Akari - Out of the Shadows


Whilst engaged on the peace memorials for the city of Hiroshima Isamu Noguchi's began work on his Akari lights. The globular paper lantern from this period was his single most popular product and rarely has such a modern masterpiece received such wide spread acclaim. An essay about the Japanese American sculptor whose work is currently on show at the Design Museum in London

The threads to this story reach the beginning of the last century when many scholars were intrigued by a far eastern country emerging out of centuries of virtual isolation. At the time many famous artist were to discover and be influenced by the refined simplicity of the wood block print. Frank Lloyd Wright himself was a ukiyo-e collector and was inspired by the organic and open plan forms of the Japanese house. The first poet from Japan to have his work translated into English was a certain Yone Noguchi. Not only did he introduced the west to its first taste of Japanese poetry but he also left his calling card in the form of his offspring, who was to become the new world's finest public artist. Like his father Isamu with his sunken garden creations and his later remarkable rock carvings was destined to be an artistic interpreter between the Japan and the west. Dis-owned by his father, Noguchi junior spent his long career trying to reconcile his semi-oriental ethnicity, and uniquely in recent times we have all benefited from his personal and artistic identity crisis. Although relatively unknown in the UK Isamu Noguchi was part of the New York post war artistic elite. In 1927 Noguchi travelled to Paris where he worked for six months as a studio assistant to the sculptor Constantin Brancusi who would remain his mentor through his long career. Brought up however in his formative years in Japan he returned in 1931 and although he suffered further rejection by his father he found solace in the gardens of Kyoto. In New York he was exceptionally well connected, amongst his friends were such 20th century's luminaries as Ezra Pound, Ashile Gorky, Jose Clemente Orozco and Buckminster Fuller. Influenced by the elegant reductionism of Brancusi he was a thorough modernist who spent the later years of his life between the States, Italy and the Japanese Inland Sea island of Shikoku. An artist whose hybrid style was contextual, he was committed to a purposeful and social conscious art form. Inspired by traditional Japanese craftsmanship and the exposed skeleton structures of the house carpenters, he also applied his sculptural sensibility to furniture, landscape architecture and stage design. Isamu Noguchi is probably best known however for the Akari mulberry paper light sculptures he developed in the 1950s for the city of Gifu.

Twenty years had passed since Isamu Noguchi had last visited Japan. He was to return to a devastated and demoralised country in the aftermath of its most disastrous war. Born in Los Angeles in 1904, to Leonie Gilmour an American mother and a Japanese poet father, Noguchi was naturally ambivalent about of his cultural identity. After experiencing internment at a relocation camp in Arizona, news of the atomic bomb attacks on the beautiful cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki left Noguchi in a serious state of depression, fearing the eventual nuclear annihilation of mankind. In 1950 however unlike his bitter reunion with his father in 1931, he was treated to a heroes welcome by prominent Japanese artists. At his reception Noguchi met Kenzo Tange and was told about the plan for the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Park. To produce something for Hiroshima the world's very first globe wide event deeply appealed to Noguchi, and as an American of Japanese decent he would have a particularly strong feeling of guilt about the destruction of the city. Anti war and peace memorials would preoccupy Noguchi for most of his long career.

The first work Noguchi envisage for Hiroshima was a twenty metre high "Bell Tower". His Mitsukoshi Department Store exhibition was to provide an opportunity to show his proposal, a terracotta model for the Memorial Tower for the Dead. Based on his 1943 Monuments to Heroes lamenting the victims of war, many figures are mounted or suspended on posts. Strong allegorical references are made to the human debris caused by the A Bomb. Ceramic anamorphic shapes appear grotesque screaming and decapitated. To be cast in bell bronze it was a most direct, but never to be realised attempt to recognise the atrocities suffered by the innocent of Hiroshima. When commissioned to plan the entire Peace Memorial Park in 1951 Kenzo Tange on behalf of the Mayor of Hiroshima officially asked Noguchi to design the parapets of two bridges spanning the Ota River which splendidly arcs the parks circumference. Quickly establishing a theme of life and death one end of the bridge entitled Passing Away and the other end in the image of the rising sun was entitled Creation. Against his wishes and for financial reasons the parapet instead of stone was cast in concrete and the whole construction programme went ahead without Noguchis further participation. Upon completion of the bridges he was requested to design a cenotaph for the city's atom bomb victims. To be erected as the centre piece of the Park, it should have an underground repository to enshrine the names of the victims. To symbolise not only a safe womb where new life is born. Noguchi plunged himself wholeheartedly into the project and constructed a model for the cenotaph in Tanges laboratory at the University of Tokyo. " A challenging subject, a sculpture as a concentration of energies. The symbolism came from the prehistoric roof of a Haniwa earthen sculpture. Like an abode for small children, it is a symbol for life and death. An arch of peace with the dome of destruction. The materials were to be black granite, supported by concrete columns enclosing a tomb for viewing the names of the worlds first atomic bomb victims." Unfortunately the Peace Memorial Park City Construction Special Committee turned down his proposal offering no official reason. Maybe too sombre and powerful, it is rumoured the true reason for rejection was the unwillingness of key committee members to award the commission of the cenotaph to an American. In the end the cenotaph was speedily constructed to his friend Tanges own version of a Haniwa roof just in time for the parks opening ceremony. Undeterred Noguchi went on from this most intensive period of creative enquiry to collaborate with architects Louis Kahn, Marcel Breuer, Gordon Bunschaft SOM, Arata Isozaki amongst other notables. On his way in 1951 to the Hiroshima commission it is claimed he was to produce his prototype Akari paper lanterns, which were to become available for retail the following year. By far the most popular of Noguchis interior products, they are based on the chochin lanterns, a traditional craftwork. With their perilous contrast between the mulberry bark paper and their thin spiral bamboo skeleton, Akari shades have a wondrous power. The uniquely delicate nature of Akari with its tentative light and movement create a poetic and ephemeral mood. This rigorously refined craftwork must be amongst the most understated yet successful modern classics to penetrate the mainstream of every day life. Ironic indeed that akari with their glowing essence of light should share a close human relationship to his body of work responding to the darkest single event of the twentieth century, It can be claimed that the featherweight Akari with their fragility and economy are Isamu Noguchis finest monuments to the frailty of the human existence.

The shadow of the H bomb shrouded the world in fear, feeding suspiscion and the polarisation of the cold war era. As in the upsurge of the early Europe modern aesthetic sensibilities following the first world war many in Japan felt it appropriate to jettison their isolationist inheritance and Edo values in favour of the pre-Tokugawan rule. Similar to the search for innocence in West the fifties artists of Japan sort inspiration from the deeper past, the native Haniwa terracotta funerary and ancient indigenous stone forms of the Jomon period. Noguchi produced the Akari light in his mid career before he developed a distinctive style of his own. Rather than a translation of the orient his akari shades were examples of the west superimposing itself on the traditional crafts. Cleverly he applied the less-is-more aesthetic learnt from Japonisme to simplify an iconic artefact of the floating world. Akari is an east meets west object, a symbiotic combination of the modern reductionism rational and oriental organic material sensibilities. His avant garde-traditionalist contradictions were nevertheless were to become very influential in lifestyles both in Japan and throughout the rest of the planet. Despite the divisions of the world at large ad his own his upbringing Isamu Noguchi is no less than the original global artist. .

Isamu Noguchi Sculptural Design Design Museum London 20th July to 18th November 2001

Above published in Landscape & Art Network Newsletter No24


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