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A review of Noguchi: An exhibition at the Barbican Centre, London

by Beatrix Stark Japanese American sculptor Isamu Noguchi (1904 – 1988) took centre stage in a retrospective at the Barbican Centre in London which just ended on Jan. 23. The exhibition, titled Noguchi, is an excellent reminder of – or introduction to – the pioneering work of a twentieth century sculptor whose experimentation revolutionised the […]

Japanese American Isamu Noguchi (1904-1988) was a visionary of postwar Modernist sculpture (image credit= Beatrix Stark)

by Beatrix Stark

Japanese American sculptor Isamu Noguchi (1904 – 1988) took centre stage in a retrospective at the Barbican Centre in London which just ended on Jan. 23. The exhibition, titled Noguchi, is an excellent reminder of – or introduction to – the pioneering work of a twentieth century sculptor whose experimentation revolutionised the idea of what the medium could be.

Noguchi’s most striking work is arguably the Akari Light Sculptures, which Barbican exhibitors hung serenely at eye level from the ceiling of a double-height room. Perhaps the most iconic of Noguchi’s creations, the delicate paper lanterns vary in form and shape, from the geometrical to the spherical, evoking all manner of natural forms and sea life.

The sculptures produce a pleasant sensory experience by distributing a soft haze of yellow light throughout the dim, cavernous, concrete room. Observing how the sculptures inform and interact with the space in which they are situated reveals Noguchi at his most interesting

Integral to Noguchi’s practice was the concept that ‘sculpture exists only to give meaning to the space’.

This idea was perfectly illustrated in the exhibition, where the gentle diffusion of light emitted by the Akari Light Sculptures softened the brutalist, utilitarian, and stark architecture of the Barbican.

The transformative quality of Noguchi’s Akari lantern design has been so successful that it has even seeped into popular culture.

Whenever you see an image of one of the Akari lanterns, you will no doubt think of similar, imitation paper lanterns you’ve witnessed being sold in high street interior décor stores.

From a quick Google search of ‘paper lanterns’, you can easily find seemingly identical designs being sold on Dunhelm, John Lewis and Amazon for a mere £10 (or in the case of Ikea, just £1.75)! By contrast, if you are looking to purchase a real Noguchi lamp, prices stretch well into the hundreds.

This certainly raises the question of whether the commercial success of Noguchi’s work has had a detrimental effect on our perception of his sculptures as ‘art’.

I must admit that at times during the exhibition, I found it hard to detach the image of the imitation from the beauty of the artwork itself.

It is therefore paramount to understand that these are not just simple, mass-produced paper light fittings but products of an arduous creation process. Each sculpture is hand-constructed from the delicate washi paper produced from the inner bark of a Mulberry tree which is then assembled upon a hand formed bamboo ribbing, held in place by a wooden structural skeleton.

I do not think that the commercial success of Noguchi’s work should be something to sneer at; if anything, it is testament to his unparalleled success at enhancing space, even the average domestic environment.

Noguchi’s use of material to play with ideas of weight and weightlessness was also explored in this exhibition.

His ability to manipulate material and form is movingly demonstrated in the work entitled In Memorial to the Dead, Hiroshima (1982).

Constructed from Brazilian granite, this four-metre-high interlocking black arch appears to melt into the ground; the objectively hard and impenetrable material made fluid.

The work is a chilling reminder of the tragedy and trauma inflicted by nuclear destruction. As a Japanese American artist, Noguchi is in the unique position of being able to reflect upon the troubled relationship between the East and West. Noguchi’s decision to display the monument in America was not just about forcing people to directly confront history, but also about beginning the process of reconciliation.

The exhibition had a magical quality, with the display of the Akari Light Sculptures continuing into the Barbican Conservatory, making for an interesting contrast between the natural and the man-made.

Noguchi made me realise that we all have the power to transform and appreciate the spaces we occupy in our daily lives. We are not separate from our environment but both affect it and are affected by it; Noguchi said, sculpture is ‘something which teaches human beings how to become more human.’

Noguchi ran at the Barbican Centre in London from Sept. 30 2021 through Jan. 23rd 2022

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