This September, the Barbican Centre hosts the celebratory works of Isamu Noguchi, the renowned Japanese American artist who boldly thrust sculpture art into the public sphere. We admire the diversity of his work and his life whilst grappling with the fundamental question; what position should sculpt art take in public life, and what can art tell us about our humanity? The Barbican Centre was extremely accommodating, hauling a plethora of Noguchi’s work across two floors, and arranging the works chronologically and by genre (no easy feat considering the variety of Noguchi’s work). “Kaleidoscopic” is the word that comes to mind when understanding Noguchi’s work, and the Barbican Centre offers an open clockwise setup of twelve displays for observers to appreciate such diversity.
Born in 1904, raised in Japan, and being of dual heritage (a Japanese mother but an American father) Noguchi’s sculpture uniquely tackles cultural duality. The relations between America and Japan in the mid-late 20th century were both tumultuous and tragic, contrastingly Noguchi’s work is not tribalistic but expansive, reflecting the time he had spent traveling around the world searching for a place of belonging. Judging by his multi-thematic sculptures on space (both cosmic and abstract), biology, and nature, Noguchi asserts that his “place of belonging” is everywhere. Noguchi refuses to be pinned down by politics or creed but embraces life itself. Pertinent examples include Miss Expanding Universe (1932), Mitosis, (1962) and Skin and Bones (1950), all of which are wildly different compositions of a similar theme: our interlocking humanity and our potential to expand into the universe.
Early on, Noguchi was educated at the Leonardo da Vinci Art School in New York and launched his career making portrait heads (bronze masks and busts are scattered throughout the exhibition). A brief stint at Paris on a fellowship saw him transition to abstract carving. Between 1928-1931: Beijing, Tokyo, Moscow, and London were some of the destinations that Noguchi ventured to during his quest for self-discovery. Knowing oneself was incredibly poignant for Noguchi, being a Nisei (American of Japanese heritage) meant coming to terms with two wildly different cultures and Noguchi settled on looking at the world in a new way: through his legs.
“When an artist stops being a child, he stops being an artist” – Isamu Noguchi
One of Noguchi’s most famous works forces us to shed all paradigms when envisaging the world around us. Boy Looking through Legs (1933), is a self-portrait of a child gazing at the world upside down. It seemed 1933 was a watershed moment for Noguchi as his bold insertion of sculpting art into the public sphere began. A series of playground-inspired artwork frolic with the idea of space as a volume, this work went largely unrealised but shows Noguchi’s earlier attempts to boldly “break out of the categories of sculpture”.
Upon entering these art displays, I often found myself contorting my neck or squatting more often than accustomed to. Much of Noguchi’s work is very Japanese, that is low to the ground, but intensely American and with a focus on the industrial and the astronomical (see Sculpture to be Seen from Mars, 1947). I later found that he often took inspiration from Japanese gardens in observatories, specifically the grounding effects rocks have on us as humans.
Ultimately, this is an exhibition of one man’s life and his eternal search for belonging. Suffice to say, the work of Isamu Noguchi is not entirely inward-looking or pacifistic. His views on war and the tragedies of Hiroshima are worth admiring, and the Barbican Centre goes all out on Noguchi’s innovative luminescent displays which – depending on where you look – create a new picture every time round.
For more information, please visit the Barbican website here: https://www.barbican.org.uk/whats-on/2021/event/noguchi
Reviewed by Mohammed Abdillahi – Mohammed is a volunteer writer for Abundant Art. Currently completing a History Master’s at QMUL, his passion for global history allows him to appreciate art as valuable remnants of the past.