Severe Ascesis: Shusaku Arakawa’s Object-Oriented Ontologies and the Spectral Event

April 30th, 2019  |  Published in April 2019

This takes me back to some of my Japanese reading, in particular to my beloved Dôgen, who belongs to a Zen tradition that is particularly severe insofar as it is particularly sensitive to the sensible. . . . The problems here are very close to those of medieval aesthetics. . . . Must creation be redeemed in its sensible, sensitive, or sensual sumptuousness?. . . There were, mutatis mutandis, the same debates within Zen. . . . Dôgen belongs to a school of Zen that says: No, it’s not a question of jumping out of the sensible; it’s a question of jumping into the sensible. . . . There is, in Arakawa, a respect for sensible presence. . . . But of course this notion of presence becomes, in his work, impalpable; it can only be approached at the price of a renunciation and a relinquishing of the subject. . . . So that singularity, let’s say Duchampian (the West), can only be obtained through a severe ascesis (the East).

– Jean-François Lyotard interviewed by Bernard Marcade, 1988

It is fabled that when Japanese artist and architect Shusaku Arakawa arrived in New York in 1961 he had fourteen dollars in his pocket and Marcel Duchamp’s phone number, whom he phoned directly from the airport, the two soon crafting an intimate friendship. Nonetheless, to relegate Arakawa’s singular work as Duchampian is reductively miscalculated – the two ought to be considered, perhaps contiguously, in parallel. Arakawa’s work, while stilted on the Dadaist tradition, is at once more ethereal, principled, and pragmatic – although the two were equally interested in object-oriented ontologies, their methods could not have been more disparate. The diagram-based abstractions weave together disparate elements in an act of disjunctive synthesis: Arakawa sutures architectural phrases, autopoetic event matrices, biotopian architecture and transgeneric manifestos with disregard to the terms of the Western terms of reappropriation-by- pastiche.

Arakawa, born in Japan in 1936, was one of the principle figures in Japan’s Neo Dadaism Organizers collective, active from 1960 until 1963 and composed of around ten young painters and performers who would periodically convene in a Shinjuku atelier. The collective’s ethos was marked by their violent performances, a response to the political climate of the time – in particular, the Tokyo Neo-Dada group was also violently poised against the increasing number and growing tenacity of public policies aimed at regulating the body in post-World War II Japan. Furthermore, at the beginning of 1960, Japan’s Liberal Democratic Party (LDP), led by Prime Minister Kishi Nobusuke, precipitated the ratification of a renewed treaty with the Unites States, pushing for “bilateral military responsibility” that, instead of articulating equality, allowed the US military free access to Japan. This prompted mass protest – thousands of protesters surrounded the Diet building to exhibit their opposition to US hegemony and Kishi’s authoritarianism. In “Bodies of Memory,” historian Yoshikuni Igarashi considers this moment as both an expression of long-repressed nationalism and a catharsis of the body, seeking revenge against the increasing political and social control of the government.

Diagrams for the Imagination, an exhibition of works by Arakawa made between 1965 and 1984, is featured on display 980 Madison between March and April 2019. We can politically situate Arakawa’s works not only within the post-War terms of unraveled expression and fervid protest, but also within the quietude of an (markedly Japanese) instrumental pragmatic efficiency that is not bondaged to globalization’s neoliberal terms of capital exchange and “relations of production.” Arakawa’s works remark upon how semiotic efficiency of nonverbal discourse can be formidable – an assembly of effulgent molds, radiant contours, and translucent geometric models frame the affects of existential function vis-a-vis domesticating effects. The eye is guided along with architectural precision, opposed to the neo-Capitalist translatability of centralizing the superstructure – in A Couple No. 2 (1966-67), a diagram, reminiscent of an apartment layout, features words like “Table” and “Television,” in frail, desultory quotes, apposed beside “Foot,” “Head,” and “Plant.” There are no hierarchies within Arakawa’s object-oriented ontology: “What has to be educated, shaped, is the flesh itself, the flesh as mold of the spirit” (Lazzarato 13).

Arakawa’s work is bounded, ascetic, semiological and reserved, pronouncing a bodily logic that, undoubtedly, proffers a principal element in his oeuvre, retained from this political vigor of protest. Arawaka’s paintings from the 1960s, including Tubes (1965) and Hard or Soft No.3 (1969), more readily concern themselves with transposing geometric figures from diagrams into a formal assemblage of form and figure, though it is particularly in Arakawa’s work from the 1970s that we see both political and formal boundaries being transfigured. This sense of clash and rupture – evinced by the bleeding variegated blotches in Shape (1970), or the transposed hourglass and evanescent quotational phrases in Forming Wetness (1977-78) – directs one towards what philosopher Tristan Garcia terms the “phenomenon of self-transmission,” an emergence of living objects as the intensification of certain structures within the material universe, facilitated via “the local growth of certain mechanisms and properties” (189). Garcia highlights that this self-intensification is not some didactic practice but, rather, the work of observed objects and material, objects that “more or less comprehend each other” (190) – thus, intensity is not formal but objective (insofar as it is object-directed). Conditions of formation present the emergence of living things that cannot restrict an organism (a macrolevel of the universe) by reducing it to what composes it (a microlevel of the universe). In this way, Arakawa provides us with a biosphere of living materiality, or static objects that emerge as living things via the intensification of this irreducibility (192).

Having just recently moved from Tokyo to New York, Arakawa’s work in the mid-1960s diverged from his standard geometric monochrome works to “diagram paintings,” redolent of schematic blueprints. The work displayed surveys the topography of diagrams supplemented with additional referents, engaging prompts and instructions to facilitate viewing as an active endeavor. For instance, in A Couple (1966­–67), the viewer’s privileged bird’s-eye view of a couple’s bedroom allots a ubiquitous voyeurism – a bed, table, pillow, head, foot, and lamp are displayed while couple-bereft. During this period, Arakawa’s paintings often invoked the spectral role in Eleatic experience of personhood and world-hood. It was also at this point that Arakawa began working with artist and poet Madeline Gins, his soon to be wife and architectural collaborator. The two co-authored a number of books musing over socio-constructive principles while founding Revise Destiny, a creative institution that actively collaborated with practitioners in biology, neuroscience, quantum physics, and medicine to erect residences, parks, and housing complex plans.

Perusing Arakawa’s work invites language and semiological figures into this terrain of flat materiality and I offer object-oriented ontology as a mean to survey such an intensification of place. It is, after all, the “place of the universe which, like the universe, itself, is stratified into levels of comprehension through the embedding of levels of objects in higher levels” (Garcia 190). Whether interior or exterior, Arakawa’s transplanted dynamism invigorates motion. In The Gazing Other (1984-85), architectural plans of halls and corridors intersect and bisect with luminescent hovering letters; a cartographic plane interweaves within an enfolded mesh below. Weight Without Place No.2 (1980-81) shows the self-reliant sifting intensification of a grid that intensively burgeons upon itself, creating an asymptotic milieu of mathematical minutiae.

Thus, Arakawa’s spectral works transpose “the universe of living things” that reproduce “the structure of the universe” and the structure of “comprehended and comprehending objects” while also culling a process of intensification vis-a-vis “intermediary cellular” levels between the molecular level and the bodily level (188). Arakawa often inscribes directional design for the spectator’s eye and body, elbowing his abstractions into a cartographic plane of lived imminence, a parallel plane of performance: “start here,” “move here,” “Body A,” “Body B.” Non-Gravitational Being (1983-84) shows a series of arrows transposed on a grid – these arrows of multiplicity deviate in direction, while an opaque black ball suggests a figure and starting position.  Yes, indeed, the introduction of living beings facilitates what Garcia calls a “qualitative leap” (189), for objective order derives from the differences between levels whereas purely formal order derives from their equality, which short-circuits the objective order. “Properties” or “characteristics,” which Arakawa marks by introducing color and hierarchy in his monochrome compositions – the product of difference and repetition – allow one to differentiate the levels within distinct (though overlapping) planes.

Lyotard, in his extensive writing on Arakawa, likened the artist’s impulsive, or compulsive, use of presence to Buren’s installation work: there is an intention in them “to open the eyes, to open up the gaze of the beholder and, consequently, to carry it beyond what is offered up for it to see” (4). As Jean-Jacques Lecercle notes, Arakawa’s work embodies a haunting philosophical materialism: just as the multi-directional and non-purposive arrows denote, there is an elementary internal oxymoron of “reversible destiny” in Arakawa’s passage to materialism, “that is from a form of thought in which time is of the essence…to a form of thought in which space is central” (19). Arakawa, as an architect, is not interested in aere perennius – building landmarks or monuments – but, rather, in defining a set of architectural procedures. What I impose on Lecerle’s processual construction is that it is, in fact, the spectral figure of observation who actively superimposes transcendental viewership, substantiates Arakawa’s procedure, itself. As Françoise Kral notes, Arakawa’s discrete architecture is a cartographic sensorium, or what Fionn C. Bennett calls the “inter-poiesis of percipient and perception” (77).

In “Architectural Body as Generative Utopia,” Françoise Kral notes that Arakawa’s work combats death and reverse destiny, or Heidegger’s “being against death,” the product of a man aware of the fact that he is bound to die. For Kral, Arakawa’s work represents the demise of modernity pushed to its radical point by redefining the human conditions – not as the product of “something given and biologically programmed” but, rather, as a “Sheer product of reason, something that can be revised and reconfigured.” Arakawa’s grids, seducing the neatly stratified world, suggest that architecture should adapt to man and not man to architecture. Arakawa’s directional – almost instructional – work suggests not the utopic method but, rather, the channel of Enrique Dussel’s “human rationality,” carved on the certitude of the “reality of the other as other,” an openness “to expose oneself to traumataism, like the prisoner who opens his shirt to the firing squad….This is metaphysical relationship par excellence – proximity, revelation, and faith. It is supreme, historical and human rationality” (46-47). Yet, Arakawa’s work does not reveal metaphysical dualisms but, rather, is grounded in its materialist concerns: we positively expose ourselves to Arakawa’s optical instructional relay and apparatuses, our eyes guided by his arrows, poised by his ramps, guided by his gears and graphs. The works redefine “the human condition not as the product of something given” biologically but, rather, underscore “the powers of rationality and scientific thinking and a constant emphasis on the limitations of the” (115-116). In short, Arakawa’s work offers the transcendental field without transforming them into something transcendent.

Arakawa’s graphical worlds invoke a kind of transcendental empiricism wildly distinct from the other Neo-Dadaist organizers Jun Tsuji, Eisuke Yoshiyuki, Shinkichi Takahashi and Katsue Kitasono. In his very final essay, “Pure Immanence: A Life” (1995), published shortly before he took his life, Gille Deleuze proposes such a “pure immanence, neutral, beyond good and evil….the singular life imminent to a man who no longer has a name, though he can be mistaken for no other” (28-29). Such a “singular life” is the life indefinite, directed and filled out by a plane of imminence – the “One” as an index of multiplicity: the event. Arakawa presents us with the manifold event and the viewer as the “One,” presented with the multiplicity of virtuals and a transcendental field that self-enfold, interlace, and reveals through reflection. Traversing this field, similarly, is a process of actualization-events charted via cartographic principles and the willingness of the architectural perceiver to be guided and float. Consequently, Arakawa’s works are not analogous to architecture, but, instead, they actually involve bodily experience and spatial reconfiguration of some sort, provoking the physicality of the spectral viewing experience.

–Ekin Erkan

“A Couple No. 2”


“Forming Wetness”


“The Gazing Other”


“Hard or Soft  No.3”

Works Cited

Garcia, Tristan. Form and Object: a Treatise on Things. Edinburgh University Press, 2014.

Lecercle, Jean-Jacques, and Françoise Kral. Architecture and Philosophy: New Perspectives on the Work of Arakawa & Madeline Gins. Rodopi, 2010.

Lyotard, Jean-François. Que Peindre? Adami, Arakawa, Buren. Leuven University Press, 2012.

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