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  • Jul 01, 2010

Shusaku Arakawa (1936–2010)

Shusaku Arakawa, with a Duchamp piece from his collection, at his studio in New York, 2009. Courtesy Reiko Tomii.

Japanese conceptual artist, architect and poet Shusaku Arakawa, who with his wife, American artist Madeline Gins, was renowned for exploring architecture’s influence on human health, died in Manhattan on May 18 after a short stay in hospital. Gins declined to release the cause of death.

Born in Nagoya in 1936, Arakawa entered the University of Tokyo in 1954, where he studied mathematics and medicine; he continued his studies at Musashino Art University. Embracing the use of found objects and everyday material, his early prints were influenced by the abstraction of the European Dada movement.

Arakawa made his debut at the 1958 Yomiuri Indépendant exhibition in Tokyo, where he presented an installation of coffin-like wooden boxes. Viewers, who were invited to look inside, discovered congealed lumps of cement with patches of fur and hair embedded in them, a grotesquely distorted surface that was reminiscent of the melted flesh of Japan’s atom bomb victims.

In 1960, he joined the Neo-Dada Organizers group, made up of like-minded artists such as Masunobu Yoshimura, Ushio Shinohara and Genpei Akasegawa, who embraced Western art and believed that the arts would eventually become more globalized. With his peers, Arakawa made assemblages of junk and found objects, and was active in protesting the 1960 renewal of the US-Japan Security Treaty.

He moved to New York in 1961 and enrolled two years later at the Brooklyn Museum Art School. Throughout the 1960s, Arakawa continued to work on pencil-on-canvas and ink-on-photograph works, which combined words, scientific diagrams and realist drawings of found objects. Representing Japan, he exhibited some of these works at the 1970 Venice Biennale.

Arakawa and Gins married in 1965, and the couple began to explore the potential of art, design and architecture to “reverse the downhill course of human life,” a pursuit they termed “reversible destiny.” In 1987, they founded the Architectural Body Research Foundation, which organizes interdisciplinary collaborations with leading biologists, neuroscientists, quantum physicists and medical doctors.

The couple elaborated on their theories in several books, including The Mechanism of Meaning (1971), Reversible Destiny: We Have Decided Not to Die (1997) and Making Dying Illegal (2006). They also held solo exhibitions at the Nationalgalerie, Berlin, in 1978; the Hara Museum of Contemporary Art, Tokyo, in 1994; and Guggenheim Museum Soho, New York, in 1997.

Their most recent project, the Bioscleave House (Lifespan-Extending Villa), built in East Hampton, New York, from 2000 to 2008, features windows set at inconvenient heights, oddly angled light switches and a steeply sloped floor leading into the kitchen. By presenting constant physical challenges, the building’s design was intended to keep its occupants on guard and in a “tentative” relationship with their surroundings, thereby preserving their youth.  

In recognition of his accomplishments, Arakawa received Japan’s Medal of Honor with Purple Ribbon in 2003. He suffered a setback in 2008, however, having invested in Bernard Madoff’s multibillion-dollar Ponzi scheme, which forced him and Gins to close their office. At the time of his death, his early works were on display in a solo show at the National Museum of Art, Osaka—a timely but sad opportunity to dwell on the legacy of a pioneer and visionary.

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