From ‘Slide Mantra’ to outdoor play equipment, stairs and boardgames, the Japanese-American artist champions joy and frivolity. From 1933, Musical Weathervane, he made incremental steps towards light sculpture. ‘I thought of a luminous object as a source of delight in itself – like fire it attracts and protects us from the beasts of the night’, the artist is quoted one of the walls of the new retrospective at Barbican.
Review | The Unbearable Lightness of Noguchi
No twentieth-century artist better exemplifies lightness than Noguchi. In all three sense of the word. Illumination, light-heartedness, weightlessness – even when working in hulking pieces of pink Georgian marble. ‘Kouros’ (1945) sees eight interlocking pieces of the heavy stone rising up to the scale of a human adult, balanced merely by two strategically placed pins.
"I thought of a luminous object as a source of delight in itself – like fire it attracts and protects us from the beasts of the night"
What Imasu Noguchi is best-known for, however, are his gently glowing Akari – a word meaning ‘light’ in Japanese. Of course, paper lanterns existed before, in the Gifu tradition, but the artist stripped away fussy armatures and relied instead on simple ones. He apparently enjoyed the way that they could be flat-packed and thus re-erected elsewhere with textured wrinkles in the delicate washi paper.
These Modernist Akari have since been mass-produced and replicated the world over, from student house shares to office breakrooms. At the Barbican, these lights dangle from the ceiling and stand quietly on the floor, emitting warm, muted, almost polite light, and they undoubtedly give the impression of ‘walking into the world’s fanciest Ikea’, as Eddy Frankel has already mentioned.
He’s not the only one. Jonathan Jones has complained that these objects would ‘would be great in a high-end kitchen’ (so would a lot of art?), bemoaning Noguchi’s Hiroshima memorial as ‘too graceful’. Too graceful? Stainless steel forms an arch evoking traditional Japanese funerary sculpture; it also resembles the hemispherical shape of an atomic fireball in its first milliseconds. No doubt it’s a neat conceit, but is it too neat. Imagine a gourmand remarking that dinner was too delicious. Heaven forbid a Modernist should be popular rather than difficult. Or an artwork too successful!
"Why is it a bad thing that this Noguchi retrospective feels like walking around IKEA?"
Why is it a bad thing that this Noguchi retrospective feels like walking around IKEA? Is that any more or less gauche than walking around a commercial art gallery, where everything is for sale, but you can’t touch anything or test out how bouncy it is?
I’m not usually one to leap to the defence of monolithic multinational corporations that threaten to cheapen our daily existence with copy-paste products that everyone owns and has been tricked into performing the labour of assembling themselves. But For IKEA, I’ll stick my neck out. It’s light and spacious and the shop assistants let you roam free. A full English breakfast costs under three pounds. The pencils there are adorably small. You can take as many as you like.
I’m under no illusions that all this is carefully thought out to make you spend money. In fact, the layout of the warehouse-y section of IKEA stores is deliberately calibrated so that you are aware how difficult it would be to circle back and relocate a given product, meaning you are more likely to touch it on the first time around and thus form a bond with it. True story! Speaking of bonds, the ‘IKEA effect’ refers to the fact that people feel a disproportionately bigger connection with an object they have played a part in constructing.
Then again, shops do tend to be designed to convince you to buy things, no? And flat-packed furniture is basically just adult Lego.
In a 1976 philosophical-text-cum-employee-manual called The Testament of a Furniture Dealer, which is still read by IKEA employees the world over, the company’s founder Ingvar Kamprad writes, ‘Sometimes you and I must share the blame for failing to keep the flame alight, maybe for faltering in our own commitment at times, for simply not having the energy to infuse life and warmth into an apparently monotonous task.’ I would ask that Jonathan Jones take a share of that blame today for his attack on Noguchi. For if ‘Simplicity and humbleness characterise our relations with each other’ (that is, the relation of IKEA employees with one another) then they are qualities shared by Noguchi’s oeuvre. Just because something is simple, modest and popular does not mean it is not art.
"Sometimes you and I must share the blame for failing to keep the flame alight"
‘But what is the point of soft without hard or weight without lightness?’ asked Noguchi. ‘In Japan the philosophy of the relative value of things is carried so far that in ceremonial tea-making there’s a little cloth they use, which they handle as if it were the weightiest thing in the world. Light things are handled as if they’re heavy, heavy things as if they’re weightless – in this way one finds an almost complete control over nature instead of being dominated by it.’
"The pencils there are adorably small."
Perhaps this fable is a rule for art as it is by commerce: rather a shop where children can sit on sofas without being scalded, and rather an artworld where you didn’t feel crushed under the great weight of genius and the so-called cannon. Sometimes you might simply call a lack of substance ‘lightness’.
Cover image: Samrat Yantra, Jantar Mantar; Bollingen Travels; New Delhi, India, 1949. Photograph by Isamu Noguchi. The Noguchi Museum Archives, 08447.3 ©INFGM / ARS-DACS
By Sammi Gale