Noguchi: Resonances

A Digital Residency by Annie Jael Kwan

Samrat Yantra, Jantar Mantar; Bollingen Travels; New Delhi, India, 1949. Photograph by Isamu Noguchi. The Noguchi Museum Archives, 08447.3 © Isamu Noguchi Garden Museum / ARS - DACS

Samrat Yantra, Jantar Mantar; Bollingen Travels; New Delhi, India, 1949. Photograph by Isamu Noguchi. The Noguchi Museum Archives, 08447.3 © Isamu Noguchi Garden Museum / ARS - DACS

Introduction

As part of a digital residency at the Barbican, Noguchi: Resonances emerges as an ongoing collaborative exploration in response to Noguchi, an exhibition celebrating Japanese-American sculptor Isamu Noguchi (1904-1988).

A starting point is his 1947 work, Bird’s Nest (Nesting), a delicate suspended piece made of simple everyday materials of construction such as wood dowels, paper, string, and so on, in contrast to his monumental sculptures of heavy stone hewn in immense scale. Although appearing make-shift and whimsical, the mobile speaks to the deep-seated longing for and anxiety for home, where home itself is at times fragile and contingent.

From October to December, independent curator and researcher Annie Jael Kwan has invited artists, curators, and thinkers from across the UK and Global Asias to reflect together on the themes related to Noguchi's artistic legacy, transnational lived experiences, and his voluntary internment at Poston in solidarity with Japanese Americans that were forcibly relocated and incarcerated during World War II in the USA. The digital residency also offers the opportunity to delve into the rich archives related to Noguchi’s artistic works, his many letters of correspondence, and photographic records of his travels.

Like Noguchi's Nest, the resonances of their voices intersect across epistolatory and conversational exchanges, experimental audio and moving image works to discuss together contemporary and critical issues regarding the practice of care, questions of land, belonging, emergence, and the challenges and joys of Asian solidarity in art and activism. Featuring contributions by Yarli Allison, Alexandra Chang, Youngsook Choi, Chong Li-Chuan, George Clark, Rei Hayama, Marci Kwon, Adriel Luis, Ming Tiampo, Mika Maruyama and Nine Yamamoto-Masson.

Isamu Noguchi, Bird's Nest (Nesting), 1947. Wood dowels, balsawood, paper, paint, tape. 16 3/4 x 18 x 13 in. (42.5 x 45.7 x 33 cm). The Noguchi Museum Archives, 00163. Photo: Kevin Noble. ©INFGM / ARS - DACS

Isamu Noguchi, Bird's Nest (Nesting), 1947. Wood dowels, balsawood, paper, paint, tape. 16 3/4 x 18 x 13 in. (42.5 x 45.7 x 33 cm). The Noguchi Museum Archives, 00163. Photo: Kevin Noble. ©INFGM / ARS - DACS

Letter to Isamu

Dear Mr Noguchi-san,

We have not met, but it feels like our paths might have crossed many times. I have encountered your public works around the world, and since I began researching your archive of letters and photographs, I see we have been to many similar places including Hiroshima in Japan, the Acropolis in Greece, Jantar Mantar in India and Haw Par Villa in Singapore. Reading your writing, I have felt a growing affinity with your experiences. I share your experience of feeling “hybrid”, with “a haunting sense of unreality, of not quite belonging.” You were born of a Japanese father and American mother, moved to live in Japan in your childhood, returned to the USA later and adopted the use of your Japanese name. I was born in Singapore, but have lived and worked in the United Kingdom for more than half my life. Like you, due to peculiar twists in my family history, I have had two name changes too - each reflecting a fundamental shift that I’ve since tried to reconcile. Being hybrid means always to feel torn, one one hand, between peoples, places and contexts, but it also provides multiple perspectives and generates the urge to connect.

Hence I recognise in your desire to found the Nisei Writers and Artists Mobilization for Democracy in 1942, with a group of avid writers of letters and articles that sought to raise awareness of the patriotism of the Japanese Americans, a similar urge to be with others like yourself. Reflecting on my curatorial work in Something Human, Asia-Art-Activism, and Asia Forum, which revolves around bringing people together for conversation and collaboration over shared concerns, I confess that the urge to ‘group’, to congregate - is perhaps a desire to find, and if that’s not possible, to make, one’s own peoples and tribes. And to do that with people that make the world and being alive so interesting! You’ve worked with musician John Cage, dance choreographer Martha Graham, ikebana artist and teacher Sofu Teshigahara, and I find it revitalising that my work brings me into dialogue with a range of all sorts of interesting folks - from brilliant artists, academics, writers, scientists, animators, analysts, you name it, to teachers, travellers and dreamers.

I was delighted to hear there would be a survey exhibition of your work at the Barbican this fall, the first European touring retrospective in 20 years. I have been aware of the significance of your legacy for some time, including noting that your sculpture, Floor Frame (1962) was installed last year in the Rose Garden of the White House in Washington DC as the first artwork by an Asian-American to be included in the White House Collection. What a strange, compelling moment for Asian-American representation, after the painful and chaotic months earlier with the unfolding of the pandemic, and the racialised weaponisation of the ‘virus’ in political rhetoric that saw a corresponding spike of violence against Asian people all over the world, including here in the UK. While the pandemic has revealed the cracks of our political, health and social systems, it has also foregrounded the need to think about what it means to be Asian, in the UK, Europe and internationally, and what it means to be part of a complex, diverse Asian diaspora, situated within the broader entanglement of geopolitical Asias.

I spent the first half of 2020 in Japan, which left a deep impression on me. I was on a three-month research residency in Tokyo, and I couldn’t leave as all the flights were cancelled, and the city I was supposed to transit through had gone into lockdown. Before the lockdown, our schedule was filled with visits to museums and art spaces, walks around the city, and rowdy dinners at various izakayas while drinking sake and umeshu highballs. After most of my colleagues had departed, my time in Japan became quiet and meditative. I continued walking around the subdued city and its parks, since most of the shops were closed. I found very therapeutic the mode of exploratory walking, dipping into streets and alleys, and weaving in and out of different parks without a destination in mind. It was on one of these afternoons, after tracking through Yoyogi and Meiji-Jingu Parks, that I found myself outside the Sogetsu Kaikan. Within the first and second floors of the building, upon the invitation of Teshigahara, you had created your indoor ivory stone-stepped garden, Heaven (1978). Unfortunately, at the time, the Foundation was closed, so I could only peek in through the glass doors.

Isamu Noguchi, Heaven (Tengoku), Interior Garden for Sogetsu Flower Arranging School, c.1977-1978. Interior design with granite. The Noguchi Museum Archives, 06694. Photo: Michio Noguchi. ©INFGM / ARS - DACS

Isamu Noguchi, Heaven (Tengoku), Interior Garden for Sogetsu Flower Arranging School, c.1977-1978. Interior design with granite. The Noguchi Museum Archives, 06694. Photo: Michio Noguchi. ©INFGM / ARS - DACS

Looking through your archive reveals how well supported you were in realising this immense installation, where you could be incredibly detailed as to the selection of materials2, and could even invite and fly in lighting consultant, Claude Engle, from Washington D.C. to advise on lighting design3. His notes reveal the precision of the selection of lightbulbs and rigging to enhance your vision. I thought how marvellous it must have been for you to finally be able to create the heaven you wanted on earth, and to be able to have celebrated your 80th birthday there.

Isamu Noguchi, Model for Heaven (Tengoku), Interior Garden for Sogetsu Flower Arranging School, c.1977-1978. Wood. 8 1/2 x 26 5/8 x 23 1/2 in. (21.6 x 67.6 x 59.7 cm). The Noguchi Museum Archives, 00822. Photo: Kevin Noble. ©INFGM / ARS - DACS

Isamu Noguchi, Model for Heaven (Tengoku), Interior Garden for Sogetsu Flower Arranging School, c.1977-1978. Wood. 8 1/2 x 26 5/8 x 23 1/2 in. (21.6 x 67.6 x 59.7 cm). The Noguchi Museum Archives, 00822. Photo: Kevin Noble. ©INFGM / ARS - DACS

It recalls, of course, how under very different circumstances in 1942, John Collier, Commissioner for the Bureau of Indian Affairs, had written to you, and you were feeling optimistic about your decision to voluntarily enter the camp at Poston in solidarity with Japanese-Americans forcibly relocated and incarcerated to internment camps. You thought this could be your “entry into the field of the 'imaginary landscape'” where you “might be of help in making the place more human”4 and to create art and skills-learning workshops that could help other Japanese-Americans. It has been fascinating to consider if perhaps you saw your work as an artist being of use in intervening in inhospitable spaces and problematic structures of power? It is also sobering to ponder on the frustration you expressed, and your short-lived attempt after you faced challenges of not receiving the necessary resources and support. I think of these two projects, one successful, one failed, and the delicate mobile you made in between, Bird’s Nest, made of everyday materials of making such as wood dowels and so on. Perhaps, between the extremes of heaven and hell, really, you were looking to find ways of making a home - of being and feeling at home. This still resonates with me, and with many of my migrant and diaspora colleagues, especially during these recent years which has seen increased precarity in the arts sector, along with the Home Office’s Hostile Environment policy against migrants, the Windrush repatriation, and Brexit’s impact on free movement across borders.

Thank you for all your hard work in trying to engage thoughtfully, and sometimes, playfully, with the world around us. As you have written, “All in all the times seem right for a good look at our position here in this world.”5 Over the next few months, I’ll be inviting friends and colleagues in the arts from the Asian diaspora in the UK and internationally to reflect together on your legacy and life, and how we can all do better where we are.

どうぞ よろしく おねがいします。

Annie

Note by Isamu Noguchi about design of his sculpture and collaborative environment, Heaven. September 25, 1977. The Noguchi Museum Archives, MS_PROJ_185_015. ©INFGM / ARS - DACS

Note by Isamu Noguchi about design of his sculpture and collaborative environment, Heaven. September 25, 1977. The Noguchi Museum Archives, MS_PROJ_185_015. ©INFGM / ARS - DACS

Contributors

Yarli Allison
Building upon her experiences of displacement, Yarli embodies ‘emotional geography’ studies to compose both sculptural and virtual fictitious scenarios that are seemingly hopeful and functional, yet on the verge of falling apart. Often interacting with personas or creatures, these imagined worlds consist of her invented survival tactics and coping mechanisms. Yarli utilises the process of cognitive restructuring and belonging remapping to play with the sense of futility and the uncertain future of ‘what if’. Themes including border systems, datafication, and function creep are explored, along with  skinships, queerness, and sexual objectification. Yarli’s recent virtual reality generated work, referencing her early age refuge-seeking experiences with ‘digital gamification’ in cyberspace. They pose questions on sculpture’s physicality, mobility, and its preservation in the posthuman and dematerialised conditions to come. Despite this, she constantly returns to her sculpture-installation background, leaving strong raw-handcrafted traces in her work that emphasise accidents caused by human errors in the making. 

Alexandra Chang
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).

Youngsook Choi
London-based artist and researcher Youngsook Choi has a PhD in human geography. Her practice relates to the subjective position as a woman, mother, and migrant of Korean Heritage, coming from a working-class background. Youngsook’s recent performances explore the concept of 'political spirituality and intimate aesthetics of community actions through composing speculative narratives with research evidence, folk tales, mythologies and performative instructions for audience participation. Youngsook is the recipient of Arts Council England Project Grant for the collective healing project for Asian diaspora, Becoming Forest

Chong Li-Chuan
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.

George Clark
An artist, writer and curator, George Clark's work explores the history of images and how they are governed by culture and technology as well as social and political conditions. His work and research have focused on moving image in the expanded field working across film, installation and performance with a focus on collaborative practice in global context. Recent work includes Double Ghosts, an evolving multi-part project exhibited as part of the 2018 Taiwan Biennial and Berwick Film and Media Arts Festival 2019. The project explores the status and potential of unrealised and fragmented histories from the legacy of Chilean filmmaker Raúl Ruiz (1941-2011) to animist cinematic traditions in Taiwan. In 2018 he co-founded the West Java West Yorkshire Cooperative Movement with Ismal Muntaha, Bunga Saigian and Will Rose a collaborative project with the Jatiwangi art Factory, Indonesia and Pavilion, UK, that has supported new projects with over 30 artists  across communities in both regions. His curatorial projects for museums, galleries, cinemas and festivals focus on broadening the histories of film and video practice globally. His writing has appeared in numerous publications, exhibition catalogues, journals and books. He teaches at University of Westminster and Royal College of Art.

Rei Hayama
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.


Marci Kwon
Marci Kwon is Assistant Professor of Art History at Stanford University, and co-director of the Cantor Art Center's Asian American Art Initiative. At Stanford, she is a faculty affiliate of Modern Thought and Literature, the Center for Comparative Studies in Race and Ethnicity, Asian American Studies, and Feminist and Gender Studies. She is the author of Enchantments: Joseph Cornell and American Modernism (Princeton, 2021), and her work has appeared in Third Text, Modernism/Modernity Print +, and edited volumes on social art history, self-taught art, and the early history of the Museum of Modern Art. She is the recipient of Stanford’s Asian American Teaching Prize, CCSRE Teaching Prize, Phi Beta Kappa Teaching Award, and the Women's Faculty Forum Inspiring Early Career Academic Award.

Adriel Luis
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.

Mika Maruyama
Based in Vienna and Tokyo, Mika Maruyama is a writer, curator and researcher whose theoretical work deals with the intersections of queer and feminist theory, and the convergence of media culture, technology and politics of the body. Her interdisciplinary practice ranges from curating and zine-making to collaborative artistic practices motivated by her interests in subversive and transcultural practices and aesthetics that flip dominant historical narrative and normativity. In 2018, she started queer feminist art zine “Multiple Spirits” in Japanese and English with artist Mai Endo. She holds a master’s degree in philosophy from Yokohama National University, Japan, and is currently a doctoral student at the Academy of Fine Arts Vienna and the board member (serving as a secretary) of the Austrian Association of Wom*n Artists (VBKÖ). Her articles have appeared in art magazines and books, including Flash Art, Camera Austria, BijutsuTecho and artscape. Her curating and research projects include When It Waxes and Wanes (VBKÖ, 2020), Body Electric (Yuka Tsuruno Gallery, Tokyo, 2017) and Behind the Terrain (Yogyakarta, 2016 / Hanoi, 2017 / Tokyo, 2018). 

Ming Tiampo
Professor of Art History, and co-director of the Centre for Transnational Cultural Analysis at Carleton University, Ming Tiampo is interested in transcultural models and histories that provide new structures for understanding and reconfiguring the global. She has published on Japanese modernism, global modernisms, and diaspora. Tiampo’s book Gutai: Decentering Modernism (University of Chicago Press, 2011) received an honorable mention for the Robert Motherwell Book award. In 2013, she was co-curator of the AICA award-winning Gutai: Splendid Playground at the Guggenheim Museum in NY. Tiampo is currently working on three publication projects, Transnational Cities, which theorizes the scale of the urban as a mode of reimagining transcultural intersections and the historical conditions of global modernism, Intersecting Modernisms, a collaborative sourcebook on global modernism, and Jin-me Yoon, an Art Canada Institute book on the diasporic Korean-Canadian artist. Tiampo is an associate member at ici Berlin, a member of the Hyundai Tate Research Centre: Transnational Advisory Board, a fellow at the Paul Mellon Centre for British Art on the London, Asia project, a founding member of TrACE, the Transnational and Transcultural Arts and Culture Exchange network, and co-lead on its Worlding Public Cultures project.

Nine Yamamoto-Masson
A Japanese-French interdisciplinary artist, practising theorist, researcher, writer, translator, and community organiser. In academic research, pedagogic and artistic practice, her work analyses the gendered necropolitics of (neo)coloniality with regard to the legacies of Japanese, European, and US (military) imperialisms, whose coded architectures of power and economies of knowledge continue to subject bodies and futures to violent disciplining. Her artistic research embraces many methods, such as drawing, photography, installation, sculpture, performances, collage, poetry, writing, sound, video, curating. Rooted in a decolonial abolitionist feminist framework, her work engages with the modes of organisation and artistic practices of networked resistance to the above, future-building, peace activism, the workings of resistant living archives and antiimperialist disruptions of revisionist dominant narratives, focusing on the role of art in inter-diasporic, internationalist, inter-generational solidarities and knowlege production.

Particular focus is placed on 20th and 21st century Japan, its state-enforced historical taboos and programmed amnesia, and how the past, present, and future temporalities of the Asia-Pacific region and (inter)Asian diasporas worldwide, as well as within global decolonial processes and memory-work. She is a PhD candidate at the University of Amsterdam’s Amsterdam School for Cultural Analysis (ASCA). In 2018 and 2019 she was a visiting researcher-artist at Hiroshima City University, and will soon be visiting researcher at the Asian/Pacific/American Institute at New York University in Lenapehoking.

End Notes

Letter to Noguchi - Annie Jael Kwan

[1] 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
[2] “Instructions About Construction Design,” November 30 1976, Noguchi Museum archives, IDENTIFIER MS_PROJ_185_003
[3] Isamu Noguchi letter to Claud Engle, October 5 1976, MS_PROJ_185_001
[4] Isamu Noguchi letter to Yasuo W. Abiko, February 23 1979, MS_COR_133_001
[5] 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

[1] 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

[1] Isamu Noguchi, I Become a Nisei. Unpublished article, from 1942.
[2] Isamu Noguchi, “What’s the Matter with Sculpture?” Art Front 16 (September-October 1936) 13-14.
[3] 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.