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Living in a house of longevity

by Tomoko Otake

When New York-based artist Shusaku Arakawa died in May 2010 at the age of 73, it caused a sensation — not only because of his influence on many creators, scientists and philosophers, but also because of the gaping contradiction his passing left behind.

For decades, the internationally acclaimed, multi-award-winning artist, along with his partner Madeline Gins, had strongly promoted the idea of their immortality, declaring that they “have decided not to die.” They even called it “immoral” for people to have to die. In recent years in particular, the duo created a series of off-the-wall houses/structures that they claimed would help people achieve longevity.

Little has been made public about the cause of Arakawa’s death, except for the fact that he died at a Manhattan hospital where he had been an in-patient for a week.

Nobutaka Yamaoka was among those who were most shocked and confused by Arakawa’s death. Until recently, Yamaoka, 45, had lived for four years in a condo that Arakawa created in western Tokyo’s Mitaka City to realize their idea of eternal living. Not only that, but Yamaoka was in the final stages of completing a documentary film about his experience of living and raising children there.

However, Yamaoka concluded that the 80-minute film required little change — even after Arakawa’s death. His film, titled “Shinanai Kodomo, Shusaku Arakawa” (“Children Who Don’t Die — Shusaku Arakawa”), opened in mid-December at a theater in Tokyo’s central Shibuya Ward.

Yamaoka, a freelance filmmaker, said he originally had no intention of making a movie about the nine-unit condo. Before moving in, he had been vaguely familiar with Arakawa’s name, but said he didn’t know exactly what the artist was up to. However, he got interested in living there after seeing an advert for rental housing on a local cable TV program in late 2006 and going to check out the property.

Yamaoka started shooting video as a way to document his experience because Arakawa was eager to get feedback from his tenants — about what they had discovered from living in this most unorthodox style of housing. But as time went by, he started feeling like sharing his findings with the public, he said.

And indeed, the housing project completed in 2005 beside a busy six-lane road, and named Reversible Destiny Lofts Mitaka in Memory of Hellen Keller, is anything but ordinary. From the outside, it looks like an alternative kindergarten, with its cube- and ball-shaped rooms painted in 14 bright colors and sticking out in various directions.

Inside, each unit is round with three or four doorless rooms (including a door-deprived toilet) and a kitchen sink in the center. The floors have a rough, bumpy texture like the surface of the Moon, and are tilted downward by 20 degrees into the kitchen. What’s more, the light/electricity switches are placed at purposefully low or high positions on the wall. The vivid colors and the inconveniences — anathema to the barrier-free concept — are meant to bring residents’ sensory perceptions back to life and further invigorate them — with the overriding goal of achieving eternal life.

So what was it really like to live there?

“I feel so different now, before and after the experience,” said Yamaoka, who explained that his recent move out of the condo was for financial reasons (the monthly rent for the roughly 60-sq.-meter unit was ¥200,000).

“It’s like I have an electric wire inside my body now. I don’t do yoga, so I can’t say for sure, but I think people who are really into yoga might feel the same way.”

On top of losing weight and the symptoms of pollen allergy he used to suffer from, Yamaoka said he now has a better grasp of his physical conditions. “When I have stiff shoulders, I realize, for example, that the pain is actually coming from my thighs, and after I massage my thighs, the pain goes. It’s like my body tells me what to do.”

Yamamoka’s wife, on the other hand, found it hard to adjust, he said, and she kept banging her head on the frame of the exceptionally small window every time she went to get the laundry on the balcony and tried to get back inside.

He is not sure whether his preteen son’s outgoing character is the result of the family’s experience there, but is convinced that his toddler daughter, who was born and raised there, is quite different from many others in the way she uses her body.

“We use our upper body a lot, minding less about our lower body,” Yamaoka said. “She uses her whole body when she moves. When she walks, she doesn’t move her arms like we do. Her hands are moving freely in the air, as if she is swimming, or like gymnasts walking on a bar. And her feet . . . she looks like she is more firmly in contact with the ground.”

For the film, Yamaoka also interviewed other tenants, who include the founder of a Jomon-style stretching exercise (which, like the ornamental rope-patterned earthenware pottery from that long distant time in Japan’s prehistory, is themed on twisting of bodies); a nomadic American mother with her two daughters; and a photographer-writer couple. He also shot footage of Arakawa’s lectures, in which the avant-garde artist often appeared exasperated by — or even angry with — audience members who “just don’t get it.”

Yet the idea that humans can reverse their mortality is hard for anyone to swallow, as nobody has ever been known to buck that fate. Still, Yamaoka, who has an engineering degree, said that Arakawa’s approach was that of a scientist, rather than an artist.

“We know that gravity exists, but few people in the world can actually explain in detail why things fall to the ground when we stop holding them,” Yamaoka said. “The moment we label the movement of the subjects ‘gravity,’ we stop thinking right there. But there are so many things in the world we cannot explain. How can we say we have no questions about what it means to be alive or dead? Why can we say Arakawa was the strange one, and not us?”

So does Yamaoka consider Arakawa not dead?

“Well, to me, he is dead,” he went on. “Various people have said that Arakawa is still alive, or that his soul is alive, or that he is alive in our minds through his works. But to me, he is dead. But it is the present-day me who thinks Arakawa is dead.

“There is also a part of me who thinks I should keep the answer to the question on hold, because I have yet to achieve the view on life and death that Arakawa had. Only when I did would I be able to say definitely, ‘Ah, Arakawa was wrong after all. He is dead,’ or ‘Wow Arakawa-san, I didn’t realize you were right here.’ “

“Children Who Don’t Die — Shusaku Arakawa” (in Japanese) is now showing in Tokyo at Image Forum in Shibuya (www.imageforum.co.jp/ theatre/) and at Nagoya Cinematheque in Nagoya (cineaste.jp/). It will also be shown in Osaka, Kyoto, Kobe and elsewhere later this year. For more information, visit www.shinanai- kodomo.com/index.html The Mitaka condo has two short-stay rental units (minimum stay seven days). For details, visit www.architectural-body.com/mitaka or call Arakawa’s office at (0422) 26-4966.