4 Columns reviews the Madeline Gins Reader: language and breath

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June 24th, 2020

(Review) Madeline Gins Reader

4 Columns

Madeline Gins

QUINN LATIMER

Originally published May 1, 2020

As I began reading Madeline Gins earlier this year—before epidemic became pandemic, before my city and I were quarantined in a sprawling grid of pale apartment blocks, before the bodies of the world were sequestered to their attendant architectures—I kept thinking back to a recent interview with Chilean poet and artist Cecilia Vicuña. Asked whether she thought our species deserved to continue, Vicuña answered, succinctly: “Not really.” Her admission kept blooming in my mind, a kind of welt. I could feel it there, as I brought my fingers to my forehead, then quickly brought them away, remembering: Don’t touch your face.

The questions of species continuation and the domestic architectonics in which such species as ours might best carry on are what Madeline Gins is, for various reasons, best known. An extraordinary experimental novelist and conceptual artist, poet and trained philosopher, Gins was also a speculative architect who, with her husband Shusaku Arakawa, attempted architectural environments that would stave off human death. Their Reversible Destiny project includes Bioscleave House (Lifespan Extending Villa) (2008), a home in East Hampton, New York, with vivid walls and wavelike floors. “This is a means to strengthen the immune system,” Gins notes sharply, in a documentary. “It has to do with not being so damn sure of yourself . . . you’re obliged to watch your balance, carefully.”

Watching one’s balance, carefully, is also what she obliges of her reader. The Saddest Thing Is That I Have Had to Use Words: A Madeline Gins Reader, a startling collection of essays, novels, artist books, and poems, edited by Lucy Ives, makes clear that Gins didn’t go for rote lyrical (or anti-lyrical) celebrations of language or comforting social narratives, but had more pressing goals. Employing a language equal parts phenomenology and microbiology, domestic-architectural intimacy and linguistic voracity, Gins’s literary ambition was nothing short of immunity.

Immunity from what, though? A possible list: from the tyranny of base and false language of political authorities; from the “microphytic agents” that might enter the writer/reader at every turn; from the veneers of meaning that surface words, which to Gins are not only sign, sound, and symbol, but mist, breath, substance, season, measure, odor, numeral, chemical, signal, gender, endlessly escaping material—that is, constantly transforming, or not. “The trial of the imagination ends in the sentencing of words,” she writes, judiciously, judge and patient both.

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