going nowhere

Everybody knows that the useful is useful, but who knows that the useless is useful too?” (Zhuangzi, 4th century BCE)

In the early 1970s, Genpei Akasegawa and some of his friends stumbled upon this staircase in Yotsuya, Tokyo. Having somehow survived the building’s successive renovations, these stairs had outlasted their function and been rendered perfectly pointless. It appeared to this group of artists and students to be a mistake, since capitalism shouldn’t allow for such uselessness. They decided that a staircase leading nowhere was in fact no longer a staircase; it was, by virtue of its acquired obsolescence, art.

From here they formulated the notion of chōgeijutsu or ‘hyperart’: art beyond Art, made without any artistic intent. This was art that could be made by the city, wherever planned utility had given way to accidental futility. The act of finding then replaces the act of creating: in Akasegawa’s (Duchampian) words, “A work of hyperart can have an assistant, but not a creator. In the end, all hyperart has is the person who discovers it.”

Together with the architectural historian Fujimori Terunobu, Akasegawa formed the Rojo Kansatsu ‘Street Observation Society’, with the express purpose of seeking out the city’s useless leftovers that were ready to be elevated as hyperart. Documenting the built environment’s commonplace vestigial scraps – shutters that no longer shuttered anything, bricked out windows, hand railings without the stairs they once accompanied, pathways and doors now leading nowhere – their city became palimpsestic, layered up with redundant lingering relics of things not quite erased.

They named their discoveries ‘Thomassons’ after Gary Thomasson, a major-league baseball star who played for the Yomiuri Giants in Japan, and whose famously perfect swing somehow never managed to touch the ball. In Akasegawa’s words, “he had a fully formed body and yet served no purpose in the world … it was a beautiful thing.” Thomasson was living hyperart; like the superfluous stairs that Akasegawa and co. had christened le stairs pour le stairs, he was an inversion of Louis Sullivan’s modernist credo that form follows function. He was absolute form and therefore without function.

Thomassons soon developed a nation-wide cult following as Akasegawa ran a monthly column in the photography magazine Shashin Jidai, chronicling the group’s documented finds and encouraging reader submissions. This was the mid-1980s: with the bubble economy blowing up, Tokyo was in a prolonged hyperactive phase of redevelopment, expansion and flux. Thomassons pointed to the irrationality that exists within rational order – the regression that comes with progress, destruction in construction, collapse in growth, decay in regeneration, and the inadvertency concomitant with the planned. Capitalism purports to be about efficiency, but extreme waste has always been intrinsic to its systems.

As with Gordon Matta-Clark’s Fake Estates (1973-74), where the artist purchased from the City of New York a series of uselessly tiny plots of land inadvertently remaining between buildings/ development zones, Thomassons remind us that there are always forgotten crevices and leftovers where new meaning can be generated, outside of the city’s prescribed use. David Batchelor’s Found Monochromes project also comes to mind here: since 1997 the UK artist has photographed several hundred two-dimensional rectilinear blocks of whiteness (mostly signs that are painted over, faded off or facing the other way) that he has encountered walking around the streets of London. His role is simply to seek out and document these situated empty images – the city itself is the one making them.

Official urban planning facilitates perpetual production and consumption. By relying on what already exists, these sorts of ‘urban unplanning’ practices are concerned with the possibility of creating something without adding to the stuff of the world. I like to think of the original ‘pure staircase’ Thomasson as an emblem of Sisyphean inefficacy, where every gesture is immediately cancelled out by its reverse. If one reaches the top of these stairs, the only way on is straight back down. Sisyphus pushes his boulder up a hill in order to watch it roll back down, or he watches it roll down in order to push it back up: any notions of ‘progress’ become absurd, since each completion rolls back on itself to its own beginning. … Which brings me back to where I began: the aesthetic of the defunct, where pointlessness is precisely the point.

Image via 9eyes.

Akasegawa quotes are from the book Hyperart: Thomasson, Kaya Press, 2010.

Thomassons live! See the user-generated archive at Kaya Press and here’s the Flickr Pool.

See also: The Subconscious Art of Graffiti Removal.

Article written for the Architecture Association’s publication Fulcrum at the 2012 Venice Biennale of Architecture.

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Three more photographs of hyperart Thomassons by Genpei Akasegawa – ‘A Record of the Wind’, ‘A Weighing Machine After the Rain’ and ‘3pm When the Shadow Crosses the Border’ :

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+ Zoe Leonard’s Walls (2002) …