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Akari: Sculpture by Other Means

Akari: Sculpture by Other Means, a new exhibition at New York’s Noguchi Museum, examines and celebrates Isamu Noguchi’s iconic, collapsible paper lanterns.

One of the most important sculptors of the last century, Isamu Noguchi (1904–88) was born in Los Angeles, California, to a Scottish-American mother, and Japanese father, he moved to Japan shortly after, where he remained until the age of thirteen, when he returned to the US.

He was interested in art and sculpture from an early age, but initially studied pre-medicine at Columbia, whilst also taking evening classes with sculptor Onorio Ruotolo. However, in 1926, after witnessing revolutionary sculptor Constantin Brancusi’s exhibition at the Brummer Gallery, he was inspired to focus entirely on his art, and in doing so, achieved the Guggenheim Fellowship allowing him to work as an assistant to Brancusi, at his Paris studio.

“Great good fortune such as this has something of the divine and inevitable,” said Noguchi, of this opportunity, the pair forming a constructive and reciprocal relationship, with Noguchi, much like Brancusi, going on to work across a range of disciplines, using a multitude of materials, exploring the pureness of their texture and form.

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During his career he became increasingly interested in making a socially relevant and accessible form of sculpture, which he detailed in his 1936 essay What’s the matter with Sculpture for Art Form. The essay appealed to artists to create sculpture that dealt with current problems, “drawing on science, industry and contemporary life in order to engage with the viewers everyday lives”

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He applied this both to his public works of art, and to his functional designs, a number of which were mass-produced, including the Bakelite intercom for the Zenith Radio Corporation in 1937, and the Herman Miller produced glass-topped table, ten years later.

However, his most iconic mass-produced design, and his best example of integrating art into daily life, is undoubtedly the Akari lantern. It’s invention occurred during a 1951 visit to a post-war and economically struggling Japan, where Noguchi was asked by the major of Gifu (a small city with a long history of traditional lantern manufacturing), to help revitalize the industry by designing a lamp for export, made using the traditional combination of bamboo and handmade washi paper (made from the bark of the mulberry tree).

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Inspired by the traditional lanterns used to illuminate night fishing on the Nagari river; Noguchi collaborated with local design firm Ozeki & Co, to create a contemporary electrified take on these, in a range of shapes and sizes.

A perfect consolidation both of form and function, and of traditional craft, with modern technology, Noguchi felt the ‘magic of the paper’ filtered the harsh electric light, so it appeared warmer; more like natural sunlight.

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He went on to create over 200 different versions of the Akari, a number of which are on display at the exhibition, including the largest, the 200D, built for the American Pavilion at the 1986 Venice Biennale. In addition, there are a range of installations aimed at displaying both the functional and aesthetic qualities of the Akari, illustrating Noguchi’s concept of light as both place and object.

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The accompanying exhibition, Akari Unfolded: A Collection by YMER & MALTA, presents a selection of the 26 lamps, designed by five contemporary designers, and created using new materials and processes by the leading French design studio.

Exhibition curator Dakin Hart, (Senior Curator at the Museum), explains,

“It is with the affordable, lightweight, collapsible, and now ubiquitous, Akari—which solve virtually all of the problems associated with sculpture—that Noguchi achieved his high ambition to positively alter the built environment. Sculpture by Other Means aims to show Akari as Noguchi intended it: as a flexible, open-ended, modular ecosystem of light sculptures, rather than a fixed product line, and to demonstrate some of the unusual ways in which they shape, transform, and create space.

The new lamps presented in Akari Unfolded: a collection by YMER&MALTA, parallel the development of Akari by synthesizing various craft traditions with new technology, pushing the basic alchemy of Noguchi’s light sculptures into the future. We are grateful to Valérie Maltaverne and YMER&MALTA for demonstrating the ongoing power of Akari to inspire.”

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Akari Sculpture by Other Means, and Akari Unfolded: a collection by YMER&MALTA, are on view at the Noguchi Museum in New York until January 27 2019. For more information visit their website.

Photography by Nicholas Knight, courtesy of the Noguchi Museum. 

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