Letter to Li-Chuan and Rei
Dear Li-Chuan and Rei,
I hope you have both been keeping well, across the twists and turns of this last year. Thinking of you (Rei, in Tokyo, and you, Li-Chuan, in Singapore) triangulates the distance between Japan, Southeast Asia and the UK, where Noguchi, the exhibition is now staged at the Barbican Centre. Looking at Noguchi’s archive, I know he too crossed the expanse between Japan and Singapore in the early 1950s, like many others before him. His images record his visits to various sites in Hiroshima after its bombing, as well as his fascination with Haw Par Villa, a fantastical sculptural park inspired by Chinese mythology, folklore, and legends in Singapore (then a British colony). The site and original villa, which faces the Singapore Strait, had been destroyed by the Japanese during World War II, with the new park rebuilt in 1937 and opened to the public in 1954.
Noguchi was deeply moved by his visit to the sites of devastation in Hiroshima, and was spurred into designing different monument models for the memorial park cenotaph and destroyed bell tower as a result. His designs were unrealised, for various probable political factors as it might not have seemed appropriate for the memorial to be designed by an American citizen. However, he did manage to create an exhibition that expressed his despair at the bombing, which took place at the Mitsukoshi Department Store, in Nihombashi, Tokyo in 1950. The exhibition included multiple mutated and melted forms, a wall relief and mysterious devices that evoked a lost civilisation. A photograph shows Noguchi drawing a burning temple on the gallery wall, etched with lines from his father, Yonejiro Noguchi’s haunting poem, 'Kane ga naru' ('The Bell Rings'). 1
The bell rings
The bell rings
This is a warning!
When the warning rings,
Everyone is sleeping.
You too are sleeping.
Before I left Japan, I also made a trip to Hiroshima to pay my respects at the Peace Memorial Park and Museum. The city is obviously very different by now - with much restored, and its park laid out beautifully for an afternoon stroll. However the remnant of the Bell Tower stands as a stark reminder of the epicentre of the atomic bomb. Upon entering the memorial’s subterranean, circular hall, visitors may sit on stone benches while contemplating the architecture designed to reference the irrevocable before and after of such a cataclysmic moment inflicted upon the city and its people. Even over half a century later I could not help but weep, while thinking of how ungraspable humanity’s urge toward self-destruction is, and the grief that resonates across the world now with the losses we have suffered during these Covid19-ridden years. Another visitor sat across the room, our eyes not meeting, while the fountain waters tinkled sympathetically.
When I made the journey to Singapore, by coincidence, I assisted the British artist, David Blandy with some research. His grandfather had been a prisoner of war in Singapore’s Changi Prison. I visited the former Ford Factory Museum, which was the site where the British forces had capitulated to the Japanese on 15 February 1942 after the Battle of Singapore. Like Noguchi’s archive, the museum holds many heartfelt letters from those that were incarcerated. It was as part of this process that we met, Li-Chuan, and had a long conversation about the Japanese occupation in Singapore, including the site of the brutal Sook Ching Massacre (now turned into a shopping mall), and the abandoned shrine now hidden within the MacRitchie nature reserve. The scars inflicted by humanity remain on our land and within the psycho-social imagination. As Noguchi expressed:
The consequences of man’s breaking nature’s code will continue to grow, an awareness which will demand our thinking through how to cope and how to explain and how to stop what seems inevitable. I put it badly, but as you grace me with your confidence I would like to do what I can.2
However as Noguchi also once remarked, 'Imagination is a circular motion, a helix, constantly moving and changing in space and time.'3 I wonder about how we could perhaps rethink the role of man as protagonist in our narratives of geopolitical struggles. I am reminded of the trip we took together, Rei, as part of the Animistic Apparatus expedition to Baan Chiang, Udon Thani (rural northern Thailand) led by Professor May Adadol Ingawanij, Dr Julian Ross and Mary Pasanga in April 2019. As a researcher and observer, I joined the trip to learn more about how the cinematic apparatus could be reconfigured in relation to cultural contexts that included a wider-than-human audience demographic. I enjoyed watching your film images projected on the large screen, Rei, as well as listening to Thai molam folk singing, both of which I began to imagine might also please or appease the surrounding trees, creatures and spirits.4 Perhaps if we accept our coexistence with other forms, we might have a lighter touch with the ecologies around us. After all, don’t we all wish to look up at the same sun without fear? Perhaps Noguchi wished that too when he designed the handrails for the newly rebuilt and named Peace Boulevard in Hiroshima, where the Eastern end featured large upturned discs that resembled heliotropic flowers gazing at the sun. Nevertheless, perhaps when we think of nature, we should tremble a little. That sense of foreboding is knowing that it will outlast us all.
I share with you both Noguchi’s sand model proposed for a mausoleum for mankind so large it could be viewed from Mars, as 'a requiem for all of us who live with the atom bomb,' 5 and invite you both to respond with your respective mediums of experimental audio and moving image?
With love and solidarity,
Letter from Chong Li-Chuan
Noguchi's Core Piece #1 (1974) and Core Piece #2 (1974) inspired my acousmatic composition, the imaginary 'Core Piece #3'. The abstract form of the two basalt cores extracted from an earlier work The Inner Stone (1973) spoke volumes to me in the boldness of their resounding silence.
To me, the very material itself, formed from the rapid cooling of low-viscosity lava, radiated strength and stability, fashioned by the precision of the sculptor's tools. The enduring identity Noguchi had infused into these rock core residues was a sense of radical serenity in the flux of time, acutely so in my own personal experience of COVID times.
Contemplating this, I set about creating Core Piece #3, to explore how it would manifest in sound using a sculptural approach to create the raw material — a latticework of glissando between microtonal intervals, and the eventual structure that emerges ‘in time’ (as Greek-French composer Iannis Xenakis would put it). In the mix of 'Core Piece #3' was also an audio recording of a bonfire. I had wanted to express the notion of 'the most radical gesture' (perhaps after Sadie Plant) in the wake of some diatribe caterwauling that Noguchi’s work was not radical enough.
I hope that makes the cut.
Letter from Rei Hayama
My participation in the 'Animistic Apparatus' trip to Isan, Thailand, organised by the curator, May Adadol Ingawanij, which led me to meet you, has had an important influence on my friendships and my spirit to this day. It is evidenced by the fact that I am writing to you now. On an April evening in 2019, we were sitting excitedly around a table together. We started chatting and making sure that the drinks were delivered for the right number of people at the table. In no time at all, we had become travelling companions. It was the beginning of a journey that would never end. Without you and all my other inspiring travelling companions, it would have been an even more difficult experience to endure the long days of quarantine during the pandemic, which is now almost two years old.
I was glad to know that you are thinking about 'pre'-occupations of land after having seen some of my films. Maybe it's a bit strange to write that I'm glad, but I mean, discussing this is something that interests me. It is a question that should be repeated in and around the various issues you mentioned; territorial disputes, the atomic bomb (which is highlighted as one of the most important events in Isamu Noguchi's life), as well as in relation, nuclear accidents, climate change, and so on.
Just a few days ago, via a relatively liberal Japanese internet news site, I saw a video that was shot this summer in a town that had been turned into a no-return zone after the Fukushima disaster. It depicted a victim visiting the house where he used to live, along with the journalist who accompanied him. They were having a conversation in the car that was surrounded by many horseflies, which had bred in the rapidly changing environment after the humans had left. During their conversation, there was something particularly noteworthy about the way the journalist spoke. Her words were full of emotion. Anger at the nuclear accident and the government's failure to deal with it honestly. Compassion for the victims; and at the same time, a sense of disgust at the plants that were swallowing up houses and streets at an overwhelming rate, and the increasing numbers of insects, and wildlife that was coming in and out of empty houses. Somehow I felt a kind of discomfort with this, as my personal point of view is that a place is not first 'owned by man'.
Of course, I am not denigrating a place and the people who lived there, nor am I simply praising the power of nature. For that journalist who has been covering the nuclear crisis and listening to the suffering of the victims, it is not at all difficult to imagine that nature can be seen as "hateful" as it tries to erase the traces of people's lives. Any human could have this experience of nature: with the wild grass that repeatedly grows in the garden we tend, the insect that eats the fruit while we wait for it to ripen. These are the games we play in the struggle to survive. I want to suggest, however, that we take a step back to consider this human perspective and the nature of the mind.
I was thinking about the reference materials you shared with us, where Isamu Noguchi envisaged 'anyone visiting the solar system in the future' to view his unrealised, Sculpture to Be Seen From Mars (1947). Reflecting on this proposed work, it seems to suggest that while Noguchi's identity was made special by being caught between Japan and America, his identity of being a part of the human race was moved towards something even more complex by the war and the atomic bomb. If the intimate connection between people and place is unjustly taken away or twisted - it is as if gravity is disrupted or lost - and both mind and body are thrown into turmoil. Thus I read it as if Noguchi not only left the unit of the nation, but he was so distressed he also had left Planet Earth. And he wanted to make this work, so that we would be able to look back and confirm, 'he was there.' I am especially struck by his hope that "anyone" (not just humanity) will see his work in the future. It seems to me that as a human being who has been discouraged by humanity, Noguchi sought a way to love himself and his place in the world again.
It makes me think about how Isamu Noguchi's work is opposite to that which is directed by rigid measurements in centimetres or millimetres. Noguchi acknowledges that which has water flowing over it, and is changed by it over the years, is also sculpture. It suggests to me that Noguchi’s identity as a sculptor and artist, and a human being, was not one formed by definitions created by society and his era but rooted in his understanding of nature as an incredibly complex balance between countless colours in flux. Thinking about these themes in our current times, perhaps it is time for mankind to take a step back and check what he is doing. Economics, politics, diplomacy. That's fine. But can humanity see where we are placed from the expanse of the dark universe, as Noguchi tried to do?
Come to think of it, as we travelled together through the Isan region in 2019, the scenery from the bus windows reminded me of the place where I spent my childhood in Japan. This childhood place has changed a lot, so now it only exists in my heart. Sometimes I experience a magical moment when I travel and feel an unexpected, deep familiarity with a place, even though I have never been there before. It's an overwhelming, yet sweet experience that connects the memories of different places, and makes you feel certain that the deepest places of your heart and the infinite expanse of the universe are one and the same. Annie, have you had a similar experience? Perhaps it is no coincidence that these experiences are often triggered by the richness of the natural environment in many cases- in the woods, by the sea, in the windy grass - because nature does not have the borders that trouble humans. What would happen to our values if humans listened to the voice of the earth, if humans had the same compassion for non-human beings? Would wars still continue to happen?
I am sending you his letter with a video of Solidago canadensis (also known as Canadian goldenrod), which is a plant with yellow flowers that is very common in Japan at this time of the year. This plant was artificially introduced to Japan from North America around 1900, and after the war it spread to other parts of Japan where it is now one of the most ubiquitous and familiar plants. Remembering that Isamu Noguchi was born in 1904, isn't it a good measure to think about Noguchi's life while looking at this flower in Japan? Solidago canadensis is by design an introduced species into Japan, but it has now lived here longer than I have.
Singapore-born, and grown up in the UK, Chong Li-Chuan is a composer who is passionate about philosophy, culture and the arts. As a practitioner, Li-Chuan's activities run the gamut of acoustic composition, electroacoustic sound, sonic art, installation, free improvisation, ‘live’ electronics, and collaborative work with artists from different disciplines such as theatre, dance, spoken word, architecture, design and visual art.
A Japanese artist who works mainly with moving image, Rei Hayama is one of the founding members of the Tokyo film collective, [+]. After many thoughtful experiences amongst wildlife in the unique environment of her youth, she studied at the Department of Moving Images and Performing Arts, Tama Art University and has been making films since 2008. Hayama’s films revolve around nature and all other living things that have been lost or neglected from an anthropocentric point of view. Through abstract film and video works with sound, poetic writings and symbolic imageries, Hayama gently seeks the harmonious connection between nature and human beings, bringing forward the invisible layers of our natural reality into the human imagination. Her works have exhibited and screened internationally, at Tokyo Metropolitan Museum of Photography, New York’s Museum of the Moving Image, Bergen Kunsthall, Sheffield Doc/Fest and Busan Biennale, amongst others.
Annie Jael Kwan
An independent curator and researcher, Annie Jael Kwan's exhibition-making, programming, publication and teaching practice is located at the intersection of contemporary art, art history and cultural activism, with interest in archives, histories, feminist, queer and alternative knowledges, collective practices, and solidarity. She is director of Something Human, a curatorial initiative, that launched in 2017 the pioneering Southeast Asia Performance Collection (SAPC) which represents 50 artists from the region at the Live Art Development Agency. In 2018 she curated UnAuthorised Medium at FramerFramed, Netherlands, co-curated the Archive-in-Residence exhibition, Southeast Asia Performance Collection at Haus der Kunst, Munich (2019), and is currently curator-in-residence at FACT Liverpool where she has cu-rated the exhibition, Futures Ages Will Wonder.
She leads Asia-Art-Activism (AAA), an interdisciplinary, intergenerational research network exploring the entanglements between Asia, art and activism, and is the instigating council member of Asia Forum. In 2019 she was the co-editor of Southeast of Now: Directions in Contemporary and Modern Art in Asia’s guest issue: Archives, and a recipient of a Diverse Actions Leadership Award. She currently teaches Critical Studies at Central St Martins, University of the Arts, London, and Writing and Curating at KASK, School of Art, in Gent, Belgium.
Letter to Li-Chuan and Rei
 Noguchi’s Memorials to the Atomic Dead Isamu Noguchi, Letter to Charles L. Critchfield, November 5,1982. The Noguchi Museum Archive
 Isamu Noguchi, quoted in, 'Lion of Western sculpture, Asian at art and heart,' Singapore Times, 8 January 1989, The Isamu Noguchi Archive
 May Adadol Ingawanij, 'Stories of Animistic Cinema,' Antennae, 2021, Vol.1
 Isamu Noguchi, The Sculpture of Spaces (New York: Whitney Museum of American Art, 1980), 18.