Isamu Noguchi: Light and Reconstruction of Folk Art

By Yang Shuming, translated by Ke Lingxiang, Image Courtesy of Noguchi Museum

Akari: Sculpture by Other Means 

Noguchi Museum / New York 

28 February - 27 January 2019

The exhibition, Akari: Sculpture by Other Means, shown from February 28, 2018 to January 27, 2019, occupies the second-floor galleries at the Noguchi Museum in Long Island City, New York and includes over 100 lamps, representing about forty individual models, three of which are large light sculpture installations. The Akari (a word that means “light” in Japanese) or light sculptures are part of the main works that the Japanese American artist, Isamu Noguchi (1904-1988) has created in his later years and they also belong to his signature works. The artistic ambition of Noguchi is achieved through this series of sculpture works, which, as the senior curator at the Museum, Dakin Hart finds, is “with the affordable, lightweight, collapsible, and now ubiquitous” rather than to play the role of ornaments for some buildings or that of private collections in art galleries.

There is a very clear line in Noguchi’s artistic career. Before that dividing line, Noguchi had a solo exhibition after studying art for three months at the evening school in his spare time when he was still a premed student; while having obtained the Guggenheim fellowship award, he went to Paris and worked as a stonecutter for his idol, Constantin Brâncuși (1876-1957) for about two years; then he designed stages for Martha Graham (1894-1991) and later became a costume and stage designer for Merce Cunningham (1919-2009) and John Cage (1912-1992); during the Second World War, he voluntarily moved into the Japanese Internment Camps on the West Coast and lived there for about seven months, attempting to improve the environment of the concentration camps through his art projects, which, unfortunately, ended in failure. After the line, Noguchi decided not to let himself disturbed by the outside world but determined to stick to his artistic ambition: to change the meaning of sculpture and to expand the boundary and definition of sculpture.

The written form of such ambition first appeared in Noguchi’s “Proposal to the Bollingen Foundation: A Proposed Study to the Environment of Leisure” (1949). The proposal is profound and far-reaching with a very clear and complete theme, discussing from the perspective of space the relationships between sculpture and environment and between people and their environment. The principal background of the proposal is the post-World War II period when every aspect of the society needed to reconstruct but people were driven by the industrial and mechanical technology into a corner where they had no place to relieve their spiritual desire, it thus became urgent to redefine the meaning of “existence”. Noguchi suggests in his proposal that he would like to travel in Europe and study the history of leisure physical space and environment, promising to write travel survey notes so as to provide some ideas about how to use sculpture to improve our environment and lifestyle.

Though such a promise did not appear in the written form, the creation of Noguchi’s later life endeavours to fulfill it: to complete a book of works. He travelled to France, Britain, Spain, Italy, Greece, and Egypt, and eventually to Japan as his terminal. During his stay in Japan, Noguchi was invited by the mayor of Gifu to help revitalise the post- war industry of Japanese chochin paper lanterns in Gifu. At that time, Noguchi had created a series of well-known Akari sculptures by combining modern sculpture language and the 20th-century “electricity” technology with Japanese traditional craft of chochin paper lanterns. He had designed a total of over 100 models, aiming to use light and sculpture to create a flexible and open ecological environment in ordinary people’s daily life. It might not be easy to have a famous sculpture but it was very easy to have one of Noguchi’s paper light sculptures.

I happened to read Qiu Zhijie’s long article, which focuses on folk art and is published on Phoenix Art before visiting this exhibition. From any point of view, that the concept and works of the Akari series came into existence and then became popular in the 1950s can be considered as a process that a mature sort of folk art and handicrafts, which has a stroke of luck whilst facing the changes of the times, begins to change, then fuses into the contemporary global cultural consumption system, and finally becomes fashionable.

Noguchi had created the Lunars series in the 1940s, the light sculptures which can reflect light from within. At the same time, he used Japanese traditional woodworking techniques to combine washi with magewa so as to design lamps, an innovative creation from which gradually develops his creative interest in the use of Japanese traditional folk materials and techniques. The design of Gifu chochin paper lanterns is regarded by Noguchi as an extension of the Lunars series. The cooperation proposed by the local government met the need of both parts as the artist himself desired a creative breakthrough and both of them needed each other and had a common strong awareness of innovation. We have no specific information about who had paid the cost of tests, materials, and labours during the process of creation, who was responsible for the prices of the products, or who was the dominant part possessing the creative initiative. The exhibition shows that Noguchi owns the copyright to the design of the Akari series in the United States, and Gifu chochin paper lanterns factories today have still been producing the lamps of this series.

Such a cooperation did not mean that Gifu chochin paper lanterns needed help at that time; on the contrary, possessing such significant characteristics as lightness, easy storage, and high quality, they belonged to one of the chief exports and were widely used in advertisements and during the traditional Obon Festival. The chochin paper lanterns equipped with electricity in Noguchi’s design can either be suspended or stand on the floor, which can be considered as the modern transformation of Gifu chochin paper lanterns. The need to explore the essence of folk art and the awareness of innovation are just like the infinite sparks as soon as such products can meet the new consumption demand and are integrated into the international cultural consumption system. Gifu chochin paper lanterns today are characteristic of various styles and have already become the focus of cultural and creative propaganda in Japanese tourism.

Noguchi’s Akari series cannot avoid the distinction and disagreement between elegant art and folk art. When Noguchi was invited to represent the United States at the 1986 Venice Biennale, the organisers had told him in advance that he could show any of his works in the exhibition except the Akari series as they were too commercial. Noguchi refused to meet such a demand but created the legendary Akari (200D) for the Biennale, the largest work of his Akari series with a two-meter diameter globe suspended in the middle of the space, which is supported by four wooden pillars and possesses the ceiling and the floor but without walls, similar to a Japanese tokonoma. The exhibition at the Noguchi Museum follows the Venice Biennale’s way of presenting this Akari, aiming to make it echo the other two large Akari installations, PL1 and PL2, in the same space. The void shape of light and the solid form of the Akari sculptures combine to create an empty but full space, possessing a poetic touch and a tint of Zen.

The spectator can get inside the two Akari installations, PL1 and PL2. The creative concept of PL2 originates in the Shoji in Japanese traditional architecture, for which the traditional material is merely the transparent chochin paper. In terms of these two Akari installations, Noguchi explains, “the light coming from outside inside, so eventually you end up being inside the light. I think I have that kind of feeling about sculpture, of wanting to be inside the sculpture”; and he further adds, “For me, function was only an initial consideration; my main purpose has always been art as it relates to life.”

The exhibition has a small exhibit hall to display the works by other artists, Akari Unfolded, a selection of 26 lamps influenced by Noguchi’s art and created by the French design studio, YMER&MALTA. The YMER&MALTA studio is also devoted to a similar innovative creation by combining traditional materials and crafts with the latest technologies, such as their experimental exploration of glass, wood inlays, marble, leather, resins, and tapestries that are often used in traditional handicrafts.

Such an innovation of Noguchi is what Qiu advocates in his article: “Contemporary art should follow the logic of folk art and reconstruct the relationships between people and materials and between people and the need of society. […] Folk art itself needs to constantly redefine its role in our contemporary society. […] Objectively speaking, contemporary art and folk art need each other and have been wishing to combine to create new forms of art for a long time.”


Exhibition view of “Akari: Sculpture by Other Means” at the Noguchi Museum, New York, 2108


Exhibition view of “Akari: Sculpture by Other Means” at the Noguchi Museum, New York, 2018


Akari 200D for the 1986 Venice Biennade (1985) Photo by Nicholas Knight


Exhibition view of “Akari: Sculpture by Other Means” at the Noguchi Museum, New York, 2018


Akari PL1 (c. 1973), and Akari PL2 (c.1973) wood enclosure by the Nogu chi Museum (2018) photo by

Nicholas Knight