted of nine apartments. Only nine apartments. And, among them, five of them we have residents. And two of the rest, we are using as a kind of weekly short stay room. And the rest, too, for our office, [the] office of Arakawa and Gins. So it’s hard to receive guests all the time. I mean, we have to ask people to make a reservation to visit because sometimes we don’t have any apartment available to show. So we started organizing a tour, architectural tour, which takes around 90 minutes—one hour and a half—and set certain dates. We’ve been holding like twice or three, four times a month. And we receive almost…well, we’ve already received more than 10,000 people.
M: Yeah, it’s amazing. It’s amazing to know so many people are interested in knowing architecture of Arakawa and Madeline Gins. And probably you may feel like 90 minutes is very long for an architectural tour of such a small apartment. But, actually, we need at least one hour or one hour and a half to explain[…] elements that are so important for Reversible Destiny Lofts. And I don’t want to explain all of them in words, in just words. I would like people to experience the space. So, we encourage people to participate in moving around and sometimes lying down [on] the floor. The floor is obviously [a] bumpy floor, which people have become so curious. Or, sometimes as this loft is dedicated to Helen Keller, we organize workshop[s] to put people in blindfold walking so that people can experience why—well, a part of why—a part of why it’s dedicated for Helen Keller.
And each tour the capacity is 20-25 people because of the space. But sometimes we are asked by a big tour. Like today we were asked like 60 high school students are coming. So we had to divide into two groups to experience everything. But, probably we’ve started this architectural tour seven or eight years before. And we’ve found that people really can understand why it’s called Reversible Destiny or it’s called ‘architecture against death,’ well according to Arakawa and Gins, through the experience of the space.
L: Well, Momoyo, thank you so much for your time to describe this amazing life that is going on in the Reversible Destiny Loft in Mitaka here in Tokyo. And, I invite obviously anyone who’s interested in and who is visiting Tokyo to come to one of those tours. Or actually, even better, to stay in one of the lofts.
M: Mhm, great. Yeah that’s much better, mhm.
L: Thank you very much.
M: Thank you very much.