In “Do Not go Gentle Into That Good Night,” the 20th-century Welsh poet Dylan Thomas famously defied death with the words, “Rage, rage against the dying of the light.” In a more conceptual art way, the Japanese-born New York-based Shusaku Arakawa (b.1936) is similarly indignant. He wants to make dying illegal, thinks it old fashioned and views it as an illness that may one day be cured. His partner and longtime collaborator Madeline Gins has claimed that death is immoral. Their contemporary work develops ideals of reversing destiny and escaping the inevitability of death in odd architectural projects.
An example is the “Site of Reversible Destiny — Yoru Park” (1995) in Gifu Prefecture. Visitors to the park are guided through various unusual cognitive and perceptual experiences, while being cryptically instructed to make a note of their landing sites if accidentally thrown off balance. Arakawa believes that losing a sense of balance in his disorienting architecture is good for the immune system and it is part of his campaign against mortality. It is the aversion of a near-death experience, however, that is on display in “Funeral for Bioengineering to Not to Die — Early Works by Arakawa Shusaku” at the National Museum of Art, Osaka.
The exhibition concerns 20 boxes that the artist created between 1958-61 after he dropped out of Musashino Art School and before he escaped to New York where he established himself as an artist, filmmaker and performer. The works were shown in the Muramatsu and Mudo galleries in Tokyo in 1960-61 and subsequently entrusted to friends, acquired by a few galleries, or seemingly lost to oblivion. Three were recently rediscovered and restored in 2007 and another, “Container of Sand” (1958-59), has been rejuvenated for the present exhibition. Exactly what was shown at the original exhibitions, in what quantities and under what titles, remains partly elusive; though the present exhibition is a fundamental resuscitation of the artists early oeuvre.
In 1960, Arakawa was associated with the anti-art group Neo-Dadaism Organizers, though his exhibition that year titled “Another Cemetery at the Muramatsu Gallery” met with opposition from his colleagues for disrupting the groups activities — a peculiarly un-Dada response. From that time are his wooden boxes or “coffins,” the largest about 2 meters long. Inside are organically shaped lumps of cement pressing down on wood chips wrapped in sumptuous fabrics. When some of these works were originally shown at the Mudo Gallery in 1961, such as “Einstein Between Matters Structure and Faintest Sound” (1958-59), a “Memorial Service for a World Art Master” ceremony was performed in which the works were bathed in bright light and then thrown into darkness.
A variety of interpretations orbit these works. The cement forms often look petrified or appear eminently soft and tactile, almost fleshy rather than hard. Some are embedded with glass beads, mechanical metal components and, in one, a cracked mirror. Some have interpreted these slightly grotesque concrete coagulations as the death of the art of the past, while others have intuited Eros, Thanatos, the grotesque, the primeval, madness, magic and fear. Because these have been buried, however, the boxes have also retrospectively been interpreted as the departure point for Arakawa’s new creative directions abroad from 1961.
A small sample of these can be seen in the museum’s supplementary exhibition, which gives a global context of the Neo Dada, Pop Art, Fluxus and Conceptual movements to Arakawa’s contemporaneous activities. His “Portrait Painting No.1” (1961-62) and “Surgical Chat” (1971-2) anticipate his subsequent painting directions. In the former, geometric configurations of lines reminiscent of technical drawings have arrows pointing through them to a little color smudge designated “Mother.” In the latter, colorful sentence fragments are stenciled onto the painting’s surface. Phrases that can be parsed mention nonsense, confusion and forgetting everything; they point to the erroneous interpretative nature of Arakawa’s work and the degrees to which Conceptual Art can simultaneously engage high-seriousness and absurdity.
While some may find Arakawa’s thirst for immortality inspirational, another conceptual artist featured in the supplementary contextual exhibition, On Kawara (b.1933), concedes to inevitability. His “date” paintings, such as “June 23, 1980” (1980), merely note a date in white text on black canvas. If Kawara does not finish a painting before midnight on the day he paints it, it is destroyed.
Kawara refuses to speak publicly about the reasons for particular dates, but the series’ essential meanings concern the abstract and unforgiving forward march of time and, arguably, the enforced meaninglessness of events that hold significance for the artist. The more obviously personal “I am still alive” (1981) series, for which the artist sent out telegrams to his friends with the message “I am still alive,” in this case to Keinosuke Murata, are also on display. They become a poignant reminder that while artworks can likely live on, Kawara will eventually be unable to send his telegrams.
“Funeral for Bioengineering to Not to Die: Early Works by Arakawa Shusaku” at the National Museum of Art, Osaka, runs till June 27; admission ¥420; open 10 a.m.-5 p.m. (till 7 p.m. Fri.). For more information, visit www.nmao.go.jp/english/home.html