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Issue 233

Ei Arakawa Invites You to Join In

The artist, who has long shared the authorship of his work, reaffirms his role as a catalyst and instigator

BY Jonathan Griffin in Features , Profiles | 24 FEB 23

A confession: the last time Ei Arakawa performed in Los Angeles, I was out of town. I had it in my diary, but when I realized I couldn’t make it, I wasn’t particularly upset. Besides the event’s title – GET BACK / GET OUT – and the scheduled date, 9 April 2022, the email from the artist’s gallery, Reena Spaulings Fine Art, had offered scant details of what to expect. One piece of information stood out: ‘2 – 6pm (open rehearsals and performance)’. The performance, it seemed, would not be differentiated from its rehearsal. I’d attended too many proudly shambolic, deskilled art performances before, I thought, and I wasn’t so sad to miss another. I was wrong.

Ei Arakawa, Mari Mukai, homelessness, YUMING CITIES, 2008, performance view. Courtesy: the artist; Photograph: Kezo Kioku

Since 2004, when Arakawa first performed at Reena Spaulings in New York, his live events and collaborative performances have, with some recent exceptions, tended towards the improvisational and the chaotic. He has hardly ever performed solo, preferring instead to work with a revolving cast of collaborators. For Mid-Yuming as Reconstruction Mood, which played over three nights in April 2004, Arakawa enlisted six friends and acquaintances – five Japanese and one Russian – whose immigration status was as precarious as his own. Backed by seven songs (32 minutes total running time) by the Japanese pop star Yuming (Yumi Matsutoya), the performers built, erected, then disassembled a scaled-down replica of the stage for Yuming’s 1998 stadium tour. The stage was designed by British architect Mark Fisher, best known for his set designs for Pink Floyd and U2; Arakawa’s performance was inspired by the logistics behind Fisher’s elaborate stage for Janet Jackson’s 2004 Super Bowl halftime show, which had to be installed and then taken down in the four and a half minutes allowed by television advertising breaks. A crew of 450 volunteers reportedly achieved that feat, making Arakawa’s DIY reenactment seem both more and less ambitious.

‘While many of his performances and events barely seem to hold together either formally or as entertainment, a kind of machinic virtuosity is never not in effect,’ writes John Kelsey, the critic, artist and co-founder of Reena Spaulings, in Arakawa’s scrappy monograph Performance People (2021). ‘Arakawa continues to demonstrate that overpopulated, loosely scripted and wilfully chaotic collaborations only gain energy and momentum by maintaining a vital rapport with catastrophe.’

Mid-Yuming as Reconstruction Mood was, in a sense, a kind of anti-performance: all preparation and clean up, no costumes, no set, no overt attempts by performers to engage their audience. If it were not for the crowd gathered in the street, observing the cheerfully helter-skelter labour through the gallery’s front window, passers-by might have skipped past without a second glance.

Ei Arakawa, Dan Poston, David Zuckerman, Jiro, Digital Painting, 2015, performance view. Courtesy: the artist; photograph: Paige Silveria

Contrast the tone of that performance with Jiro, Digital Painting (2015), in which a tuxedoed Arakawa descends a set of steps inside the Dallas Museum of Art, lip-syncing to a pre-recorded song with his arms outstretched. He throws some shapes. If proof were needed that this man was born to perform, here it is. Jiro, Digital Painting is one of three narrative stage musicals that Arakawa has devised, along with Paris & Wizard: The Musical (2013) and How to DISappear in America (2016). It was performed not on a theatre stage, but on the steps that connect the European and the Asian art sections of the Dallas Museum, and it narrated the internal conflict between members of the Gutai Art Association – the influential Japanese collective that operated between 1954 and 1972. Arakawa played the artist Shōzō Shimamoto; the group’s overbearing leader, Jirō Yoshihara, was represented by a singing LED screen programmed with Yoshihara’s most famous painting, Red Circle on Black (1965).

When I met with Arakawa recently, I risked offending him by asking if it was important to see his performances live. He slowly considered the question. Instead of answering directly, he pointed out the autonomous objects and installations he has made in recent years that stand in not only for his own presence, but for the presence of a disparate cohort of collaborators. ‘Sometimes I set up an installation so I don’t have to do a performance,’ he reflected.

In 2017, for Sculpture Projects Münster, Arakawa sited an installation, Harsh Citation, Harsh Pastoral, Harsh Münster, in a grassy field by a lake. Seven LED screens reproduced paintings by other artists and played songs featuring lyrics written with his long-time collaborator, the writer Dan Poston, and music by Christian Naujoks. These screens – which have featured in Arakawa’s work since 2015 – achieve extremely low-resolution images, sometimes to the point of illegibility. This abstraction enables the sculptures to gesture towards the hallowed fixity of painted images (of which Arakawa seems both envious and critical) while also acknowledging their digitally networked mutability. (He once choreographed a dance for Gutai paintings on wheeled display stands.) Alongside reproductions of paintings by his previous collaborators and former professors Amy Sillman and Jutta Koether, Arakawa included Gustave Courbet’s The Meeting (1854), which inspired the installation. The paintings’ voices are glitchy and bot-like: ‘Greeting (online) landscape (bow wow!) far from off the grid (right place!) / Soulmate (patron) realist (solutions) post-studio post-internet (likes!),’ sings My Shared Medium (Gustave Courbet, The Meeting, 1854) (2017). Even when it is object-based, Arakawa’s work feels polyvocal.

Ei Arakawa, Christian Naujoks, Dan Poston, Harsh Citation, Harsh Pastoral, Harsh Münster, 2017, installation view. Courtesy: the artist; photograph: Henning Rogge

Early on, Arakawa’s audience was broadly synonymous with his collaborators: a Lower East Side scene loosely connected to Reena Spaulings and, Arakawa says, the legacy of Pat Hearn Gallery and Colin de Land’s American Fine Arts, Co., which closed in 2000 and 2004, respectively. Arakawa had arrived in New York from Japan in 1998 to study, and many of his collaborators were friends, fellow students and teachers. Artists including Henning Bohl, Kerstin Brätsch, Nikolas Gambaroff, Karl Holmqvist, Jutta Koether, Silke Otto-Knapp, Gela Patashuri, Jay Sanders, Nora Schultz, Amy Sillman, Emily Sundblad and Stefan and Sergei Tcherepnin have featured in many of his projects over the years. Among this distinctly European coterie, Arakawa was in the minority; few of his projects in the U.S. since Mid-Yuming as Reconstruction Mood have involved predominantly Asian people. In the past, Arakawa has tended to embrace this outsider status. He told me that he has often drawn on his identity to ‘offer something’ to his community of collaborators. ‘I believe that when I contribute something, I get something back too,’ he said.

When he moved to Los Angeles in 2019, Arakawa was eager to connect with a new network of collaborators. Invited by friends, he began attending meetings of the Asian American Pacific Islander Arts Network (AAPIAN), first by Zoom and later in person. The organization is a loose, self-directed group that cohered in Los Angeles during the COVID-19 pandemic, partly in response to a spike in anti-Asian hate crime. Arakawa approached several people he met through AAPIAN to participate in a performance, which was to take place at Reena Spaulings’s LA gallery in April.

Ei Arakawa, GET BACK / GET OUT, 2022, performance view. Courtesy: the artist; photograph: Roxie Fuller

Arakawa told me that his ideas for GET BACK / GET OUT were influenced by Yoko Ono’s appearance in Peter Jackson’s documentary The Beatles: Get Back (2021), and the agency she retained even when surrounded by famous white men. In Arakawa’s project, the Beatles would be played, collectively, by the Asian-diasporic participants; he enlisted the white artist and musician Kim Gordon to perform in the role of Ono, and the Black writer, musician and dancer Brontez Purnell to play keyboardist Billy Preston. (In the event, these ‘roles’ were actualized only in the very loosest sense; Arakawa’s directions were mostly performance prompts for others.)

GET BACK / GET OUT  begins with participants seated in a circle, discussing the various forms that racial and ethnic identification can take. Jackson’s film – which documents, almost exclusively, The Beatles’ rehearsals – plays in the background on a monitor. (Jordan Peele’s horror film Get Out [2017] does not appear, but its racial commentary is a subtext for the project.) Soon, people are arranging letters on bits of paper taped to a board, making anagrams relating to their prior conversations, then wrangling a set of large letter stencils to spell the words on the gallery walls. (One suggestion, ‘Contemplate ancestor temple at the rainbow room,’ gets applause.) People strike up a rhythm with shakers and tambourines. Others jig around holding the letter forms. Someone plays an erhu, a two-stringed Chinese instrument. People laugh. Some hold open cans of Modelo.

The curator Olivian Cha, who spectated during the afternoon, described a general atmosphere of confusion while the participants were seemingly immersed in their separate activities. One of the participants, Eric Kim, confessed that he felt self-conscious and awkward, especially since the audience was predominantly white while those taking part were predominantly Asian. This did not detract from his estimation of Arakawa’s project, however, which he’d viewed from the start as a social experiment in which whatever feelings emerged were all valid outcomes.

Ei Arakawa, GET BACK / GET OUT, 2022, performance view. Courtesy: the artist; photograph: Roxie Fuller

The comments of artist Anna Sew Hoy surprised me. All that disarray and aimlessness, she said, was an illusion. For her, the most striking thing about working with Arakawa – whom she’s known since they attended college together in the mid-2000s – was how much care and precision went into planning the event. (On this, Kim agreed.) It is not easy to convince people – especially artists – to give up their time, so to see everyone participating in such a spirit of joy and celebration, she said, was remarkable. ‘That’s the power of Ei.’ She also noted Arakawa’s 2022 performance at David Zwirner, New York, Nemesis Painting (Purr … formance!), in which the artist and a group of people lifted the renowned gallerist above their heads and passed him through a hole in a painting on the wall. (‘Who else could do that?’ she marvelled.) The creative director and musician Anh Do described GET BACK / GET OUT as ‘ecstatic, kind of magical’.

It would be wrong to conclude that Arakawa’s work is motivated by a desire to give people what they want or need. Even if collaborators get a lot out of participating in his performances (‘You always come out of them having learned something,’ writes Koether, in Performance People), that is not why they happen. Despite its collectivism, Arakawa’s work is about himself and his own interests. It requires the single-point perspective of selfhood to throw its other moves into relief. Arakawa does not disappear when he shares authorship, rather he reaffirms his position as a catalyst and an instigator within his community. At a macro level – for anyone who was not in the room, who absorbs his performances through documentation or reading about them – his art concerns the relationship of the individual to the collective, the self to society, the minority to the majority.

David Zwirner participating in Ei Arakawa's Nemesis Painting (Purr...formance!), 2022, performance view. Courtesy: the artist; photograph: Santiago Felipe

Arakawa’s most recent exhibition, which opened in May 2022 at Overduin & Co., Los Angeles, and travelled to the Kunsthalle Friart Fribourg, Switzerland, in February 2023, was titled ‘Don’t Give Up’. It built on recent projects by Arakawa that centred children and their parents: WEWORK BABIES (2019), in which people encumbered with dolls in baby carriers performed various exertions, including tossing said dolls to each other through the air; and Mega Please Draw Freely (2021) at Tate Modern, London, in which people of all ages (but especially kids) were invited to re-create Yoshihara’s Please Draw Freely (1956) by writing and drawing all over the floor of the Turbine Hall.

The press release for ‘Don’t Give Up’ confirmed what some might already have suspected: that Arakawa is undergoing ‘psychic preparation for planned queer parenthood’. The exhibition, which included no live performance, was structured by a cardboard maze that filled the gallery. Arakawa consulted three artist-parent friends – Nicole Eisenman, Laura Owens and Trevor Shimizu – on the travails of balancing an art career and a family. He worked with composer Celia Hollander to set their wisdom, doubts and confessions – such as ‘I HATE THAT I SAY I’M NEVER GOOD ENOUGH’ or ‘INVENT YOUR MODEL’ – to music, which played in the space, alongside LED screens showing paintings of children by Eisenman, Owens and Shimizu, as well as Mary Cassatt and Alice Neel.

Ei Arakawa, ‘Don’t Give Up’, 2022, installation view. Courtesy: the artist; photograph: Paul Salveson

There might be no starker way to join the mainstream than to decide to become a parent. No matter how radically you ‘invent your model’, by having kids you participate in a collective project shared by humans since the beginning of time. In doing so, most people find the support of a community indispensable. In projects like ‘Don’t Give Up’ and GET BACK / GET OUT, we witness Arakawa feeling out his relations to others and, in doing so, strengthening the bonds of shared endeavour. His are DIY communities, put together through willpower and necessity; watching him build them, offline and in real time, is a wonder and should inspire all of us to do the same.

This article appeared in frieze issue 233 with the headline ‘Profile: Ei Arakawa’.

Ei Arakawa's 'Don’t Give Up' is at Kunsthalle Friart Fribourg, Switzerland, from 10 March until 14 May 2023

Main image: Ei Arakawa, Mega Please Draw Freely, 2021, performance view. Courtesy: the artist; photograph: Brotherton-Lock

Jonathan Griffin is a writer based in Los Angeles, USA, and a contributing editor of frieze.