Noguchi for Danh Vo: Counterpoint
Isamu Noguchi: Citizen, Spaceship Earth
This talk addresses the work of Japanese American sculptor Isamu Noguchi (1904–1988), in dialogue with the practice of Vietnamese Danish artist Danh Vo (born 1975).
Noguchi’s work is an increasingly relevant model for what contemporary art in a totally connected world can be: rooted in tradition and future focused; culturally specific and universal in intent; crafted, industrial, and technological; inseparable from the fabric of society; and made with a deep sense of civic purpose. Today, no artist better reflects Noguchi's uncompromising approach to changing the terms of debate in the art world—and its still surprisingly rigid club rules—than Danh Vo.
The talk was held in conjunction with the Noguchi for Danh Vo: Counterpoint exhibition in the M+ Pavilion.
Date: 17 November 2018
Venue: JC Cube, Tai Kwun
Isamu Noguchi: Citizen, Spaceship Earth
Note: This is a raw transcription of an audio recording. Part of our mission is to release transcriptions as soon as possible, to improve access to M+ talks. Therefore—while we strive for accuracy—in some places, these transcriptions may be imperfect.
DAKIN HART: I just want to thank Doryun and all the staff at M+. It's been an incredible pleasure to work with them and an honour and a joy to bring Noguchi here. And obviously, in conjunction with Danh Vo, which has been a wonderful adventure and an adventure that hopefully will continue.
So the job today is to… Doryun gave a kind of beautiful quick capsule overview of some of the things these two artists share in common. What I've been asked to do is to kind of give a tour around the life and work and mind, most importantly, of Isamu Noguchi with some kind of key reference points: his relationship with Asia; his relationship to the planet. You can see from the title he had a pretty intimate and interesting relationship with and way of thinking about being a citizen of Spaceship Earth. So that's kind of where we're gonna begin. And you can see behind me this wonderful photograph. So this is a tweaked version of the famous Big Blue Marble photograph which many of you may have heard, may not have heard of, I'm not sure, but this is the first big famous view of planet Earth as an object floating around in the void of space. It was taken in 1972 by one of the astronauts on Apollo 17 and then quickly went on the cover of every magazine in every newspaper all over the planet. And this is the first time that most people in the world really got an opportunity to think about the planet as a thing, as an object in space. And it's hard to imagine, it's hard to kind of reconstruct, what it was like before but Noguchi thought about it--
Oh. Okay. No, that's good.
So we're going to, kind of, take a look around and we're actually going to start with an image of a wonderful drawing by Bucky’s… Noguchi's long-time friend and mentor Buckminster Fuller—the futurist, inventor, kind of all-around future thinker. This is from 1928, amazingly. So this is before anyone had the opportunity to view the planet as a planet, but by that time, already, Bucky had a mission for what engineers and inventors and technologists should turn the Earth into. And he viewed the future, sort of, the potential as having a totally naturally and technologically integrated planet. So you can see there are various circles here. The Earth is right at the centre and one of the circles surrounding it, it reads ‘Lightful’. And then some of the text around the edges it reads ‘Time metal mechanics. Time fellowship friendship. Time exquisite light. Time slow matter.’ And then we have images of things like a heart, and the sun and a baby and a church and a dirigible and a radio tower and a pagoda and a lighthouse and a huge wonderful tree set off against the tower for the dirigible. So you can see that Bucky had a kind of a big view of what the planet could be and he turned Noguchi, [who was] very young, this is like 23, 24, 25, into a technological utopian.
Like I said, very difficult early on without any photographs, you had to do this in your mind. You had to imagine what the planet was as an object floating around in space. It's wonderful this term from 1972 that developed the idea of the Big Blue Marble because it, in a way, it personalises the planet into a plaything, into a toy and gives us the idea that it's something that we hold in our hands. That's an idea that Noguchi adored. His mother was a very literary person and trained him in poetry extensively as well as Greek mythology. But he always loved Blake and she read a lot of Blake to him. And he loved the idea of seeing the world in a grain of sand.
Here's an interesting image. This is a front and back cover of Bucky’s… one issue of Buckminster Fuller's magazine called Shelter. Shelter was a journal in which he explored his ideas about how to build the Earth out, essentially. Why two objects… these are two sculptures of Noguchi's on the front and the back cover. The back cover is a sculpture called Glad Day which is actually based on a Blake illustration of Albion as an angel descending to Earth. And on the right is a sculpture called Miss Expanding Universe and this is an image that he made based on a dress that he made for the dancer and choreographer Ruth Page. He made a sort of a really interesting tight-fitting dress that enclosed her arms and her feet and her entire body and allowed her to turn herself into this kind of hood ornament-cum-spaceship. And what Bucky's done is to cut these out, silhouette them, so they both look like starry travellers as if they were firing through space. What that has to do with Shelter actually explains everything about where Noguchi's mind went ultimately in terms of trying to contextualise what it meant to build the Earth, to make the Earth a place to live from the point of view of it as a spaceship floating around in the void of space.
So here's the second version on the left of the dress that Noguchi made for Ruth Page. And what this essentially did... I'm contrasting it here with a kind of a typical Renaissance era illustration of the Ptolemaic view of the solar system. For 2,000 years or more, humankind viewed the structure of the universe as a tidy group of concentric circles. Very simple structure, right? Earth at the middle and then circles radiating out from that describing the orbits of the planets. And then you can see kind of in this zone here, this is the shell on which all of the other stars are because that's how we viewed things. We thought of the heavens as an outer shell encasing the universe with us at the centre.
Right about the time that Noguchi—it's not a coincidence—right about the time that Noguchi worked on this Miss Expanding Universe, which he did in in collaboration with Ruth Page and with Bucky Fuller, Hubble had just proven that the universe was not actually static and that it wasn't actually tidy either. Hubble was able to demonstrate that the universe is a big, amorphous, expanding blob. And so what Noguchi did was to turn Ruth into that big, amorphic… amorphous, expanding blob. And that's what this costume, this amazing costume [is]… So it's basically just a sack dress and it allowed her to assume many different forms and many different shapes, but all of them related essentially to the formlessness of matter.
Here it is. So this is…this is what it looks more like. This obviously is an artist's conception, but this is a more accurate kind of conception of what the universe is really like than that Ptolemaic picture. And of course now we know that we're sort of way out on the edge of it as opposed to somewhere in the middle.
This is the view, obviously, that most of us have of the universe of the night sky. It's easy to see why our kind of conception, our mental picture of the universe, was a flat shell. Sort of many people described it as a sort of black curtain that was punctured with pinholes. That led to some real confusion, spatial confusion, about the nature of things. Obviously constellations, all of the constellations which are interesting because they are quite universal, many of the constellations were shared by multiple cultures. They had different names but many of because they were a kind of pictography they're shared across lots of different… lots of different traditions.
And so what we're looking at here is a projection of Sirius. And you can see, so the closest star in Sirius Canis Major is Sirius which… itself which is 8.6 light-years away. The farthest star away that appears in Canis Major is 3,196 light-years away. Every constellation is an illusion because they're not at all flat of course they have enormous, in fact in some cases a crazy amount of depth, more than 3,000 light-years separate in depth the closest star from the nearest star.
Noguchi was very interested in that way of thinking about the structure of the universe and spent a lot of time thinking about the structure universe. And it works its way into the way then he made sculpture and thought about what sculpture ought to be and what it ought to do. The image on the left is a piece called Strange Bird and there's a version of this in the M+ exhibition. This is the original one in slate. If this looks like a kind of constellation that's not a coincidence. This is a collapsible sculpture. Some people have called these… These were begun and most of them produced during World War II. Some people have called these the perfect wartime sculpture because they break down flat so they're very portable, and they also look… they're quite skeletal obviously. In some ways you could view this as the armature for a sculpture rather than a sculpture itself. It's also a wonderful piece because it's a kind of stand-in for Noguchi himself. He considered himself a strange bird and this looks like it could have stepped out of a surrealist painting, something by Tanguy or Matta, and Lam, someone like that. It is a… sort of an alien being which will come to be more… more relevant as we go on. On the right is another wonderful thing, also in the M+ exhibition. This is just called Space Blot. So this is Noguchi's take, a sort of abstraction except that it really maybe isn't an abstraction, of something like a nebula. It's a celestial object of some sort.
Noguchi often said that his greatest ambition was to do nothing to a rock—just to present it as is. He wanted to make things, he said, that looked like they'd fallen from the sky and just implanted themselves in the earth. And he got an opportunity to do that fairly late in his career. This is in New York City—you can see the Plaza Hotel just behind to the right. This is actually the first public sculpture that was put on Doris… what's now called Doris Freedman Plaza which every… every artist in the world wants to use as a location. This is called the Unidentified Object. So you can see he's very purposefully calling out the history of UFOs. In fact, many people call it the UFO even though it's actually entitled Unidentified Object not ‘Unidentified Flying Object’, because obviously it's lit down on Earth.
Now this is not coincidentally related. Does anybody recognise this? This is… So this is the monolith, one of the three monoliths, from 2001: A Space Odyssey, the great Kubrick film. The monoliths, which are these kind of mysterious objects that appear, turn out to be alien machines. They look incredibly simple, obviously, they’re… they’re… they caused a lot of confusion—not just for the apes—but for everyone because they are hard to interpret, hard to understand. But it turns out that they are a very advanced alien technology that's been gifted essentially to humanity in order to jump-start our development. That's also very relevant for Noguchi. And you can see here in this photograph The Noguchi Museum is an amazing place because we are the Noguchi estate. Everything Noguchi left when he died is at the museum. We have about, something like, half a million pages of photographs and documents and many of those photographs aren't highly interpretive, so they provide a lot of keys into understanding the way that Noguchi thought about the objects that he had made. In some cases we have hundreds of photographs of the same object and you can see here that this is being treated as if it is a kind of alien monolith.
Now the idea of that touching down on Earth and of something falling to Earth and describing a single point, a single specific point on the planet, and try to… as I say that, try to picture again the globe as a whole and the idea of sort of now we would think of it in like Google Earth terms; you know, placing a pin in one specific location. It's amazing that now we can all do that on our phones, but I am not sure that it, even now, facilitates thinking about the planet as a planet. Here Noguchi is taking that approach and applying it to set design, which is an important aspect of what he was about. This is the very first set that he made for Martha Graham. This is called Frontier and it analogises several different things at once, but you can see it's basically a split rail fence that Martha is holding on to, and then behind her is the anchor point of a single length of rope which goes off stage right and stage left on either side, at an angle. So what it's doing is a few different things. Noguchi sometimes described it as lines of a railroad receding into the West, but it is also describing one specific point, it's anchored to one specific point on the Earth and those ropes go up into infinity. You know, because… It's very important they go offstage because you don't want to be able to see the ends of them. And they are essentially connecting Martha to a specific point on the earth and then projecting her point in space out into space. And then analogising that idea… obviously with the idea of the frontier which is so critical in America’s process of self-awareness, coming to sense of self-awareness. So much American mythology, all mythology of the West, is built around the idea of the pioneering spirit and conquering, unfortunately, the frontier.
Now this connects in interesting and unusual ways to Danh’s thinking. A couple of times as we go, I'm going to make reference to things that Danh has done. So on the left, if you haven't been yet out to the exhibition, is just a photograph of Danh sitting under and within one of the installations which is a Dong pavilion that has some of Noguchi’s Akari PL2 panels hung around it, lit. And then Danh has placed some of his own work within this hybrid space that he and Noguchi essentially have made together. And one of the objects is this amazing photograph from the Gemini program, space program. So this is an image taken of the first spacewalk, the first time that man left a capsule, space capsule, and was actually alone, floating in the void of space. And you can see the tether which has described this amazing... It's become a drawing in space but it also, so poignantly, speaks to a sense of being cast out into nothing so tenuously with so little to attach. I love thinking about this versus Noguchi's Frontier ropes and what it means to be anchored or not anchored, and what it means to be floating as opposed to fixed. So much of Noguchi sculpture is about playing with those ideas.
The basic techniques of sculpture are very, very simple, they don't deal with very many things. Scale is key and we'll talk quite a bit about scale. Mass is really key. Noguchi was an absolute genius about… at making heavy things look light and light things look heavy. That's something that he got from tea ceremony, by the way. He said in tea ceremony the key technique is to make light things look heavy and heavy things look light. Because that presents a kind of grace and ease both when it does exist and when it doesn't. But this, Danh is really, really amazing at finding sort of personal and intimate connections to, I think, commonly held feelings, often of uncertainty, in grand, public, historic places. And this is a really lovely example of that in a way that I think connects so beautifully to Noguchi's own cosmic nature.
So we're going to step into another subject, related, very related obviously. Noguchi made lots of things that he thought of as imaginary landscapes. Spaces of the mind he also called them. This one is called Another Land and you can see it's a kind of a puzzle. It's made up of many different pieces of this granite in, kind of, quadrants. Here it is down on the floor at the museum. Here's another image of it on the floor of the museum. We have dozens and dozens of photographs. Noguchi… many of them [are] Noguchi's photographs, circling around this as if he's orbiting over the moon. And in fact that is in part what he was thinking in making these kinds of table landscapes. These were being developed at the same time that we did have orbiters going over the moon, things like Surveyor, lunar Surveyor, and making gridded quadrants. Some of this was being done because this is how we figured out where we wanted to land on the moon; by making highly accurate surveys of the surface.
He moved this around a lot trying to figure out what it was and what it could do and what it was about. Here it is on the worktable. This is a worktable in the studio in Japan. This is where it was actually made. It was made on this block. Here it is sitting behind the Asamiya, his house there, and you can see it's been dropped on the sand and pretty much let go and there are weeds and things growing up around it. Just look how much smaller it looks. Here it is, you would think it should look quite small, it's on a work table, it's a thing that's being made by a human being; but this for some reason really miniaturises it. Here Noguchi is kneeling on it and you can see he's taking advantage of a wonderful thing that happened that gets at another kind of classic Noguchi trope. So that also is a weed that's just grown up between two of the blocks and obviously has been allowed to go. What I love about it is that it immediately turns Another Land into a kind of architectural model. So the weed becomes a kind of scale tree that immediately gives you a point of reference, if you want it, to allow your mind to form the rest of what this particular Another Land is about. And actually that's very important because it's not just ‘another land’, it's many other lands. For every one of us it's potentially a different other land, including for Noguchi who seems to be using it here, the implication is that he's using it for some kind of ritual purpose maybe. Here Noguchi is on it again but with a couple of friends and a camera and some other things. This is great because you really get a sense… Noguchi obviously is not chiding her for dropping her heavy old steel-body camera in the middle of this sculpture. They are literally visiting Another Land together. This is like a vacation; it's a holiday; it's a getaway. It's as if they step through a transporter in Star Trek and have been transported to some alien landscape. And, of course, the scale is utterly changed by having the three of them there together using it as a futon. That's what it looks like, a floor cushion.
I'm moving to another kind of landscape. We're going to talk a little bit about gardens. So I start again with that Ptolemaic view of things. It looks not… again not a coincidence. On the left we have the atomic structure of oxygen and on the right we have the atomic structure of lead. Lead obviously is quite a bit denser than oxygen but in both cases you can see almost all mass is mostly empty space. Everything that we are, everything that we know, everything that we see is mostly empty space. If you take dark matter out of the issue, which is obviously a confusing thing we don't understand very well yet, the universe is something like only 0.000000001 percent matter, and everything else is emptiness. Noguchi knew that and paid attention to that because he spent a lot of his time and was extraordinarily good at what I call sort of micro-macro thinking. He was constantly zooming way, way into things and then zooming all the way out of things. So his perspective was simultaneously cosmic and galactic and universal and very, very specific, in fact atomic. So on the right we have a piece called Mitosis which is an artist’s reconstruction essentially or an artist's conception of cell division. And we had only just recently, as a species, gotten a look inside the human cell and this is Noguchi's take, sort of abstraction, of a very specific stage. Cell division is a complicated process with many steps, the way that we've defined it. This is cytokinesis when the cell is ready to split into two daughter cells that are essentially identical. Really neat thing about this piece, and a kind of a classic Noguchi touch, so the two of them are actually connected—the two pieces, they haven't separated yet. But in order to connect them in a way that was sort of easy and practical he used the bicycle spring. So he screwed the bicycle spring halfway into one side and then wound the other piece around the bicycle string… spring, excuse me, from the other side, and what that gave him was a little bit of tension that would hold them together without having to physically attach anything to the inside. It's kind of a typical Noguchi. Noguchi… We’ll kind of get to a Brâncușian section in a little bit, but Noguchi actually was… is one of those remarkable people who was able to, from very, very early on, sort of meld together the two main branches of sculpture’s family tree in the twentieth century, which are formal and conceptual. You have basically formalist art and then you have basically conceptual art and those two are pretty separate until the last quarter of the twentieth century when it became the baseline. Every artist has to live up to really, to be successful, to be able to do both. But for the first three quarters of the twentieth century, sculptors working did one or the other but not both. And Noguchi is somebody who actually bridged the gap between those two things. And this piece does that really beautifully.
On the left we have a piece that Noguchi made in 1947. This is called Sculpture to be Seen From Mars. So this is made right in the wake of World War II. It was made in sand and then photographed—never executed at true scale, but the idea here was to make an epitaph for humanity. So the idea was that after we nuked the planet and nuked ourselves into extinction that this would be a kind of remainder on the surface of the earth and that maybe an alien race coming to our solar system fifty million years from now would sense that the earth was radioactive and stop on Mars to have a look. And this is what they would see on planet Earth. And they would know by this that there's some sentient race had once inhabited the planet. It's a pretty heavy… pretty heavy idea. He actually did try to find a place and he had a donor in New Jersey who was, at least theoretically, willing to try to execute this—it didn't end up happening in the end. But just so you get a sense of the scale the base of the nose, which is the pyramid at the centre… You can kind of see eyes, nose and face—is that ‘yes’, everyone? So the base of the nose was meant to be one mile long. So the whole thing would have been something like eight miles from end to end.
So, Noguchi's point of view: cosmic, microscopic, at the same time flipping back and forth. And that's expressed in lots of different ways. In lots of different modes. So here we have two of his wonderful black granite table pieces. On the left we have a domestic object that's turned into a kind of imaginary landscape. It's called Ink Stone. So it connects to an Asian object from mass culture, you might say, or material culture. On the right is a piece called Planet in Space, or Planet in Transit, it's also called. So it's a kind of a wave in space but formed in granite, but miniaturised into a table for the home. And actually I had a really interesting experience about a year ago. I met the woman who bought this originally and she had used it for the whole time that she had it as an actual coffee table.
Noguchi made lots of... Going back to that sort of Ptolemaic picture again and the idea of a void punctuated by bits of mass, Noguchi did that many times in many different ways. This is a wonderful piece called Constellation where he actually is playing specifically with the idea of concretising something sort of galactic and spatial. And this is right outside the Kimbell Museum, Louis Kahn's Kimbell Museum, in Fort Worth, Texas. And this actually was… is dedicated to Louis Kahn. That of course, that piece, and so much of Noguchi’s public space making, is based on many different models, traditional models drawn from many different cultures. But the core one is Japanese garden making. This is Ryōan-ji which is a famous rock garden in Kyoto. And it is one of those that you don't enter. It's to be viewed from the terrace. It's very famous for lots of different reasons, mostly because a lot of smart people have been thinking about it and tried to explain it in many different terms, many of the mathematical, for a long time. But one of its great features, it's fascinating features, is that you can never see all of the rocks at one time. They’re never always visible. One rock is always hiding at least one other rock. There are fifteen in total but the most you can ever see at one time is fourteen, and often many fewer than that. That goes to a technique that Noguchi was particularly fond of that he borrowed from Japanese landscape architecture, landscape making, that's often known as ‘hide and reveal’. This is a very famous example of that, sort of, in some ways, the archetypal example of that from Katsura Imperial Villa also in Kyoto. So here you can see the very purposeful creation of the view corridor which is framed by these hedges and by this pathway leading out to a point where the obvious available view has been purposefully blocked by a tree. So this is a kind of… you… you go by this as you enter the villa and it's a kind of promise and a tease about what's to come. And this is a technique in particular that's used to create a sense of vast space in very small places—a technique that Noguchi became very, very good at exploiting.
Now, another very important Noguchi principle: almost every Noguchi object wants to be a place, and almost every Noguchi space also wants to be an object. It's a confusing idea but it's an important one. This piece, which is in our garden in Long Island City, is called Illusion of the Fifth Stone. And this is why. So, from…from different points of view, it appears to be made of four stones and from other points of view it appears to be made of five stones. So it has the illusion of a fifth stone, which if you read the title, which is not necessary, in some ways, breaks the spell, but the fifth stone is an illusion. It is only composed of four stones. But this is a ‘hide and reveal’ compacted down into the form of a single object, which is not something that the Japanese did, primarily because Japanese gardens are for the most part exclusively composed of natural elements and obviously this is a very composed, very carefully planned object.
And Noguchi borrowed Japanese garden design thinking in… in dozens and dozens of ways but not in order to produce Japanese gardens. And the most, sort of, the purest one he ever did is the UNESCO Gardens. He was very fortunate, privileged, to make a wonderful public garden that's attached to UNESCO’s headquarters in Paris, and working with many other distinguished architects and artists. And he promptly… He was given a little spot to place a sculpture on. This is typical of Noguchi; they said ‘Here's the delegate’s plaza, you can put a sculpture right there’ and he promptly took over this entire [chuckles] one-acre space to make a garden in. And then he went and came… [he] went to Japan and got the Japanese—browbeat the Japanese government into putting up the money to make it and into giving him the money to get these stones, all of which come from the Uji River, which is a sacred river and these stones are considered sacred. So it was a big deal for UNESCO, but even that, and… and it caused a lot of trouble, but he described it as a somewhat Japanese garden. Or a sort of or a kind of Japanese garden. Everything with Noguchi is somewhat, sort of, or kind of. That's another one of those links to Danh that we'll get to—the idea of hybridity, combination, synthesis as opposed to purity. So this is Chase Manhattan Plaza where he worked with Gordon Bunshaft, his long-time collaborator from Skidmore, Owings & Merrill. They'd made many projects together but here Noguchi made a rock garden as fountain that's buried in the plaza one full story down. And he described this… he said… he jokingly said that he considered calling it ‘Exploding Universe’ and thinking of it as a kind of volcano ready to shoot these rocks out into space. And you can see that they perch in the water feature, in a way that's very un-Japanese garden-like, because they don't look sort of settled and fixed, but they look like they're ready to jump away. On the left is a plan which if that looks a little bit like a planned view of atomic structure, that also is not a coincidence. And here we are seeing it from down at the level of the garden, the fountain itself.
Now Noguchi thought about… He came to use the term ‘garden’ to just generically apply essentially to all the public space making he did. Because of all of the various terms, this obviously is a courtyard, most of us would describe it as a courtyard rather than a garden. But for him garden implied the relationship with nature and with participatory space that he intended all of his spaces to have. This one, like Ryōan-ji is not enterable, so you can only see it from above and also from the ground level. And you can also see that it does not look at all natural. It's really more like a game board and the idea of creating up a conceptual space in which we're encouraged to move things with our minds and move around in our minds. That's why, even this kind of space, this kind of courtyard, he preferred the term ‘garden’, because it tells you something about what you should be doing in relationship to it. Even if you can't enter it physically, entering it with your mind.
And here you can see him on the right. I love this image just because it gives you a sense—he did, like all designers, have this sort of god complex. Here he is moving the pieces around, you know—he's... he is in charge. But the funny thing or the interesting thing about Noguchi is that he, in a way, makes things in order to train us all to think this way.
Here's another image from the installation at M+ Pavilion. This is a combination that Danh Vo made on the left. This is… Danh has begun to make furniture in the style of Enzo Mari's essentially ‘do-it-yourself’ furniture. He’s… He… Danh took that as a starting point and is now using it in many different ways, doing many different things with it. What I like so much about this is that Danh has placed a Noguchi work called Leda on one of these stools and to me it looks like this stool is a kind of a Petri dish. And it's actually…it's a brilliant interpretation of the piece. The piece is, again, called Leda so it's invoking this mythological tradition of Leda and the Swan when Zeus comes down from Olympus in order to take advantage of a human woman in the form of a swan. And it's a very famous subject in art history. Many of the great Italian Renaissance painters made versions of it. Lots of other painters have made versions of it. And so have sculptors and in marble. Taking the opportunity to try to create a dance of bodies of two totally different species—which is a great plastic challenge if you are, say, an eighteenth century French sculptor. Noguchi has taken the subject in a totally different direction. And I'm implying what that direction might be. On the right is a kind of a typical biological sample that's being grown and this happens to be fungus. I only chose it because I like the green and the orange, it doesn't really matter what it is. But if you think about the piece, Noguchi's piece, as a biological sample and as a microscopic view of ‘Leda’, in big air quotes, rather than as a depiction or also as a depiction—because everything with Noguchi... Noguchi is never an ‘either/or’ artist, Noguchi’s an ‘and’ artist. The idea is to layer everything, multiple interpretations are…always are possible. So, yes, this piece, in a way, you could call it biomorphic surrealist abstractionist from 1942 that is saying something about the congress between two beings. You know, there certainly are meetings and there's the kind of implication perhaps of a wing and a body. But I think it's much more poignant and accurate to think of it as something like the zygote that's formed by the conjunction of the genetic material of Zeus and Leda. And what we're seeing is the cell in the process of forming. And here are… This is just a typical scientific illustration of a zygote which is a fertilised egg over the first seven days of its existence. And you can see that the kinds of developments that are happening as the cell begins to form and divide.
Noguchi—it's not irrelevant, I should mention—Noguchi not only… he didn't even finish a year of college. He was born in LA as probably most of you know, he was American, but… and went to elementary school in Japan, came back to Indiana of all places, Rolling Prairie, Indiana to go to high school and then went to Columbia. Started one year at Columbia as a [medical] student and he went there because there was a famous virologist at Columbia at that time also named Noguchi who Noguchi sort of hero-worshipped and he thought that he wanted to be a research scientist, a medical research scientist. And he was fascinated by medical technology his whole life. So this isn't just coincidental. It's not just a flight of fancy here.
Noguchi had dealt with Leda before. The piece on the left is made while he was in Paris with Brâncuși in 1928. And you can see he's still skirting and trying out different things. You can certainly read this as an act of copulation, very abstracted act of copulation. But there's also a sense in which this is a kind of swan’s wing almost turned into a sort of sailboat, a vessel, that's winging away. And you can imagine it… It is called just Leda, not ‘Leda and the Swan’ which is the traditional title. And you can imagine this is Leda in a kind of escape act, an idea I like very much, combined with this alternative perspective that we talked about before of a microscopic view of a sort of Leda II in formation. There's a nice connection here, I think, to Danh. Danh has an incredible way of looking at the foundational baseline stories that we all, to some extent or another, form our identities in our way of thinking about how we relate to each other around. And digging into them and finding alternative stories, hidden stories, within them. And those hidden stories for the most part get at formerly or often marginalised perspectives, marginalised people, marginalised hidden points of view. And this is a beautiful example, this also is in the exhibition at M+. It's in a shipping container outside of the gallery. If you go see the show you'll receive an explanation of why Danh has put most of his own work in shipping containers outside the museum as opposed to within the main part of the show. I think it's a... it's an incredibly eloquent choice and that does relate very much to this piece.
So here we have a kind of broken Christ set against a text work which reads ‘Dirty dancing’. And it’s… There are many different ways to come at this, but for me I find particularly poignant the idea of trying to rethink the Passion of the Christ from another point of view, from another perspective. To reanalyse the sacrifice, reanalyse or rethink about Christ's state of mind and what exactly it was he was being persecuted for.
So I'm gonna do a kind of quickie on Noguchi’s biography. Here are three photos of Noguchi in Japan. So, little… little boy, four, on a tricycle. Training kendo, kendo mask, sword, he's about seven. And then the passport photo that he got taken in order to come back to the United States at thirteen. Noguchi was not named for the first three years of his life. His mother wanted his father to name him and his father had ran away from them before he was born. And so she just didn't name him—she called him boy or she called him Yo, which was short for both Yosemite—his father was a bohemian poet who had spent a lot of time in California with many famous Californians actually, John Muir and… and others, and had written a book-length poem about Yosemite called Voice of the Valley—it's quite a good poem—and so she just decided to wait—and his name was Yonejirō, so Yo was also somewhat appropriate in that sense, but… but she didn't really use it as a name and she didn't give him a formal name. He didn't get that until he was... on that picture on the left. But at this point on the right he was actually—we're looking not at Isamu Noguchi but we're looking at Sam Gilmore. So Isamu was shortened to Sam, an Americanised version of course, and then he went by his mother's last name which was Gilmore, not Noguchi. Here we have two views. This is right before he left Japan and right after he arrived in Rolling Prairie, Indiana with two very different sets of friends. But obviously, in both circumstances, somewhat betwixt in between, culturally. Which was pretty much the story of his life.
Here he is as a teenager. This is a year or so into his time in Rolling Prairie, Indiana. You can see he's trying to look about as American as he can get. It's not a terribly comfortable position. And I love this sort of liminal photograph on the right in which he seems to be sneaking away or disappearing. And by the time that he was eighteen, his mother pushed him out of [medical] school. She decided… She told him that he was destined for greater things. She thought that being a doctor was okay but wasn't really doing as much for the world as he might and she thought that the right role for him was artist. She wanted him to be an artist so she got him to leave Columbia and take art lessons [chuckles] at a teeny little art school in the village in New York called the Leonardo da Vinci School of Art which was run by an Italian immigrant named Onorio Ruotolo. And Noguchi, in about three months, went from no experience whatsoever as an artist to doing this. So here he is making, for a public audience, a perfect scale copy of Gutzon Borglum's seated Lincoln. This was a public performance. This is three months into his career as an artist. And he was eighteen years old. He very quickly… He was immediately made a member of the Academy, the National Academy of sculpture and of arts. And then a couple of years later, like so many New Yorkers in America, he got a first look at Brâncuși. And he went to this show at the Brummer Gallery in 1926. And what he immediately realised was that he had become the poster child of a—because he was very celebrated in New York—he'd become the poster child of a totally passé art form, academic art making, and he didn't want to be that. And so, like every ambitious artist on the planet, at that time, he tried to get to Paris. And he won a Guggenheim Foundation grant which at the time you got by writing directly to the family and they gave him enough money to go to Paris. And less than a week later Noguchi lived a charmed life. He was like a… He was a magical person. He somehow talked his way into Brâncuși’s studio. Brâncuși never took students and he didn't have any assistants, he worked by himself. And they didn't share any language in common except sculpture making. And one way or another, Brâncuși accepted him and he ended up spending about six months in Brâncuși’s studio. And then when he left, and he left by choice because Brâncuși was trying to force him to become… Brâncuși took him on, I think, because like so many mentors there was somewhere he couldn't go himself that he was curious about, and he thought that Noguchi could be what he called a native abstract speaker. So the idea that he could actually learn sculpture through abstract art as opposed to having to append it to a more conventional, traditional education in art. And Noguchi had no interest in pure abstraction so he left.
But he went immediately and made his own studio which we’re seeing him here on the right which looked exactly like Brâncuși’s studio and had all the same kinds of things in it. And he proceeded to make things that were very much in Brâncuși’s orbit but then beginning to explore ideas of his own. On the right, of course, we have something that looks like it's related to a Bird in Space. On the left, we have something that's unlike anything Brâncuși ever made called Positional Shape. A totally conceptual thing out of… made out of a beaten sheet of brass tied down to a block, you can see, with various strings. It looks like a balloon that wants to float away or a sail perhaps, set out on a ship.
He made things like Abstraction in Almost Discontinuous Tension which is the piece on the left. And that's in the exhibition as well. It's maybe the first true drawing in space—it's just two pieces of round bar, bent round bar, held together with wires and it spins like a mobile. And then a wonderful thing on the right called Red Seed which is a sort of… somewhat a mechanised seed, you can see, has a little bite taken out of it and then it's got this one little root tendril that seems to be going down seeking the earth.
And he… While he was in Paris he also took life drawing classes and we have hundreds of figure drawings in which he's working his way through every major modernist style then prevalent in Europe. The great thing about Paris at that time is that everybody was showing in Paris. So you could see what the German Expressionists were doing, you could see what the Constructivist were doing, you could see everything. It was like New York fifty years later, or now, so it was… it was very easy to kind of do a quickie survey. And we have these drawings where he's working his way through. On the left you can see that he’s channelling neoclassical Picasso or a Matisse. On the right, we have something that looks like a Picassian guitar. This is one of the so-called Paris Abstractions in black and white gouache. What's interesting is that he is trying to analyse and figure out and find a form of abstraction that works for him. A form of figure abstraction that works for him and that's also his own, not just borrowing from someone else. But what becomes clear in Paris is that he doesn't quite find it.
Just about a year later he decided that he wanted to go back to Japan for the first time. And he wrote to his father and his father told him not to come to Japan, and, if he did to come to Japan, not to use his name. And he was rather put off by that. He decided to take the slow way and went by the Siberian railroad and stopped in Beijing and ended up spending about seven months there and sought out Qi Baishi, the great Chinese painter, and gouache painter. That's Qi on the left and a painting of his Polliwogs and Toads. [chuckles] Wonderful painting on the right and we'll see just how this connects. Here Noguchi is sitting on the stoop. That's in what was Peking at the time, in English. While there he ended up making a big series of scroll paintings. This is one of them. We called… He called them the Peking Drawings, so we still use that term. You can see that it's a figure but it's also a form of language. And what's interesting about cubism—which you can see him thinking his way through and processing—cubism is semiotics. It is a way of translating formal thinking into a sign language as a way… as a kind of abstraction and as a way to theoretise of space, the manipulation of space. Noguchi didn't want to do that. He didn't want to copy that. But he found his own way to do it in the pictographic language. In a pictographic language that he didn't understand. Not understanding the language was extremely helpful because he could view it formally as image. What's so interesting about these is that the abstractions were drawn first, painted first. And they look like characters, and they look like characters that are pictographic. They don't actually mean anything, they're not real characters, but they look like they could be and then the figures were drawn over the top. So he's finding his way to his own version, his own sign language, his own way to abstract the figure and manipulate the human figure. So, [it’s] very important, because Noguchi is so often presented as the kind of archetypal ‘between East and West’ artists. And so much of the focus is on Japan and the United States and his relationship as a… In his own life it drove him crazy but even now, at least half the articles written about Noguchi identify him as a Japanese artist. He chose his own versions of East and West. He was very interested in that, and he spent his entire life talking about being a bridge between East and West. But here we see at this sort of formative foundational moment, right at the very beginning of his career, the East and West that he chose was in the form of a Romanian folk artist who happened to be living in Paris and the Chinese Picasso. Totally fascinating. These are his chosen gurus, his chosen mentors. This is his version of how to hybridise East and West, just totally on his own terms and in his own way.
And this is what began to come out of it. And you can see—So this figure on the right is called Death or Lynched Figure and this is a very famous sculpture that was part of many anti-lynching exhibitions in the United States in the beginning of the 1930s. That's a whole other story, very interesting conjunction between the Asian-American community in the United States and the civil rights movement. At the very beginning of the civil rights movement, there was a great conjunction, and the Asian American community was incredibly supportive of the civil rights movement and so there are many of the most prominent Asian artists or artists of Asian extraction in the United States participated in these shows. And then on the left a piece called Birth. And Noguchi tried to show these two works together and wasn't allowed, his gallerist wouldn't show them together; Birth and Death. She agreed ultimately to show Death but not Birth, because the United States… we like violence a lot more than we like sex.
DAKIN HART: These two pieces are almost contemporaneous, perfectly contemporaneous. And they begin to show you Noguchi shooting off into his own ether, his own orbit, his own world. On the left is Queen which is a kind of hybridisation of… It's as if you hired Oskar Schlemmer to make you a Haniwa sculpture. And on the right we have a monument that he spent fifty years trying to get built. This was a Memorial to Benjamin Franklin and you can see the kite, the lightning bolt and the key. So these are both from 1932 or so.
Just to show you the way that this hybrid thinking progressed throughout his career, these are two particularly spectacular pieces he made as part of a huge body of folded aluminium. He studied kirigami and origami in elementary school and was obsessed [in] his entire career with making three-dimensional sculpture out of two-dimensional materials. So here on the left we have Sesshū, which is a kind of long… Sesshū was famous for his landscape scrolls, very long landscape scrolls, 100 feet long. And Noguchi have studied one of those with a not well-known artist that we’re actually doing now a major exhibition on named Saburo Hasegawa who had written his senior thesis on Sesshū and was actually a very, very important critic, art critic in Japan who was the first man to explain European abstraction in Japanese in the 1930s. And so on the left, Sesshū, on the right, Orpheus. And you can see this becomes a kind of a trope for Noguchi. Constantly working both sides of the East-West divide but through his own form of essentialisation and abstraction. So on the right, Orpheus is a kind of constellation punched and folded in aluminium. On the left, again, we have a kind of verticalised folding scroll.
He was also working on things like this. This may be the first real proposed piece of American land art. This is called Monument to the Plough. And this is a pyramid proposed. Again this was meant to be one mile on a side at the base. It would have been in continuous crop rotation, so it was a celebration of the technology, the stainless steel plough that quote-unquote ‘settled the West’. On the right, you can see it would have had a concrete cap and the cap would have been surmounted by this big ribbon of stainless steel to evoke the plough. Needless to say this did not get built. Noguchi proposed this to the Works Project Administration which was part of the... part of the American government that was spending money to try to get us out of the Depression. So you can imagine a government bureaucrat getting this proposal [chuckles] for building a one mile by one mile by one mile pyramid somewhere—Noguchi was proposing Oklahoma. And here we have this… So Monument to the Plough was not built. The Memorial to Benjamin Franklin eventually was built in Philadelphia—you can visit it there. It's not exactly along that original plan. It's following another model for engineering reasons but you can see this ongoing theme. This is connecting all the way back to the Frontier, of making things that place man in a specific spot on this planet in the universe, connecting us ever upward, ever outward. This is an object that Noguchi made right about the same time, early 1930s. This is called Boy Looking Through Legs. This is a self-portrait and it contains an incredibly important detail that you don't get in almost any single photograph of Noguchi because the great majority of them, and there are thousands, are in black and white. And it's that Noguchi had bright blue eyes. And it's an essential fact to understand about him because it meant that he could never pass anywhere. He basically looked Japanese but he had bright blue eyes, so he was always between. He was never able to just go with the flow. And he made that the centrepiece of his identity formation. And it's important. Here we have a piece of Danh’s. This is a school portrait of himself at obviously a very awkward stage. The key thing to know here is that in terms of becoming somebody with an alternative perspective, and a different way of looking at the world, awkwardness is not an unfortunate side effect. It's actually the precondition of having a different perspective. And that is what so much of Danh’s work explores so brilliantly, is the personal impact of that, and then what it means to try to personalise our shared history from that alternative perspective. And obviously you can see Noguchi as well here exhibiting a quite awkward and unusual alternative perspective.
So just to run through a couple of other ways of looking at Noguchi that are interesting to Danh, important to Danh. Incredible diversity of practice as you can see in this photograph of his studio from the mid-1940s. Every kind of work imaginable… was exhibiting through the same kind of diversity. So we have works here made out of wood dowel that look like rice, actually called Rice in the Fields. That's a lost work, unfortunately. Const... Bird's Nest at the back centre—that's actually in our exhibition. We have a table, surreal table landscape, one of the interlocking pieces. We have a piece that's a sort of a landscape on the moon. One is actually a maths problem, the little sort of oblong white marble piece is called Plus Equals Minus. So incredible diversity of approach. And here you see that same diversity. Noguchi was absolutely obsessed, thanks to Bucky, with the structure of Nature and of finding those natural structures and then of trying to think sculpture through the natural hidden structures. So on the left we have that piece, Bird's Nest. At the centre we have a piece called Intetra which is a structural strut system that Noguchi created that became the basis of a memorial to the Challenger disaster, the loss of the space shuttle in the late 1980s. And on the right, an amazing piece in our garden, called Helix of the Endless which is a perfect hybridisation of Brâncuși’s endless column with the DNA double helix. So he takes something that's all about unit-based replication and the kind of the presentation of mathematical perfection and he makes it biological, makes it imperfect. So none of those units are the same size, they're all hand-carved. None of them have right angles or straight edges or flat planes. And it doesn't even torque regularly as you can see if you try to follow one of the corners up with your eye.
This is a piece that Danh loves that's called The Well (Variation on a Tsukubai). And it gets at a very important facet of Noguchi's thinking. Noguchi not only thought galactically in terms of spatial awareness but in terms of his sense of chronology. He was always thinking on geologic time or galactic time, not… Trying to think outside the box of human time. The neat thing about this piece, because it's a recirculating fountain so the water circulates, it's not a basin like a traditional tsukubai, it has a motor in it. So it is… it sort of essentialises the relationship between stone and water. If you take a snapshot of it at any given moment, like in this photograph, the stone is the sculptor and water is the material but over the long term, water is the sculptor and stone is the material. Water always wins eventually.
And this is a photo of Noguchi in Hiroshima. He went back in 1950 again, was invited to make a memorial to the dead of Hiroshima. A beautiful memorial that ultimately wasn't executed because when the city… the committee of city leaders found out that Noguchi was an American citizen they pulled the commission, very understandably. But he transferred that experience into art. Here you can see this is a self-portrait called Face Plate on the right and a wonderful piece called Lonely Tower, a kind of a blasted-out apartment tower on the left. And you see in both cases Noguchi has added plants, plant material. He's had an ikebana artist come in and fill these with plants. On the right, the great thing—Noguchi had a wonderful sense of humour—was very self-deprecating. He was going bald by the time he was thirty and so here he's playing around with the idea of his wispy hair, a kind of comb-over.
This gets at something equally important—the idea of a sort of biological perspective. This is two pieces of Noguchi’s one called The Seed, and there's a version of seed in the exhibition at M+. This is the original marble version. And in alabaster, The Kiss. And here they've been taken to, and installed on, a demolition site somewhere in New York City and then photographed. And you can see what the implication is, that out of the rubble, out of the ruins, there's always the possibility of new life and rebirth. This is a good example of the kind of thing I meant, very often in order to understand the works it's important to go through all of these photographs and see the different ways that Noguchi was looking at them and playing with them.
Another example of that, a piece called Indian Dancer. He was never happier than when it was colonised by ivy, as you can see on the right. On the left is how it looks today. We don't let the ivy climb onto it today because obviously we're a museum and it's a little bit complicated, the relationship between biological things which want to tear down things that are supposed to last forever. But that is a game that we play constantly in order to honour his view of things. And then this, I'll just do this very quickly. This is an amazing park called Moerenuma Park in Sapporo where—this was executed after Noguchi's death by his great friend and long-time collaborator. But essentially brings together all of Noguchi's land art ideas in one place. It's an amazing visit. You can climb up Play Mountain, a version of Play Mountain. And then there's a wonderful piece called Sea Fountain which I encourage everyone to visit. This is… It runs a forty-five minute programme. This is actually where I met Danh Vo for the first time. We toured this whole park and watched this together over the course of forty-five minutes. This piece which is almost 200 feet in diameter replays the biblical flood from beginning to end. So, from our time on Earth to being on a flooded planet and then going back to peace on Earth. And if there's ever any sun at all in the sky it forms this… you can see this complete rainbow for everybody viewing it. It, it's an absolutely amazing thing.
So I'm not gonna talk about all of those, but I do want to end with this because by an amazing coincidence, today is Noguchi's birthday.
DAKIN HART: Which is kind of a lovely, lovely detail. So this is a wonderful photo [chuckles] of Noguchi at his 80th birthday and you can see he's attacking the cake with gusto...
DAKIN HART: slicing it up. So I just thought it would be… Actually Doryun suggested that, I think incredibly appropriately, that we use this as an opportunity to celebrate Noguchi's birthday and his very unique way of looking at the world which thanks to exhibitions like this and thanks to artists like Danh Vo, so many of whom continue to embrace Noguchi and explore his vision in ways that keep it alive and keep it moving ahead. That of course is the mission, the core mission, of our… our museum, our institution is to perpetuate Noguchi's legacy. And honestly I can't think, in my six years of being at the Noguchi Museum, I don't think there's a better example of us having done that than this collaboration with Doryun and M+ and Danh Vo, and the beautiful, poetic, very complicated, lovely installation that's at M+ Pavilion which I encourage you all to visit. Thank you very much.