Oct 13 2017

Feuding Foundations Seek Ownership of Artwork by Shusaku Arakawa and Madeline Gins

by Alice Dingle

Artist couple SHUSAKU ARAKAWA and MADELINE GINS’s The Mechanism of Meaning is at the heart of a legal dispute between two foundations set up by the artists. Image from Amazon.com.

A prodigious artwork by renowned artist couple Shusaku Arakawa (1936–2010) and Madeline Gins (1941–2014), titled The Mechanism of Meaning, has been embroiled in a lawsuit stemming from unclear ownership of the piece. A complaint was filed in the New York Southern District Court on October 10 by the nonprofit Architectural Body Research Foundation (ABRF), which was established by the artist-duo in 1987, with the organization claiming to be the rightful owner. ABRF alleges that another foundation established by Arakawa and Gins—the Reversible Destiny Foundation (RDF)—has wrongfully claimed ownership of parts of the extensive artwork.  

The artwork at the center of these allegations exists in several editions and is comprised of an 80-panel structure containing complex puzzles, diagrams and references to subjects ranging from physics to Chinese poetry. It has been shown at the Venice Biennale in 1970 and at the Guggenheim in 2007. The work was constructed over a ten-year period, during which Arakawa’s friend and mentor Marcel Duchamp would visit the duo’s studio.

The complaint brought by ABRF pertains to four charges, including copyright infringement as well as wrongful possession of the property in connection with the unlawful exploitation of the work. There are five defendants: the RDF; its directors Ronald Spencer (attorney and art law specialist) and Michael Govan (also Los Angeles County Museum of Art director); the estate of Madeline Gins; and Stephen Gins, the artist’s son, who is the executor of her estate. ABRF is seeking punitive damages to the amount of USD 1 million, in addition to legal fees and a ruling that ABRF is the rightful owner of the work.

The issue surfaced when Gagosian Gallery announced earlier this year that it was offering Arakawa’s art for sale on behalf of RDF. Its sibling organization ABRF then alleged that the gallery planned to sell a group of paintings that make up one of the editions of The Mechanism of Meaning, which ABRF claims it had received from the artists, alongside all related contextual material.

ABRF has experienced turbulent times in its operations. The organization required infrastructural changes in 2008 after being defrauded of approximately USD 20 million in the Bernie Madoff investment scandal. Following this loss, the artists significantly scaled back the foundation’s work, but continued their research, writing and planning activities. In 2010, Arakawa and Gins established a second nonprofit organization—RDF—after the fallout of Madoff’s Ponzi scheme. However, according to the complaint lodged by ABRF, at no time had the artists “transferred any property to RDF, much less its core holding, The Mechanism of Meaning.”

At the time of this report’s writing, counsel for the defense has not yet filed a response. The defendants plan to cite a case of mistaken identity. Garry Sesser, the attorney acting for the group, has detailed that ABRF sold its edition of The Mechanism of Meaning in 1989 to the Sezon Museum of Modern Art, and that RDF is the rightful owner of the edition in question.

ArtAsiaPacific reached out to David Baum, the acting attorney for ABRF, who has not provided a comment on the proceedings. 

Alice Dingle is one of ArtAsiaPacifics editorial interns.

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