Hyperallergic reviews the Madeline Gins Reader: “In excess of the singular self”

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June 24th, 2020

(Review) Madeline Gins Reader



Originally published May 9, 2020

Over the course of five decades, poet, novelist, artist, philosopher, and speculative architect Madeline Gins (1941–2014) developed a groundbreaking body of work that traverses disciplinary boundaries. She is best known for her collaborations with her husband, the artist Shūsaku Arakawa (1936–2010). Arakawa was already a young artist of note when they met in 1962. Collaboration quickly took flight as they expanded his painting practice into a series of 83 image-text panels, collectively titled The Mechanism of Meaning, constructed over the course of a decade. In addition to their art practices, Gins and Arakawa co-authored five books. Most notably, during their 45-year collaboration, they developed the Reversible Destiny architectural project, the goal of which was nothing less than to produce buildings and environments that have the capacity to defeat death. The theory behind this is delightfully complex yet, as their 2002 book Architectural Body outlines, it stems from the very sensible observation that architecture exists primarily in the service of the body. But what is the body in the first place? In speculating on this question much upending of ingrained assumptions ensues: Gins and Arakawa reframe not only the conceptual foundations of architecture, but also of the human, which they propose doesn’t exist apart from the body and environment; more properly, the human is an organism-person-environment (Architectural Body, 1). Five projects were realized and the Reversible Destiny Foundation, created by Gins and Arakawa in 2010 to promote their work, keeps this legacy alive.

Given these factors it is no wonder that the Reversible Destiny project and collaborations with Arakawa have overshadowed Gins’s independent literary production, much of which was unpublished or went out of print in her own lifetime. Who doesn’t want to learn how not to die? Who isn’t instantly charmed by the image of Arakawa and Gins, dated 2007, on the Foundation page of the Reversible Destiny website; they sit on the stoop of their residence and studio at 124 West Houston — she looking like a bohemian sphinx, he holding her hands tight with one hand, the other hand carelessly dangling the keys to what I imagine as a kingdom of creative and domestic bliss. That architecture against death and the romance of collaboration far overshadow Gins’s literary legacy should not lead us to assume that her independent writing is of lesser value than her collaborative work. The error of this assumption is made clear by Siglio Press’s publication of The Saddest Thing Is that I have had to Use Words: A Madeline Gins Reader, expertly introduced and edited by Lucy Ives.

Siglio’s Reader provides access to Gins’s major texts, all of which would be currently unavailable otherwise. Lucky for readers, Ives selects a comprehensive array of works: from the 1960s and ’70s, 27 pages of unpublished poems as well as two essays; a complete facsimile reproduction of Gins’s 1969 experimental novel WORD RAIN; and selections from her two other notable book-length works, What the President Will Say and Do!! (1984) and Helen Keller or Arakawa (1994). Ives terms WORD RAIN a “carefully calibrated and constructed artist’s book, as well as a comment on the novel form,” and asserts that it is “Gins’s most brilliant endeavor and among the most significant works of experimental prose of the second half of the twentieth century.” This is not a hyperbolic assessment — the Reader ought to provoke a revision not only of Gins’s legacy as Arakawa’s collaborator, but of the wherefores and why’s of experimental writing — of its capacity to say and do what other forms of writing or art-making cannot. The book as a form of technology might not defeat death but it can create a space for re-tooling our sense of what it is to be human.

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