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Noguchi and the Social Purpose of Sculpture: In Discussion With the Barbican

As the illuminating Noguchi exhibition enters its final month at the Barbican, we discuss the installation with curatorial assistant Andrew de Brún, to learn more about Noguchi’s prolific body of work and the intention behind the artful curation.

1. Congratulations on the Noguchi opening! Please tell us about your vision for the exhibition.

The exhibition is first and foremost celebrating Isamu Noguchi as a sculptor and ‘creative polymath’, celebrating his pioneering understanding of sculpture – not just  “art for art’s sake”, but as art with a social purpose.

Noguchi’s story and motivations for becoming a sculptor and making objects is one that still deeply resonates with people today. The son of an Irish-American mother and a Japanese father, Noguchi faced discrimination throughout his life, constantly grappling with a sense of identity and belonging.

Throughout the course of his life, Noguchi ultimately decided that he is a citizen of the earth, that we all inhabit this planet together and that art and design should have a social purpose to improve the way we live on what he, and his great friend Buckminster Fuller, called ‘Spaceship Earth’. Noguchi is often regarded as one of the giants of modernism, primarily because he so artfully combined tradition and ancient culture with technology and function. He was fascinated by ancient heritage sites and archaic forms of technology, viewing them as sites of unique sculptural invention that had a deep significance in people’s everyday lives, which he ultimately wanted to capture in his own designs. Our vision for this exhibition was to present the scale and ambition of Noguchi’s practice in the vast array of forms that it took throughout his life.

2. Isamu Noguchi’s archive spans a vast array of media, from furniture and lighting to ceramics and large-scale works. What were the challenges that you faced in bringing these pieces together?

One of the biggest challenges for us as a curatorial team was how to present Noguchi as a fundamentally multi-faceted artist. Noguchi considered fine art, design, technology, industry, theatre and performance, even a child’s playground, to be the domain of sculpture. He also believed that sculpture was not just a singular object in a room, but that it was the creator of an environment that a viewer can inhabit.

In this sense, we knew that the exhibition had to not just be a collection of Noguchi objects in a gallery, but we had to create a distinctive Noguchi environment that visitors could feel physically immersed in. Noguchi was famously inspired by Japanese gardens and their sense of ‘hide and reveal’ of elements in their landscape, which is something we wanted to replicate with the brutalist architecture of our gallery space. It was challenging to achieve a sense of harmony between the works and the brutalist architecture of the Barbican, but we were lucky enough to work with Lucy Styles from Cut-Out Studio in London to achieve a very immersive environment.

3. Might you have a personal favourite piece from the exhibition?

It is a very difficult thing to pick out one piece from so many powerful works from throughout his career, but there is one that is particularly moving called Cronos from 1947. The work is a tall, standing piece of carved balsa wood that Noguchi made in the same year that his father died. The work depicts the Greek mythological figure of Cronos, King of the Titans, who chose to devour his own children rather than be overthrown by them. He is tricked by his wife into swallowing a stone instead of his son Zeus, who eventually grows up to cast Cronos down.

The piece itself has two long carved legs forming an arch in which several other carved pieces of wood hang delicately from a string, to represent the cascading limbs that Cronos is devouring. At the very bottom is a delicately carved oval shape to represent the stone. Not only is the work a poignant reflection on Noguchi’s own troubled relationship with his father, the renowned Japanese poet Yonejirō Noguchi from whom Noguchi was largely estranged, but is also a key example of Noguchi’s use of gravity, tension and weightlessness in his work.

The work is generously on loan to us from the Walker Arts Centre in Minneapolis, USA, and is rarely seen outside of the US. It is a very rare opportunity for visitors in London to see a work like this and we feel very lucky to be showing it.

4. Noguchi championed social and environmental consciousness throughout his career. What is the significance, therefore, of this retrospective taking place at the Barbican?

For Noguchi, art and artists have a responsibility to improve people's lives as they live on planet earth. He spent significant periods of his life travelling the world to discern how sculpture was meaningful in people’s day-to-day lives and how it has been for centuries. He travelled to ancient heritage sites such as Stonehenge in Salisbury, places of spiritual and cultural significance such as the Temple of Three Windows at Machu Picchu, and sites of ancient technology like the Jantar Mantar astronomical observatory in Delhi, India.

Noguchi wanted to replicate the meaning and significance of these sites of pilgrimage in the sculpture environments he created in his late career, especially in his playscape designs for children. He saw his work as having a civic responsibility which is similarly a core value for the Barbican as a multi-disciplinary arts space where visitors can have meaningful, enriching experiences with pioneering international art.

5. This is the first European touring retrospective of the Japanese-American sculptor in 20 years. How do you think the perception of these works might have changed since they were last displayed to a European audience?

We were very aware that for most European audiences, Noguchi remained mostly well-known for his designs for living spaces –  the iconic Noguchi Coffee Table and his Akari light sculptures mostly. This touring retrospective aims to give Noguchi his rightful place as one of the most significant, multi-disciplinary artists of the 20th century.

He did not make distinctions between design, technology, theatre, furniture and high fine art, but saw all of these areas of creativity as being under the umbrella domain of sculpture. His sculptural designs and artworks remain strikingly relevant for audiences in Europe today as we grapple with a myriad of emergencies from the pandemic recovery, the mass movement of people across borders and the existential threat of the climate emergency. Noguchi is more relevant than ever because his practice forces us to reflect on who we are as human beings, what it means for us to live on planet earth and ultimately how can art help us to become more human.

All images courtesy of Tim Whitby at Getty Images

6. What inspirations do you think have carried forward from Noguchi’s practice into the landscape of design today?

Even though Noguchi was working decades ago, his work is still hugely relevant for the artists and designers of today and can still be seen across an array of disciplines, from theatre sets to playground models, from landscape designs to furniture and lighting. Significantly, Noguchi believed that art and design should be equally relevant and meaningful for everyone, regardless of wealth, status, geographical location or cultural background.

The idea of design and art being a global tool that is universally accessible to everyone was a core design principle for him, one that has been embraced by the wider design world today. Nowhere is this more apparent than in his Akari lights, which sensitively blend the ancient traditions of Japanese lantern-making with contemporary light fixings, treating them as sculptures of light crafted into biomorphic and geometric forms that people can own in their homes. It is that connection with the earth, culture and tradition, whilst simultaneously embracing new methods of creation, that make his designs so meaningful today.

The exhibition is now over, but you can enrich your home with the Noguchi edit today.