For the past few decades, artist-architects Madeline Gins and Arakawa have been saying that people do not have to die. They are, according to their latest manifesto, Architectural Body (University of Alabama), “unconditionally supportive of life.” Unconditionally means that they do not accept death as a limit on the human condition. On the contrary, they argue that mortality is not only negotiable but even reversible; as architects, they want to create spaces in which death is impossible.
They have not been shy about stating this goal. You don’t exactly have to twist their arms to get them to say, in the words of the catalog for their 1997 Guggenheim retrospective, “We have decided not to die.” Their commitment to this project has led them to abandon conventional poetry and painting for a thoroughly unconventional architecture, for example the in-progress Bioscleave House in East Hampton and the Site of Reversible Destiny, a park in Gifu Prefecture, Japan. In an interview with the Voice, Gins and Arakawa reveal that they have recently been hired to do a master plan for a 200-hectare island off that country’s coast, and have submitted a proposal to the City of New York for a Museum of the Living Body.
People often say that they do not understand this project. What they really mean is that they do not believe it. They do not accept the basic premise that they do not have to die. There’s also the assumption that Gins and Arakawa do not believe it either. Surely, when they say things like “Death is old-fashioned,” they must be speaking metaphorically; they must mean something more complicated than what they appear to be saying, which the rest of us do not get.
In fact, nothing could be more straightforward than the project to which, decades ago, Gins and Arakawa gave the name “reversible destiny.” Or, in a sense, more typical. Isn’t most architecture about preserving life? Architects do not build with the idea that their buildings will be destroyed in terrorist attacks; they design for living. And is eternal life really such an unusual thing for art to promise? Isn’t that, in fact, one of the most traditional values of art? (Certainly that’s the Hollywood theory of what artists are supposed to do—preserving life is Shakespeare’s job in Shakespeare in Love, Beethoven’s in Immortal Beloved—or am I confusing that with the Dracula film in which Gary Oldman also appeared?)
The difference is that the extension of life that art usually offers is metaphorical life, afterlife, second reality. Gins and Arakawa are much more direct—and for that reason, apparently, much more difficult to understand. They don’t mystify anything. They’re not some kind of religious cult in disguise; they don’t use art as a substitute for having a spiritual life. They’re interested in biological life.
“The art world seems to us to be a conservative place compared to what’s coming at us from other fields,” Gins says. She cites stem-cell biologist Stanley Shostak, at the University of Pittsburgh, whose 2002 book Becoming Immortal suggests (among other things) intervening in the immune system of pre-adolescents so that their bodies will be fit for space travel. Arakawa says that Shostak’s research will help lead people “as quickly as possible to a state of being transhuman.”
That’s why it’s misleading, although clever, for art critic Arthur Danto to engage with their work by adapting Pascal’s “wager” argument: “I have nothing to lose by going along with you. Should you turn out to be right about reversible destiny, that will be great for me, and if you are not, then I will suffer no worse a fate than would have otherwise befallen me.” Gins and Arakawa are not running that kind of gambling house; they don’t act like deities who require worship and belief. Unlike a religion, their project can succeed regardless of whether they have a band of followers who believe them; it requires other forms of support, such as “enormous sums of money.”
The rest of us have been a little shy in responding to the claims of this work. We tend to gravitate toward one of two weak readings: either (1) reversible destiny is a reaction against forces in our culture that can be understood, metaphorically or literally, as deathly (e.g., environmental policies that will eventually render the planet uninhabitable); or else (2) by questioning the life-narrative that terminates in inevitable death, Gins and Arakawa are, in effect, creating a wider range of imaginable possibilities. The first reading is based on the familiar premise of Shakespeare’s sonnets: that art preserves some kind of life-energy, and therefore renders both the artist and the model immortal. In the tradition of American poetics following Whitman, the latter reading puts value on possibility itself, rather than on the specific possibility of not dying. Gins and Arakawa recognize the prevalence of these readings, understand that they are motivated by fear, and somewhat reluctantly authorize them as “a less radical way, but for some people, we are given to understand, a less terrifying and therefore more inviting way” into the work.
Architectural Body also makes some provisions for readers like me, whose first response to anything is to laugh at it.
ANGELA: That’s hilarious. Your house is shorter than its shrubbery.
ARAKAWA: [Laughs] I myself find that surprising. Shall we take a walk around it?
This exchange comes from one of Architectural Body‘s most charming episodes, an extended dialogue in which Gins and Arakawa guide two prospective residents, Angela and Robert, around a house. The building is low because it’s turned to the “snail setting,” at which its surfaces adhere closely to the bodies of its inhabitants, but it later develops that the house can be modified, by means of projecting spines, into a “close-to-snail setting” and a more conventional “roomy setting.” At first, Angela and Robert see nothing that looks like a house; then, when they understand what it is that they are supposed to be looking at, which they take to be a “low pile of junk,” they’re incredulous; when they finally enter the house, they are able to do so only in a playful spirit, guided by Arakawa’s laugh. (Gins and Arakawa do have a sense of humor. One of their privileged antecedents is Don Quixote: “[W]hy not build to your own specifications the windmills at which you wish to tilt?” Another is Marcel Duchamp, whom they associate with Frankenstein, “doctor and monster in one.”)
The tone gradually shifts, as Angela and Robert explore the house and start to ask more practical questions (“Where do people sleep? Or take showers? What about cooking?”). By the end of the chapter, they have been completely converted, revising not only their notions of what a house is and how a person should inhabit one, but also their sense of comfort. In this unfamiliar environment, Angela finds herself acting in a way that’s inappropriately comfortable: “What a cozy spot. If you don’t mind, I think I will curl up right here and take a nap.”
Although their conception of writing books may not be as unfamiliar as their conception of building—Architectural Body offers itself up for inspection as an object that appears to be a book—Gins and Arakawa are nonetheless using the book format to perform a related series of explorations. Everything seems to be up for grabs: the cover design, the dedication (“To transhumans”), even the conventions for handling the book. The chapter “Critical Holder” proposes a set of reading exercises in which the volume and shape of the page alter with each sentence: “Now expand [the] page to fit on an 8 x 11 sheet of paper. . . . Scale the image you are holding up to the height of the tallest tree you can imagine. . . . Instead, scale the page up to the height of the room you are in. That’s it then. The top line rests on the ceiling and the bottom rests on the floor.”
Gins and Arakawa never lose sight of their goal. Estranging the act of reading is not conceived as a substitute for reversible destiny, as though a state of critical awareness could stand in for not dying, but registers a more fundamental disruption. Once you give up on the idea that death is inevitable, it’s difficult to take anything for granted.