Some words have more than one meaning, multiple meanings that are distinct yet interlinked. ‘Light’ is one such word – it can be luminescent, like the sun, the moon and the stars, or it can be weightless, as if liberated from the pull of gravity. The Japanese-American artist, Isamu Noguchi, intuitively understood this plurality, exploring in his work the themes of light, lightness and levity.

On display at The Barbican, London’s renowned Brutalist masterpiece, Isamu Noguchi’s work feels at home within its concrete architecture. Split in two, on the mezzanine the exhibition is thematic and chronological, a series of small rooms that offer a brief education in the development of Noguchi’s artistic career. The large double-height room below has been curated in a more natural, free-flowing manner – the pieces seem to mingle, as if at a cocktail party.

Paper lanterns and stone sculptures are dotted throughout the space – a juxtaposition that Noguchi found to be inspiring, asking, “What is the point of soft without hard, or weight without lightness?” The lights for which Noguchi is most renowned – his ‘Akari’ – are clustered in little groups on the floor; they hover just above the ground swaying gently in the breeze; they are suspended overhead, as light as air.

Translated from Japanese as ‘light’, Noguchi saw his Akari as, “a true development of an old tradition,” as they are made in the manner of the ‘chochin’ lanterns that have been produced by hand in Gifu, Japan since the late 16th century. Thin bamboo ribs create the silhouette – they press against the inner surface of the paper, drawing a continuous line that gives the sculpture its structure and a sense of rhythm – like the grooves of a record. Covered in Mino washi, a type of paper made from mulberry bark, the Akari produce a certain quality of the light – soft and diffuse – which Noguchi described as being, “like the light of the sun filtered through the paper of shoji. The hardness of electricity is transformed through the magic of paper, back to the light of our origin – the sun – so that its warmth may continue to fill our rooms at night.”

12. Isamu Noguchi, Akari 25N, 1968 / 117 x 83 cm / Photograph by Kevin Noble / The Noguchi Museum Archives, 03066 ©INFGM / ARS - DACS

“The best [art] is that which is most spontaneous, or seemingly so” – Noguchi

A staple of contemporary design, Noguchi’s lanterns are a hybrid of Eastern and Western design philosophies that the artist distilled and described in the simplest terms possible. Smooth and pebble-like or pointed and angular, each Akari has its own character: a monumental sphere, its diameter larger than that of the human arm span, hangs in the air, glowing like the sun; a long, thin pendant of enormous proportions is like a chandelier, enlarged and abstracted; and the floor-dwelling Akari’s voluminous, amoeba-like bodies stand on pin-thin legs that further accentuate their weightlessness.

The curved organic forms seem as if they have been shaped by the elements, their edges rounded by high winds and rough seas – whereas the cuboid and grid-shaped Akari recall the precision of the origami fold, they have been calculated and engineered to perfection. An architectural intervention as much as a work of art, ‘Akari PL2’ (1965) is a grid of light that hangs overhead, giving light that is astonishingly smooth and even. A geometric cloudscape, or a mountainous landscape turned on its head, this sculpture is experienced rather than observed.

12. Noguchi / Installation view / Barbican Art Gallery / 30 September 2021 – 9 January 2022 / © Tim Whitby / Getty Images

9. Noguchi / Installation view / Barbican Art Gallery / 30 September 2021 – 9 January 2022 /© Tim Whitby / Getty Images

Whilst the Akari feel weightless, almost celestial, the other sculptures by Noguchi feel decidedly earthbound. “Lessons of Musokokushi” recalls the stone arrangements of the Zen masters – a grouping of five bronze pieces, the sculpture has a primordial feel, like weather-beaten stone or malleable clay. Noguchi often incorporates the ground itself into his compositions – the sculpture is not simply placed upon the earth’s surface, it rises out of it. Shifting the focus and broadening our view, the artist forces the viewer to consider their environment, and their place within it.

“Art – like nature – cannot be limited” – Noguchi

Monolithic pieces of stone are modified in subtle yet meaningful ways; sheet metal is cut and bent into simplified architectural forms; sturdy ceramics bring a sense of timelessness; and nimble marble structures have a strong sense of dynamism. An apprentice of Constantin Brancusi in Paris in the 1920s, Noguchi’s work was forever in conversation with that of his mentor – sometimes amicable, at other times hostile. “What Brancusi does with a bird, or the Japanese do with a garden, is to take the essence of nature and distill it – just as a poet does. And that’s what I’m interested in – the poetic translation.”

An equal yet opposite force in Noguchi’s life was Buckminster Fuller – the American architect/designer, systems theorist and inventor of the Geodesic Dome, a spherical structure celebrated for its strength and lightness, that is not dissimilar in spirit to the Akari. Noguchi collaborated with Buckminster Fuller in the 1930s, at which point his work was heavily influenced by the amazing progress being made in the field of science and technology. Like the architect, designer or scientist, Noguchi looked for the same sense of efficiency in his own work. Stripped to the bare essentials, Noguchi explored the most elemental building blocks of our world: the atom and the single cell, the planets and stars, water and air, light and gravity.

20. Isamu Noguchi, R. Buckminster Fuller, 1929 / Bronze, chrome plate, 33.7 x 20 x 25.4 cm / Photograph by F.S. Lincoln / The Noguchi Museum Archives, 01411 ©INFGM / ARS - DACS / Penn State University Libraries

“In my work, I wanted something irreducible, an absence of the gimmicky and clever” – Noguchi

Interlocking compositions – made in wood, bronze and stone – are constructed like a skeleton, with individual pieces that slot together, held in place by gravity and ergonomics alone. Hoping to capture a certain tension, a moment of apprehension, their delicate assembly suggests that they might fall apart at any moment – with Noguchi even naming one such sculpture ‘Humpty Dumpty’ (1946). The Akari also make reference to skeletal forms – their ribs create a rigid internal structure that is encased in a paper-thin skin. A large bone-shaped sculpture in pink and white striped marble, ‘Ding Dong Bat’ (1968) feels as though it has been unearthed from an archeological dig, a remnant of another time and place.

8. Isamu Noguchi, Humpty Dumpty, 1946 / Ribbon slate, 149.9 × 52.7× 44.5 cm / Purchase Inv. N.: 47.7a-e / Whitney Museum of American Art / Licensed by Scala ©INFGM / ARS - DACS

Abstract art is often characterized by a sense of stillness and poise, and, at times, a tendency towards self-seriousness. In his art, Noguchi was able to capture stillness and poise, at the same time injecting it with character and joy. Noguchi’s sculpture hums, resonating in space, a quiet yet powerful presence. Renowned for sculpting with light, Isamu Noguchi masterfully harnessed all of the elements – earth and water, air and fire – using them as both muse and material.

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