Two photographs side by side. The photograph on the left is of a man viewed from the torso up. He is looking to the side, has his mouth open and is gesturing with his hand as if in the middle of speaking. The photograph of the right is of a man sitting in front of a window with his hands folded in his lap, looking off to the side.

Ask an M+ Curator: Curating ‘Noguchi for Danh Vo: Counterpoint’

Time to ask a curator! Throughout the exhibition Noguchi for Danh Vo: Counterpoint, curious visitors can go ask exhibition curators Doryun Chong (Deputy Director & Chief Curator at M+) and Dakin Hart (Senior Curator at The Noguchi Museum) anything about the exhibition and the works on display. Answers are then posted right here on M+ Stories.

Below are the answers from the first round of questions—the second round of answers will be published after the exhibition’s end. Thank you to everyone who has submitted questions.

‘How do you think the colourful plinths arranged by Danh Vo underneath Noguchi’s works will affect viewers’ perception? What is the reason behind making this curatorial choice?’

Two sculptures sit in a gallery space with white walls. The sculpture on the left is large and made of sheets of metal. The sculpture on the right is smaller and made of a narrow piece of stone sitting on a small metal plinth, which in turn sits on a larger, round wooden plinth. The top of the wooden plinth is covered in yellow fabric.

One of the colourful plinths underneath Noguchi’s works in the exhibition. Photograph: © South Ho.

DC: Danh Vo has recently begun to use these round bases or plinths. There are several in the exhibition, all of different diameters and with different legs, some of them covered with colourful fabrics while others are left uncovered. They are an interpretation of Italian designer and artist Enzo Mari’s autoprogettazione (‘self-design’), which is something like a basic grammar book of furniture-making. It teaches one how to make simple chairs, desks, tables, etc. using cheap, readily available boards and nails, and, by doing so, a way to reflect critically on our era of industrial mass production. Plinths for sculptures in museums are typically white, square, and made out of wood in order to highlight the objects only. What Vo is suggesting here is, why do plinths need to be neutral? In fact, they are objects themselves and thus can and should have a conversation with sculptures and art objects.

DH: I’m not really sure I understand yet exactly how they affect my perception. What I do know is, it’s worthwhile to have our horizons broadened and our assumptions challenged. Noguchi had no interest in producing autonomous aesthetic objects. His idea of sculpture was the relationship between the object, the space it operates in, and those processing and participating in the production of those juxtapositions. What Danh has done by inserting these bases is to make sure that we do not take the most basic terms of display for granted. Noguchi is famously the only artist to have worked as an assistant in Constantin Brancusi’s studio, where object, furniture, and base operated on a single spectrum. In a way, Danh has woven Noguchi’s work into an updated version of Brancusi’s studio of ideas.

‘What are your views on Danh Vo’s Take My Breath Away exhibition at SMK [Statens Museum for Kunst, National Museum of Art, Copenhagen] recently? There are overlapping works such as We the People and Akari paper lamps in both exhibitions—what are some of the highlights in Noguchi for Danh Vo: Counterpoint when compared to the one at SMK?’

DH: What I find most interesting about the three shows (editor’s note: Take My Breath Away was first exhibited at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in New York in 2018) is that they operate in such completely different ways. Yes, they are all museum exhibitions, but they can’t properly be said to even be the same species. Take My Breath Away at the Guggenheim was an unabashedly, sensuously formal exploration of explicitly emotional histories. Like Kandinsky, it aimed—despite the long labels and obvious conceptualism—straight for the heart. At SMK, the same objects were essentially placed in what amounted to open storage and went almost entirely conceptual, as if the content, or the artist, or the audience, needed time to reflect and recover. The shift in register was extraordinary. It makes an important point about Danh’s work, and all good artworks; they are not mathematical equations with only one meaning. Danh is exhibiting his work in the complex, shifting, unreliable the way that we experience and remember things. Noguchi for Danh Vo: Counterpoint is something else entirely. Here we are watching Danh think about how Noguchi fits into his version of the world.

DC: Vo’s solo exhibition at SMK is much more of a survey of his practice from the last decade or so. The M+ Pavilion exhibition does include its own little survey of Vo’s work, but it is meant as a melody or rhythm to stand alone and also interweave with Noguchi’s work. An important aspect of Danh’s practice is an appreciation and recontextualisation of the work and lives of other people, some of whom are artists. In recent years, Noguchi has been one of them. Noguchi for Danh Vo: Counterpoint is the most in-depth exploration by Vo of the work of Noguchi’s, and perhaps anyone’s.

A gallery space with white walls and light grey floors is dotted with various sculptural forms throughout. A large wooden pavilion structure stands in the foreground of the photograph with a large sheet of rice paper lanterns hanging off it. A coloured photographic print hangs on the inside of the sheet of rice paper, and a round table with a small metal sculpture stands in the middle of the pavilion.

Installation view of Noguchi for Danh Vo: Counterpoint. Photograph: © South Ho.

‘Why does Vo like Noguchi?’

DH: That’s a question for Danh. (Editor’s note: you can read an interview on M+ Stories with Danh Vo, where he discusses his thoughts around Noguchi’s work.)

DC: What Danh Vo shared with me during the preparation and installation of the exhibition is that Noguchi was simply full of so many good ideas. That is, Noguchi’s polymorphous and shifting work of six decades came out of a life of constant travels and experiences of many cultures and traditions. All artists think of their work in relation to that of others, especially of their predecessors’, and Vo seems to think of Noguchi as a lodestar, or ‘guideline’ for what kind of artist he wants to be.

‘Why does Danh Vo exhibit Isamu Noguchi's works with his own works? Is it because Isamu Noguchi’s fame will attract more visitors to the exhibition?’

DC: As I said above, all artists are part of the same expansive constellation or galaxy. No artists are islands. All serious artists think about their positions within history, and constantly ponder the lives of other artists and emulate, admire, and are inspired by the work of others. The pairing of two artists was a curatorial decision by myself and my co-curator, which didn’t come out of nowhere; we were largely inspired by the intense relationship—imaginary but also real—developed by the younger artist with the older artist, who is no longer living but very much present in his mind, and in our culture.

DH: Noguchi may, at this point, be considered an old master, but in the world of contemporary art, Danh Vo is the bigger name. But that is irrelevant. Danh works by forming semi-familial affiliations with artists, critics, stories, traditions, objects, and moments in history with which he feels a natural kinship. The extended families he forms are not unlike Noguchi’s imaginary landscapes: overdetermined, ahistorical, and designed not to require control—though Danh’s are also more intensely and explicitly personal. Noguchi could not ask for a better adoptive brother or for a more compelling composite universe to spend time in.

‘How do you balance personal interest with that of a major institution?’

DH: Operate with an integrative sense of mission. Understand the best version of the institution you work for and pour yourself into making it real. Of course this requires sublimating some of yourself to the greater whole, but it also only really works if you’re in synch with the overall mission to begin with.

DC: Institutions are always people. That is, people make and make up an institution, and an institution is nothing without committed and dedicated people. Of course, those who choose to work for an institution do their jobs to fulfil and contribute to its vision and mission, which is always for the good of the public it serves.

A small, abstract white stone sculpture sits in a gallery space on a wooden plinth, the top of which is covered in orange fabric. A wall of windows, covered by white linen curtains, is right behind the sculpture. The scene is viewed through a hole in a dark stone sculpture.

Installation view of Noguchi for Danh Vo: Counterpoint. Photograph: © M+, Hong Kong.

‘What makes a good curator?’

DH: Hopefully there are as many ways to answer this question as there are curators. But for me it’s balancing the specificity of my own vision—you have to have your own ideas, and the stronger they are, the better—with a complete, radical openness to the vision of others. Another way to put this is to say that, for me, a good curator prefers 'and' to 'either/or'. Curating is about picking and choosing, yes, but it is also about opening up to what you don’t understand.

DC: I couldn’t agree more with Dakin’s answer. To supplement, important qualities are curiosity and generosity of spirit. Artmaking is an incredibly laborious process—I don’t mean just physically, but intellectually—and curators, who take on the responsibility of caretaking and interpreting the fruits of that process, need to go about their business with corresponding sincerity and seriousness. Always check your own assumptions, keep your mind open (as Dakin also says), and remember that the work you do is important to helping to keep our culture also open, curious against the trend of cynicism and distrust.

Questions have been edited for length and clarity.

Noguchi for Danh Vo: Counterpoint can be seen at the M+ Pavilion until 22 April 2019. Go here to ask Doryun and Dakin a question about the exhibition!

Image at top of post: Noguchi for Danh Vo: Counterpoint exhibition curators Dakin Hart (left) and Doryun Chong (right).

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