Letter to Adriel and Alex
Dear Adriel, dear Alex,
While I was pondering how to begin this letter, I realised it is not so much about trying to begin, but to continue the different conversations we have had with each other over the last few years.
Adriel, you previously expressed how our friendship is a map. I love that metaphor. Thinking about how we used to be able to travel easily makes me wistful. Between us three, we have sought out egg tarts in bustling Chinatown in New York, the universities and Vietnamese restaurants of London, artist studios and prata shops in Singapore. Was it so long ago that we three last met in Washington D.C., just before the pandemic? Thank you so much, Alex, for organising the Global Art Exchange workshops at New York University and the Smithsonian Museum that brought together institutional and independent practitioners working in relation to Asian diaspora and activism. What a rich session of sharing that was, and it was wonderful to hold closely those thoughts and reflections about care, collections, and institutions while we then strolled downtown to the White House, visited the Smithsonian collection, and the National Museum of African American History and Culture.
Another entanglement is that Adriel, you and I had begun a slow correspondence in 2020, at the start of the pandemic, at the invitation of Alex and Việt Lê to submit a written exchange for the Asian Diasporic Visual Cultures and the Americas journal. In your letter, you mentioned how we should take all the time we need. Indeed, I've taken much much time, or perhaps, since the pandemic, time had taken me hostage. 'Taking more time' was the recurring theme during a year marked by severe delays and shutdowns. Many people were forced to furlough their jobs in the UK, and work at a slower place from home. Children had to reduce their rate of education due to the closure of schools. The pace of business and social events had also cranked awkwardly to intermittent bursts due to Covid-avoidance lockdowns and restrictions of social distancing. I have described myself as being in a ‘time warp’ and a ‘cul-de-sac of space/time’ outside the usual pace of everyday life, where I could perhaps lucid dream a new reality.
Coincidentally, it was a period of seven months I spent in Japan - the same duration Isamu Noguchi spent in incarceration at Poston in 1942. Noguchi had entered the camp voluntarily with the hope of using his landscaping and artistic skills to make the environment more humane and hospitable for his fellow Japanese-Americans, after they were forcibly relocated by President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s Executive Order 9066, implemented as a response to the Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbour in 1941. Despite his initial optimism and enthusiasm (his archives reveal his unrealised sketches and plans), he became disillusioned at the lack of support and resources.
Noguchi’s experience strikes a chord with me as a migrant person of colour that tends to be caught in-between, and feels the need to prove or perform ardently for validation of their inclusion. After all, it was only a week after the Pearl Harbour attack, that the Japanese-Americans felt they had to form the Japanese-American Citizens League and opened the Anti-Axis Committee Office on December 14, 1941, as part of their campaign to demonstrate the loyalty of American-born Japanese citizens to the US, and testify to stop the evacuation of Japanese-Americans, and even encourage Japanese-Americans to spy on their neighbours.
Thinking about the costs of inclusion and invisibility, I am reminded about how I had once worked with an institution with a World War II Nazi association which was itself a reminder of how art production has been historically appropriated for propaganda, and yet remains a potent catalyst in the reimagining of a more equitable world. The project began with the great promise of highlighting the lesser known practices of artists from a developing region, but reached a stumbling block when there was a threat to renege on the initial agreement to pay the artists whose works were central to the project, and the subsequent use of coercive, gaslighting language by a white male staff member for refusing to be complicit. While these incidents were unpleasant, they were accentuated by how the same staff member had boasted that the museum booked first class flights and five star hotels for another super star artist.
It reminded me of a time when I stumbled upon Noguchi’s monumental sculptural diptych, Zwillingsplastik (1972), at the Tucherpark sculpture garden that was commissioned by the Bayerische Vereinsbank and created in collaboration with the building’s architect, Sep Ruf. This immense disaggregated cuboid puzzle was intriguing, as its submerged component appeared to invisibly hoist its larger, more impressive counterpart. Was it because of my own troubled thoughts then that I began to read this in relation to the many erased, negated and undervalued forms of labour by people of colour or working class minorities, that build the structures of power and wealth? Thinking across different regional contexts, I wondered what histories and narratives in institutions were upheld, and which had been suppressed?
It reminded me of the point Marci Kwon raised in her text1, regarding Andrew Russell’s photograph, Meeting of the Rails, Promontory, Utah. The image depicts a crowd of white male bodies celebrating the completion of the transcontinental railroad at Promontory Summit, Utah, on May 10, 1869. The absence of Chinese railroad workers is notable, especially as they had made up ninety percent of the labour force of the Central Pacific Railroad and enacted most of the hard labour for the venture.
During this time, when peeking at the news or Twitter fills me with dread as political violence reverberates around the world - violence against black bodies in the US, incidents of violence against Asian folks worldwide, the political violence against artists and teachers in Thailand and Myanmar, and the callous government responses to the needs of healthcare and essential workers, of which a large number of people of colour are impacted. There has been much grief and loss. Gosh what have we all gone through, and now we are here, with this gift of living, and the work of trying to heal and rebuild our lives, communities and cities. I try to seek solace in Ocean Vuong's On Earth We're Briefly Gorgeous, a thoughtful gift sent from across the seas by Youngsook Choi from Asia-Art-Activism, during a time of family bereavement. It is a reminder that we find sustenance in the creative works of empathy and relationships of mutuality and reciprocity.
I have been inspired by your care-centred practices in the work you both do. I wanted to reach out to ask - What practices of care might look like when working with institutions? How do you navigate between the expectations of institution and community? How have you cared for yourself in ways to sustain the work you do?
As I have always been inspired by your positive and sensitive outlooks, I look forward to hearing from you and learning from your insights.
Letter from Adriel
I’m writing to you from Tovaangar (Los Angeles) on an especially hot October day, even for here. I’m resisting the urge to call this 'unseasonable' because by now I know this to be inaccurate. A year ago the sun was so relentless it set the forests around me ablaze. The air was so thick even the KN95’s we had stocked up for the pandemic weren’t enough to keep our lungs from feeling heavy. Now, it hasn’t even been two years since calling this place home, but it feels like it’s been forever (like most things these days). Before this, I called Washington, D.C. home, and it’s hard to believe that the last time I was home there was at the tail end of 2019 with both of you! The Global Art Exchange was the last conference I attended that allowed hugs, that didn’t leave my eyes burning from Zoom-fatigue.
Do you remember that last evening when we gathered at the swanky hotel’s speakeasy? Alex, you bought a tarot deck from the lobby gift shop (yes, it was that kind of swanky) and with eyes gleaming you announced, 'I’ve never done this before!' as you began laying the cards out. I wonder if we would have read our fortunes differently had we known what awaited all of us just around the corner. A posse from across the world – New York, Hong Kong, London, etc – huddled around old fashioneds and pimm’s cups, discussing diaspora and borderlessness, unaware that we would all soon be sheltering in place.
That was the last time I walked the halls of the Smithsonian American Art Museum, a place that I had become so used to I’d glide past its iconic artworks on random workdays without even looking up from whatever feed was on my phone. I did always make a point to visit Isamu Noguchi’s Grey Sun, a masterpiece that someone passing quickly could easily dismiss as 'that statue of a soggy bagel by the stairs.' It embodies what I’ve always loved about Noguchi’s work, and by extension the work of many Asian artists: it transmutes the elements, makes something meaningful out of the raw, is unassuming until it strikes you that its existence emerged from impossible circumstances. I like to think of it as a sun that you’re allowed to stare at. More than once, a guard has shouted 'step back!' as I almost brushed my nose against its silky contours, lost in my intrigue of how he turned millstone into water.
I’ve actually thought about Noguchi a lot throughout the pandemic. Last spring when demonstrations erupted worldwide in response to the murder of George Floyd, institutions stumbled over themselves to be relevant but not implicated. Some even took down monuments to histories they recently celebrated. That July, the artist Larry Achiampong (a friend, thanks to our collaborations with Annie) posted an Insta-eyeroll about a white artist who replaced a colonial statue in Bristol with one of a Black woman, without meaningfully engaging local Black communities or considering Black artists who may have been more appropriate stewards of such a statement. 'A whole lot of you – you’re just taking this moment as a fucking festival', Larry sighed. 'Sometimes the best thing you can actually do when you’re a part of the problem is just stop for a moment.'
Maybe monuments themselves are part of the problem, I thought. I recalled other 'response monuments' that were perhaps not considered as problematic – like Kehinde Wiley’s Rumors of War, a 30-foot piece done in the style of a confederate statue – except with a Black man in a hoodie on horseback – which towered over Times Square for some weeks in 2019. That was right before the pandemic, before we collectively coined 'the new normal.' But are new normals simply subversions of old ones? Must humanity’s milestones be marked by giant, indestructible facsimiles of glorified individuals? Is progress made by simply transferring the same glories onto different bodies?
I thought about how I used to take interns on museum tours, and when we stopped at Grey Sun my favorite story to tell them was about a young Noguchi who trained under Gutzon Borglum, only to be told by him that he’d never make it as a sculptor. I had come across this encounter between Noguchi and the infamous sculptor of Mount Rushmore years ago on Wikipedia, and by 2020 Borglum’s entry had been updated with a paragraph detailing his affiliations with the Ku Klux Klan. Noguchi’s article had been modified to clarify that he had not so much trained under Borglum, but rather was used for tasks that included modeling Civil War figures for monuments he wasn’t invited to lay hands on. I wonder what was going on in Noguchi’s head in those moments, stoically straddling a model horse in service of a bigot, making history but never included in it. As you said, Annie: invisible and undervalued forms of labor.
I thought of Noguchi again in March 2021, when anti-Asian violence reached a fever pitch, marked by the murders of Hyun Jung Grant, Suncha Kim, Soon Chung Park, Yong Ae Yue, Delaina Ashley Yaun, Paul Andre Michels, Xiaojie Tan, and Daoyou Feng near Atlanta. Like so many others, by that point I had already spent over a year oscillating between knowing that I need to slow down, and feeling like I have to do something. But what would I even do? And would it be the right thing? Still terrified of the spreading virus, I shuddered at the mounting headlines of attacks on people like me in the world out there. I wondered if these were the emotions that drove Noguchi to establish Nisei Writers and Artists for Democracy amidst the rise in anti-Japanese racism amidst World War II, petitioning legislators for some justice, to no avail. I wonder if he was seeking release from the same sense of helplessness as he, safe in New York, watched Japanese Americans on the other side of the country herded into concentration camps. As you mentioned, Annie, he ended up volunteering to be incarcerated in the Poston Camp. He envisioned making recreational spaces for his brethren, but quickly learned that being both mixed-race and from Japan meant he wasn’t quite accepted in their history either. At least he did something. Who can ever know if it was the right thing?
The American Art Museum shares a building with the National Portrait Gallery, which displays a bust of Noguchi’s friend, the actress Ginger Rogers. Noguchi carved it and other friends’ busts out of marble while in the camp (I repeat, impossible circumstances). Sometimes I wonder if this is actually what he envisioned doing there. He self-imprisoned in defiance of institutional racism, and ended up spending his time carving the faces of white people. It’s easy for me, in these times, to see it this way, but I doubt he did. Noguchi made monuments all his life, but they were not ones to glorify historic figures. He instead made monuments to his intimate friendships. These days I’ve found similar comforts exchanging letters like these with you both, digitally witnessing your curations and offerings, reminiscing on our times together. I’ve been reading Seeing Ghosts, a memoir by my friend Kat Chow, who processes the childhood loss of her mother by writing, 'the way I endured grief was to think only of the after, and not the before.' But in these times where so much of our collective grief is for the future, sometimes 'the before' can be our greatest comfort, even if it’s attached to painful histories.
A few months ago, after finally getting vaccinated, I finally ventured to explore LA. I realized that I can’t really call this place home if I’m only ever at...home. My very first outing was with my friend, the architect Theresa Hwang. She led me to a diner in Little Tokyo run by the cutest elderly couple ever, and we took our katsu sandwiches to the Japanese American Cultural Community Center Plaza, designed by Noguchi in 1978. Entitled To the Issei, it is the only public sculpture in his city of birth, and it’s dedicated to a generation of people who were constantly pushed to the margins. He modified the plaza’s initial plans, opening more space for mass gatherings, and since its opening in 1983 it has been used by communities across the city for impactful demonstrations, vigils, and festivals centered on expressions of solidarity. Maybe there’s a place in our future for monuments after all – the ones that invite us to make history together.
Letter from Alex
Dear Annie, and dear Adriel,
I have to say that my spirits brightened when I realized I was writing to the both of you. We have been a part of so many meetings and visits that I cannot exactly recall the count. But I do remember when we three were a part of the working session in DC on the topics of Diaspora and Activism with NYU and the Smithsonian American Art Museum that Terra Foundation for American Art supported that December just before the pandemic. I remember distinctly my appreciation for folks being together to talk about topics so dear to me, and wanting to think how to provide care when it seemed an antithesis to calling meetings that make people travel miles to speak together for just a couple days amidst lives that are too busy to even properly enunciate just how much so. I offered an introduction that tried to open this topic, admitting that I was at a loss at how to proceed in terms of care and the institution. And Annie, you were the one who answered back. You acknowledged this need and in that acknowledgement, gave potential for care and reciprocity amid the most elementally institutional space as a closed working session of curators and art historians. But, I guess all of us who were there were, at some point if not at the present, on the edge in terms of our positionality within the institution. Our group discussed, argued really, about the term American and found it lacking or misrepresentational. Paul Goodwin enunciated possibilities in the idea of the trans. Working on diaspora and activism was something likely shunned by art history departments just over a decade ago. So, things have changed somewhat. Perhaps it is just that we have found each other and made people listen? But perhaps it is something bigger than us—with Black Lives Matter and the results of sustained coalition-building efforts —that is happening at this moment, but that we are also a part of? I have hopes that it is so.
In your invitation to reflect on the work of Noguchi, I immediately thought of the late Karin Higa and when she presented a slide of his well-known multi-media sculpture My Arizona at an NEH Summer Institute that I worked on with Margo Machida at NYU to re-envision American Art History through Asian American Art History (it’s helpful to be optimistic). Higa showed this slide during a talk in which she also noted that we were like termites undermining the foundations of the institution, coming from all directions. Again, there, we came from different silos of the institution, from art history to literature to curatorial studies, to American Studies, we found our way together at this institute.
The work reflects on Noguchi’s time at Poston incarceration camp in Arizona during the Second World War. Noguchi types. I see his faint type-written text. It was likely once bright black ink on paper that has now gone yellow despite being carefully digitally preserved online with the Noguchi online archive. Noguchi types out on the third page of his essay I Become a Nisei that it was while interned at Poston that 'suddenly I became aware of a color line I had never known before.' Interestingly, he follows that those in power within the camp, his 'keepers' became changed in terms of their relationship to him. Instead of treating him as an equal, he notes: 'Along with my freedom I seemed to have lost any possibility of equal friendship.' On the sixth page, he types: 'I think of my friends on the outside.'
I recall a colleague of mine who surprised me when she noted that our officemates were colleagues, that we were not friends. It startled me in terms of the stark line that was drawn between what a colleague was and a friend. Could we not be both? In the end, she had noted that being a colleague won out if office rules were not followed. But the fact that she saw me as something that could never be a friend and a colleague remained in my mind. How does the institution see us? As people? But to what depth is a relationship when the spark of empathy is delegated to the side and deprioritized? How do we come to treat people when it is 'only business'?
Our lived lives are a series of relationships to various people and things. Within relationships, emotion and empathy is what supposedly makes us who we are, feel what we feel, and understand things the way we can through how we relate to what is around us.
During a visit at the Noguchi Museum and Sculpture Garden with Dakin Hart, he graciously brought scholars from the Global Asia/Pacific Art exchange around the museum, while I had to fall back in another room trying to negotiate some logistical matter to enable the program to continue that day, which now completely eludes me and I regret having missed that moment’s discussion. Meanwhile, I do recall that he brought us through the maquettes of Noguchi’s unrealized park designs. Tiny, but filled with hopefulness of what might be, and filled with the possibility of encounter— encounter with beings, human and non-human. Flora and fauna.
In his 'What’s the Matter with Sculpture?' essay in 1936, Noguchi writes:
'I came rather with a claim to be an especial lover of nature. Trees and flower were my early companions and sea and mountain were ever to the front and back of me. My childhood was a constant communion with the earth.'
'These works are preferably intended as images of moods — moods of flowers, of the vegetative and purely structural aspects of nature — imaginative concepts projected into organic forms. They are symbols not of abstracted association, but of a sublimation of the spirit.'
I’d like to imagine a mood of a flower, nature’s lover, a lover of nature. I’m reminded of artists and thinkers pointing us to look at our multispecies world and how that act of embracing what has been classified throughout the past century as other, is in fact so interconnected, entwined with us, that if one fails, so does the other.
Noguchi types. His fading words seemed to darkly resonate with the words of those who are in awe during this present pandemic, it seemed for the first time in their lives, that our systems of life in the US and beyond are built on a history of purposeful and ever-present racism. In his essay 'I Become a Nisei', Noguchi underlines again and again the attempts of communities to assimilate, and the failure of democracy as evidenced by the concentration camps, honing in on the false veneer of assimilation that hides the white supremacy that lies beneath that project. That to be other and othered will always remain within the foundations of white supremacy that had been carefully laid within the founding of the US and beyond through the desire to hold and expand power. Through this othering, we cut our empathic ties. From friends we become 'keepers' and 'colleagues' without camaraderie.
Annie, you offered us to read Brendan Fernandes’s imagined letter to Noguchi. He asks: 'And did you ever think that after you were gone, others would still be wanting to collaborate with you?' . I wonder about Noguchi and his collaborators, his collaborations, his desire to create spaces for others to entangle and play together. How can we think about our place in the institution and how we want to see the institution function? Sometimes I feel I am definitely on the outside edge, but I also feel that more and more of us from that edge are working our ways as termites to create something else together. I’m heartened by the artists who came together to create masks across communities during the pandemic with the Auntie Sewing Squad, I’m reminded that relationships are formed, tested, and they need not be formed through the institution, but perhaps through our gathering, our meetings, our personal endeavours and initiatives that we also work at times with the institution on. The institution is not alive. It is living beings who collaborate, build and support each other, whether with the next exhibition project, organisation, or movement.
All my best,
Ballston Lake, NY
Resonances across the Asia-Pacific
Tracing the histories of transnational Asian diaspora struggles and solidarities across the Asia-Pacific, Professors Marci Kwon and Ming Tiampo, curators and researchers Mika Maruyama and Annie Jael Kwan thread a discussion regarding Noguchi's artistic legacy and lived experiences to their reflections on contemporary challenges when working with institutions, issues of inclusivity and visibility, and finding new intersections of solidarity.
A full transcript of the podcast is available here.
Alexandra is Associate Professor of Practice with the Art History program at the Department of Arts, Culture and Media and Interim Associate Director of the Clement A. Price Institute on Ethnicity, Culture, and the Modern Experience and Associate Director of the American Studies Program at Rutgers University-Newark. She also organizes the EcoArt Salon at Paul Robeson Galleries at RU-N and the Decolonizing Curatorial and Museum Studies and Public Humanities Project. She directs the Global Asia/Pacific Art Exchange (GAX) and Virtual Asian American Art Museum with A/P/A Institute at NYU and is Co-Founding Editor of Asian Diasporic Visual Cultures and the Americas (ADVA) (Brill, Leiden). She is Co-Founder of the College Art Association’s affiliated society the Diasporic Asian Art Network (DAAN). Recent exhibitions she has curated include CYJO/Mixed (2019, co-curator with artist, NYU Kimmel Windows); Ming Fay: Beyond Nature (2019 Sapar Contemporary); Zarina: Dark Roads (2017-18, co-curator with artist, A/P/A Institute, NYU), (ex)CHANGE: History Place Presence (2018, Asian Arts Initiative); Circles and Circuits: Chinese Caribbean Art (2017-2018, co-curator, Getty PST II: LA/LA, Chinese American Museum and California African American Museum.) She is the author of Envisioning Diaspora: Asian American Visual Arts Collectives (Timezone 8, 2018) and editor of Circles and Circuits: Chinese Caribbean Art (Duke UP, 2018).
A community organizer, artist, writer, and curator, Adriel Luis believes that collective liberation can happen in poetic ways. His life’s work is focused on the mutual thriving of artistic integrity and social vigilance. He is a part of the iLL-Literacy arts collective, which creates music and media to strengthen Black and Asian coalitions, and is creative director of Bombshelltoe, a collaborative of artists and leaders from frontline communities responding to nuclear histories. Adriel is the Curator of Digital and Emerging Practice at the Smithsonian Asian Pacific American Center, where he advocates for equitable practices in museums and institutions. His ancestors are rooted in Toisan, China, and migrated through Hong Kong, Mexico, and the United States. Adriel was born on Ohlone land.
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 Noguchi - Annie Jael Kwan
 Isamu Noguchi, “I Become a Nisei,” unpublished essay for Reader’s Digest on the internment of the Japanese Americans during World War II, c 1942, Noguchi Museum archives, MS_WRI_005_001
 “Instructions About Construction Design,” November 30 1976, Noguchi Museum archives, IDENTIFIER MS_PROJ_185_003
 Isamu Noguchi letter to Claud Engle, October 5 1976, MS_PROJ_185_001
 Isamu Noguchi letter to Yasuo W. Abiko, February 23 1979, MS_COR_133_001
 Isamu Noguchi, Letter to Peter Putnam, March 17, 1982. The Noguchi Museum Archives, MS_PROJ_067_006.
Letter to Adriel Luis and Alexandra Chang - Annie Jael Kwan
 Marci Kwon, introduction to “Asian American Art, Pasts and Futures,” Panorama: Journal of the Association of Historians of American Art 7, no. 1 (Spring 2021), https://doi.org/10.24926/24716839.11446.
Letter to Annie Jael Kwan and Adriel Luis - Alexandra Chang
 Isamu Noguchi, I Become a Nisei. Unpublished article, from 1942.
 Isamu Noguchi, “What’s the Matter with Sculpture?” Art Front 16 (September-October 1936) 13-14.
 Essay by Brendan Fernandes from Best! Letters from Asian Americans in the Arts; eds. Christopher K. Ho and Daisy Nam (New York: Paper Monument/n+1, 2021) 234.