This exhibition gives a pronounced form to an ongoing conversation between two artists who never met: Japanese American artist Isamu Noguchi (1904–1988), who is a central figure in modern art history, and Vietnamese Danish artist Danh Vo (born 1975), an original voice in international contemporary practice. The dialogue is articulated through a range of works by Noguchi that spans almost five decades, and that includes industrial design objects, works on paper, and sculptures in stone, metal, and other materials. Vo’s contribution to the exhibition consists not only of select examples of his practice produced between 2010 and 2018, but also of building a bridge between two institutions and two cities—M+ in Hong Kong and Noguchi’s museum in New York—and creating a constellation of diverse works of Noguchi’s and his own, and of ideas and allusions. The encounter through this exhibition is neither a sleight of hand nor an arbitrary curatorial set-up. Rather, it was precipitated by Vo, who has in recent years explored and researched Noguchi’s life and art, and has included Noguchi’s work in his installations with increasing frequency. The exhibition sheds light on each artist’s protean body of work. In order to understand how the two are brought together for this occasion and how they speak to each other, it is important to first approach them individually, through their biographies, their practices, and their legacies.
Two Artists, Each on His Own
Isamu Noguchi is a quintessential twentieth-century modernist artist. His position in history is partly based on the extremely long list of exhibitions of his work that were held during his lifetime and afterward, the presence of his work in numerous public collections, and the many public projects he realised around the world. Moreover, the narrative of Noguchi’s multifaceted life and career places him in the company of other celebrated artists and cultural figures of the modern period. But perhaps what makes him particularly representative of American and international modernism, and also of his time, is his biracial and bicultural background.
Born in Los Angeles out of wedlock to a famous Japanese poet—who is often credited with introducing haiku to the West—and an American writer and editor, Noguchi spent his childhood in Japan and his adolescence in the American Midwest. This upbringing—in two places that could not be more different from each other—prefigured his peripatetic adult life and career, with New York as his primary base. In his early twenties, for instance, Noguchi made his way to Paris and quickly found work in the studio of Romanian-born sculptor Constantin Brancusi. In 1930, he travelled on the Trans-Siberian Railway with the intention of continuing on to Japan to visit his father, whom he had not seen for many years, but instead stayed for seven months in Beijing, where he studied ink painting with the master Qi Baishi. From 1949 on, South and Southeast Asia became important sources of inspiration for Noguchi, and he travelled extensively through the regions to study historical sites—among them the astronomical observatories in Jaipur and Delhi, known as Jantar Mantars. He later made proposals for monuments to central figures in the newly independent nation of India’s postcolonial self-fashioning, including Gandhi, as well as a portrait of Nehru. Noguchi designed and realised a number of gardens and monuments, such as the Japanese Garden at the UNESCO headquarters in Paris, complex computerised fountains with patented nozzles for Expo ’70 in Osaka, and the Billy Rose Sculpture Garden for the inauguration of the Israel Museum, as well as innovative public spaces he called ‘playscapes’, intended for children and adults alike.
Noguchi counted among his friends many luminaries in the landscape of pre- and post-war modernism. He began a long friendship with the American visionary thinker R. Buckminster Fuller in the late 1920s, and in the 1930s he was connected with the Mexican artists Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera. Other close friends and associates included painters Willem de Kooning and Arshile Gorky; sculptor Alexander Calder; composer and artist John Cage; the so-called father of conceptual art Marcel Duchamp; architects Louis Kahn, Gordon Bunshaft, and Tange Kenzo; ceramicist Kitaoji Rosanjin; and, most enduringly, dancer-choreographer Martha Graham, for whom he designed numerous sets. As suggested by this breadth of associations, Noguchi easily crossed the boundaries between fine art, industrial design, landscape architecture, and other disciplines. This made him an exception among his contemporaries, but his mixed origin made him more so. The destiny he was born with was perhaps the single most important dimension of the eight decades of his life, as well as his most abiding source of artistic inspiration.
In 1942, Noguchi made a life-altering decision, in which his personal background and the social dimension of his artistic convictions came together: he voluntarily entered one of the internment camps set up by the United States government in the wake of Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor. The camps held American citizens of Japanese descent who lived in the western part of the country, and Noguchi’s intention was to create spaces and situations that would improve the harsh living conditions of these wrongly imprisoned citizens. In spite of—or perhaps because of—the frustration of his remarkable ambition for civic activism and artistic idealism in the year he spent in the camp, Noguchi was driven for the rest of his life to create transformative public spaces meant to ennoble, uplift, and liberate the public.
Displacement is also crucial to the biography and work of Danh Vo. Born in Bà Rịa near Saigon—now called Ho Chi Minh City—in 1975, Vo was four years old when his family joined the waves of refugees fleeing Vietnam by boat. The Vo family was rescued in the open sea by a container ship belonging to the Danish conglomerate Maersk, sent to a refugee processing centre in Singapore, and ended up in Denmark. Vo was raised and educated there, and graduated from the Kongelige Danske Kunstakademi (the Royal Danish Academy of Fine Arts) in Copenhagen and the Städelschule in Frankfurt.
Vo achieved critical acclaim in the 2000s for work that poetically conjures lesser-known or overlooked histories and biographies through the arresting auras of found objects and artefacts. For instance, he exhibited the chandeliers that he negotiated to acquire from the grand ballroom of the former hôtel Majestic in Paris, where the 1973 peace treaty was signed that ended American involvement in the war in Vietnam; and the television, refrigerator, washing machine, and wooden cross his grandmother received from a Christian charity upon her arrival in Germany as a refugee. These decorative or mundane objects turned into rarefied works of art are deeply affecting because they are imbued with specific biographical or historical narratives, but Vo’s work can also inspire awe through the physical scale and conceptual severity of new fabrications. In We the People (detail) (2011–2016), Vo reproduced at a one-to-one scale the Statue of Liberty (dedicated in 1886), which was a gift from the French state to the United States on the centenary of the younger nation’s independence. Produced in a factory outside Shanghai in over three hundred pieces of hammered copper plates, Vo’s version of ‘Lady Liberty’ (the original consists of 350 pieces riveted together) reorients the late-nineteenth-century trans-Atlantic international alliance into a twenty-first-century trans-Pacific relationship of commodity production and circulation. Perhaps the most important aspect of We the People (detail) is Vo’s decision to distribute the parts in different art collections around the world, making it unlikely for them to ever come together into a complete sculpture.
Vietnam and the United States, whose political and military involvement in Southeast Asia fundamentally altered the course of Vo’s birth country, have been important subjects in his work, but his interests extend much further. Imperialism and colonialism in many forms, the global circulation of capital and commodities, devotion and violence inspired by religion, and canonical aesthetic production of civilisations as well as marginal craftsmanship are all interwoven in Vo’s art. His universe of found, fabricated, and recombined objects has greatly expanded in recent years to include commercial cardboard packaging, which he gilded; Mexican Talavera pottery; ancient Roman and medieval European statuary, often cut and sometimes sutured into new hybrids; a Chinese bamboo birdcage; and a traditional pagoda structure found in villages of the Dong people, who live primarily in the mountains of Guizhou Province, in southwestern China. Vo not only brings a magical appreciation to these objects in the way a connoisseur would, but also forcefully supplants them from their original historical and cultural contexts to divergent spaces of contemporary art.
Vo is acutely aware of the violence inherent in collecting, preserving, and displaying histories, as these actions necessarily involve uprooting, replanting, and decontextualising. His approach to objects can be described as adoption, as embracing rather than possessing. This approach is echoed in another aspect of his practice, in which he takes on the extraordinary responsibilities of a caretaker of the inheritances of certain individuals, some of them artists. He has become, for instance, the guardian of beautiful photographs of young Vietnamese men in intimate social situations, surreptitiously taken by Joseph Carrier, an American anthropologist who worked as a counter-insurgency strategist for the American policy research firm RAND Corporation, and was stationed in Vietnam during the war. Vo has also preserved the personal effects of the late Chinese American painter Martin Wong and his mother, assembling this collection into a work of art. In this growing family of past lives which Vo encounters, embraces, and adopts, is Isamu Noguchi.
Counterpoint, between Two Artists
All serious artists work with a heightened sense of historical consciousness. Not only do they think of their times and the relevance of their work to themselves, but they also necessarily contemplate and shape their work in relation to what came before. Relationships between artists tell stories of emulation and apprenticeship, adulation and admiration, rivalry and one-upmanship, and love and hate. Think of Matisse and Picasso, Kahlo and Rivera, and, closer to home, Lui Shou-kwan and his circle.
In Isamu Noguchi and Danh Vo, we have two artists who have charted distinctive artistic courses across two very different landscapes. Noguchi forged his own path of modernism, translating his mixed heritage and restless spirit into a fluid, boundary-crossing body of work, layered with an ambition to shape public spaces and experiences. In his practice, which has been described as ‘post-conceptual’, Vo has assembled a veritable cabinet of curiosities from the near and distant past that bears witness to stories of the lives, deaths, loves, and losses of individuals, as well as stories of grand powers and violences, making public what was meant to be private, and private what was meant to be public. If Noguchi’s art is a search for resolved forms of wholeness across cultures, Vo’s art manifests both the coexistence and the irreconcilability of cultures by cutting, fragmenting, binding, and joining. While firmly situated at the centre of Western artistic discourse, both artists have displacement at the core of their being and practice; their Otherness is always present.
In that sense, the two artists’ oeuvres find a parallel in the life and work of Edward W. Said, whose groundbreaking book Orientalism (first published in 1978) launched the influential discipline of postcolonial studies. Said, a Palestinian-born, British-educated, American literary critic, explored the meaning of displacement throughout his life. In another important book, Culture and Imperialism (1993), he invokes the term ‘counterpoint’, the technique, originally developed in Western Renaissance music, in which two separate melodies interweave and complement each other while maintaining their respective independence. Said asserts that, like musical counterpoint, colonial experiences are integral and intrinsic to the cultures of imperialism emanating from traditional Western centres of power, such as London and Paris. The work of Noguchi and Vo embodies this idea: there are always colonies within metropolises, and vice versa. Just as Said did through his literary criticism and self-reflection, Noguchi and Vo locate themselves at the centre of metropolitan culture, while reminding their viewers that this culture—of which their art is part—is neither whole or pure.
Noguchi for Danh Vo: The Exhibition
How, specifically, do the two artists relate to each other? What does Noguchi mean for Danh Vo? What does Vo do for Noguchi? This exhibition offers a provisional answer to these questions by proposing counterpoint as structure: the two artists sing their separate melodies, but their voices interweave at certain points, in harmony, or in calculated cacophony.
The groundwork for this counterpoint was laid in ways that are as institutional and curatorial as they are artistic. Vo’s decision to dedicate the M+ Pavilion largely to showcasing Noguchi’s work emerged from his facilitating a partnership between M+ and The Noguchi Museum in New York. This set the ground for a curatorial concept inspired by the scholar’s pavilion and garden—a leitmotif in traditional Chinese ink painting—that imagines Vo as the resident ‘scholar’. The focal point here is Vo’s Untitled (Structure for Akari PL2), a modified design of the traditional architectural form from Guizhou Province. This small pavilion is adorned with PL2 model Akari lamps designed by Noguchi, who saw his collapsible paper-and-bamboo lanterns as sculptures that anyone can own. Surrounding this illuminated seating area are almost three dozen works by Noguchi produced between the 1920s and the 1980s; they demonstrate his artistic versatility through diverse forms and a range of materials, including stones (granite, andesite, alabaster, obsidian, marble, and basalt), metals (aluminium, bronze, and galvanised steel), bamboo, and ceramics. The installation of the Noguchi works in an airy, open space with no temporary wall or structure alludes to a peaceful garden carefully choreographed with objects of aesthetic import that are pregnant with poetic suggestions. Further collapsing multiple times, spaces, and contexts, Vo introduced round bases inspired by Italian artist and furniture designer Enzo Mari’s autoprogettazione (‘self-design’), an anti-industrialist project first proposed in 1974 that encourages people to make domestic furniture with readily available timber and equipment. This landscape of Noguchi’s works, evoking a scholar’s arrangement of objects for study and aesthetic contemplation, is punctuated with a few works by Vo, adding a personal touch and alluding to his presence as the collector and connoisseur.
In a stark contrast, the other works by Vo included in this exhibition are found outside the M+ Pavilion. Two containers hold Vo’s carefully designed installations of works that represent various materialities and techniques, including a copper piece of We the People (detail), a violently dismembered ancient marble sculpture, a gilded cardboard box, and his father’s calligraphic rendering of the Cinderella story as told by Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm. Marooned in a space that is normally purely functional, as if they had just arrived by accident from a nearby port, the container installations are like a time capsule of material fragments from ancient Rome, medieval Europe, modern America, and contemporary China, bemusing and enchanting the viewers, who become curious natives. The installations also serve as a mini-retrospective of the artist’s work, showing its evolution over the past decade.
Vo’s motivation for defining a contrasting mode of display by escaping the white cube of the M+ Pavilion is echoed by the Noguchi-designed Play Sculpture, installed nearby. Made by connecting six sections of sewer pipe into an undulating loop and spray-painting it in a bright red, the sculpture is one of the pieces of equipment that Noguchi designed for his utopian ‘playscapes’, inviting viewers to interact and play with it—just as the name suggests.
This counterpoint across time, space, and culture moves beyond the two artists’ celebrated and acclaimed standings, their trailblazing practices, and the curatorial ambition to create a dialogue while activating spaces that have never been used for the purpose of exhibition. Noguchi’s and Vo’s rich, shifting bodies of work, taken individually and together, remind us that identities are both overdetermined and fluid, that cultural meanings change despite our convictions and prejudices, and that the definition of art is anything but fixed and rigid.
Deputy Director, Curatorial, and Chief Curator, M+
‘All I do is provide an invasion of a different time element into the time of nature.’1
What did the Japanese American sculptor Isamu Noguchi (1904–1988) mean by describing as an invasion the creation of artworks which seek, in binding the natural to the man-made, to synthesise something universal, consonant, and integral? First is his intention to shift our perception from a human time scale to a natural one. Noguchi’s chronological discontinuities were usually conceived to span not just human memory, as sculpture often does, but geological eons, spurning the limits of mortality to make material culture an uninhibited peer of nature. Second is an implicit understanding that while we are, of course, part of nature, our fundamental method of operation is often that of a parasitic alien. We tend to occupy the world as if we were conquerors or colonists. Taking all of this as a given, Noguchi’s ‘invasion’ is a confession: of a remorseless, entirely unapologetic confidence in the belief that by inseminating nature with the appropriate irritant he could induce the production of pearls.
That is what artists, designers, architects, and other creative people respond to so strongly in Noguchi’s life and work: this ineluctable sense of agency. The conscious and articulate master not only of his own destiny, but of the facets of his identity likely to shape this destiny, Noguchi was a visionary with a sense of mission in an incredibly pure form. Rather than allowing himself to be shaped by accidents of birth, he chose, at every turn, to be the sum of innumerable doublings. The circumstances that others expected to prevent him from pursuing his ambitions—biracialism, binationalism, illegitimacy, poverty, and constant displacement—led him to choose permanent voluntary exile from convention. Making hybridity the core of his identity—‘hybridity anticipates the future’, he wrote—as well as the method and subject of his work, he formed a nearly impregnable, completely independent sense of self. He abstracted, expanded, and manifested his biracialism as a commitment to multiculturalism. From his disdain for borders, he fashioned a tireless world citizenship. The rootlessness and disconnection that came from being unnamed until he was three years old he transformed into the misanthrope’s classic empathy for all. Electing to be a nation of one gave him the confidence, as his friend the futurist visionary R. Buckminster Fuller put it, always to tack away from the pack.
Noguchi treated every form of categorisation anyone tried to impose on him as an imaginary landscape subject solely to his control. Borderlessness was more than a precondition of his process; through his transdisciplinary approach to everything, he made interpenetration a mission. Every object he conceived was designed to resist stereotyping, whether cultural, historical, or categorical. He despised the balkanisation of creativity and the presumption that his work should be expected or assumed to unitarily express Americanness or Japaneseness, the past or the future, or technology or craft. He defined as within his purview the making of folded aluminium sheet-metal pieces using industrial bending equipment, simultaneously expressing his (even at fifty) childish enthusiasm for origami and his excitement about the potential of commercial techniques and methods for making space-age sculpture. More than anything, Noguchi, who talked about ‘looking beyond the false horizon of the museum pedestal’, sought to make himself a wide-open, ever-expanding landscape of varied experiences, and to form and site his work in the constructed environment of his own boundless perspective.
A corollary to this borderlessness was his comfort in a perpetual state of between-ness. Noguchi occupied and organised the state of being neither exactly here nor there, neither this nor that, for his own purposes. No one has more consciously or powerfully harnessed the disquieting power of somewhat-ness. The Danish philosopher and theologian Søren Kierkegaard described faith as an irresolvable state of straining synthesis—which he likened to the space between two magnets that cannot be made to touch. Like Noguchi, Kierkegaard considered this spiritual limbo a place of comfort and power.
Noguchi famously explained that being at home nowhere led him to learn to make himself at home everywhere. And he travelled and travelled and travelled. In this, as in so many other ways, he anticipated much about those who make contemporary art today—that peripatetic, transnational, multivalent troupe of world citizens working on humanity’s behalf. Noguchi travelled to acquire experiences, ideas, techniques, perspectives, and collaborators, with the express intention of blending them into the melting pot of himself. He operated with, and out of, respect, because a respect for the traditions from which he borrowed and which he tried, as he put it, to develop in a true way, was essential to the content of his work. But his intent was always to take what was useful to him, for the cause of liberating those values he saw as universally enduring to circulate throughout the world without excessive restrictions and constraints.
Many of those who have written about Danh Vo (born 1975) have noted that in seizing historical narratives and refocusing them through his own experience and values he is not only creating another version of history, but creating his own reality, and in effect an alternative to orthodox civilisation. Over the last couple of years—like a sun deciding to become the moon of a medium-sized planet in its own system—Vo has begun to remove himself from the central position in his work and to refocus his energy, much as Noguchi once did, beyond discrete and autonomous art objects. His recent retrospective, titled Danh Vo: Take My Breath Away, at SMK (Statens Museum forKunst, the national gallery of Denmark)—for which he essentially put the earlier, unabashedly aesthetic version of the exhibition, at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in New York, into study storage—featured an installation that consisted of a cloud of Noguchi’s Akari lanterns floating over plaster casts of Greco-Roman masterpieces from the Danish royal collection; custom-made, round, lobby-style settees; and, off to one side, like a Greek chorus that observes but does not participate, some of the components of his We the People (detail) (2011–2016).
For the present exhibition, Vo proposed a two-person affair by involving The Noguchi Museum, and then proceeded to cede the M+ Pavilion to Noguchi and to largely exile himself to two shipping containers outside the galleries. To the extent that M+ was founded not to offer new artists and isms to the grand, teleological fantasy developed and championed by the Museum of Modern Art (New York), Tate (London), and the Musée national d’art moderne (Paris), but to establish the fundamentals of an alternative art history—one different down to the level of its values—it could not have enlisted a more apposite and devastating ally than Vo, the capacity and potential of whose complexities bring to mind Hong Kong’s own.
By replacing his agency with the labour and perspectives of others, and objects with relationships, Vo has deliberately distanced himself from the power and authority of direct authorship and, in so doing, radically changed the terms and nature of his own work and art making in general. My co-curator for this exhibition Doryun Chong reminded me recently that an astute friend of Vo describes him as a pirate. Not because he plunders history, but because he is so wholly committed to opposing the powers that be and the status quo through what amounts to economic warfare, and does so with such chilling panache. Noguchi proved through sheer will that creativity need not be subject to racial purity, prejudice, the perceptions of others, or presumptions about power. Like a pirate, he too made a mandate of marginality, drew the artistic means of production to himself, and sought, alone, to change the world—as improbable as it may sound—by using sculpture to establish examples for recalibrating our existence. Scale is not size, but the relative perception of size. What Noguchi understood was how desperately humanity needs help with its sense of scale: our relationship to each other, particularly at the level of culture and nation, and to nature, in the form of the earth and our place in the universe. Vo is in the process of trying to set a different, but related example, by refusing to absolutely and authoritatively captain the ship of his own creative production and by distributing the mandate, the acts, and the benefits of creativity to an ever-expanding, international, stereotype-resistant confederation of collaborators. This is a natural evolution of Noguchi’s desire to heal the world. Noguchi assumed total control of everything he was part of so that he could model openness, respect, and connection. By generously bringing Noguchi aboard and incorporating him into a pluralistic re-synthesis of the means of production of culture, Vo extends Noguchi’s legacy of generating progress from the margins in the most profound way conceivable.
Senior Curator, The Noguchi Museum
1 Edward M. Gomez, ‘The Passing of a Purist: Isamu Noguchi, 1904–1988’, Time, 16 January 1988, 37.