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The Ineffable Power of Noguchi’s Akari Light Sculptures

One reason for the popularity of Akari—the paper, bamboo, and metal light sculptures Isamu Noguchi created in 1951 and riffed on for the rest of his life—is that it happens to be the perfect sculpture. Lightweight, collapsible, affordable, and functional, Akari emits an ineffable presence into any space it inhabits. The Noguchi Museum in Queens, New York, has an entire arm focused on managing the sale of increasingly in-demand Akari, whose handmade nature makes its supply extremely limited. Soon it will launch a new website to handle this volume, and is shifting its sales strategy away from large wholesale accounts to superlative niche retailers that are genuinely interested in Noguchi and have an idea for a finite Akari-related project. (Last February, the Museum provided pieces for The Row’s fall/winter 2018 presentation.)

The latest effort in this vein will crop up at the New York location of the clothing retailer Totokaelo during NYCxDesign in the form of a segment of an Akari “cloud,” made from Noguchi’s A, D, and F ceiling lamps, which will be re-installed from the museum’s recent exhibition Akari: Sculpture by Other Means. “Imagine that the cloud wafted apart, and a little puffy chunk of it blows over to lower Manhattan,” says Dakin Hart, senior curator at the Noguchi Museum, who organized the Akari show and the Akari cloud, informed by Noguchi’s approach. The installation at Totokaelo will include around 20 to 25 Akari; Hart and his team are currently conceptualizing another configuration of the sculptures to create something on the floor beneath the cloud.

Part of what’s so compelling about Akari is that it allowed Noguchi to play with two things at once: literal light and metaphorical lightness. “One of the things Noguchi learned in tea ceremony is that you should try to handle everything heavy as if it weighed nothing, and everything that weighed nothing as if it weighed a million pounds,” Hart says. “That’s how you create gracefulness.” Hart likened the ephemerality of Akari to that of the sun, which is infinitely heavier and larger than Earth. Every Akari asserts an emotional gravity but does it in a way that appears positively weightless and fleeting.

Akari are made at Ozeki & Co., a Japanese family-owned factory that has produced them since the beginning. They are made using the traditional methods applied to Japanese Gifu lanterns, which were typically used in sacred rituals and holidays. (That Noguchi wanted to put an electric light inside a version of the sacred objects was considered controversial—but the man who ran Ozeki & Co. when the artist proposed the idea saw the potential for it and agreed to produce them.) Each sculpture is made by hand and begins with a wood mold. Bamboo ribbing is stretched across it and covered with washi paper, made from the inner bark of a mulberry tree, which is glued onto the framework. It is then baked at a low temperature until the glue dries, and the internal wood form is removed. The resulting collapsible form can be flat-packed and shipped and includes a patented wire stretcher and support system.

“Noguchi didn’t believe the present-day was more advanced than the past—that’s something I love about him most,” Hart says. “He didn’t need to invent anything new, but rather deflected [existing techniques] slightly to bring them into the twentieth century.”


Dakin Hart and GRAY’s Tiffany Jow, will be in conversation at Totokaelo’s New York shop on Saturday, May 18 from 5 p.m. to 7 p.m. during NYCxDesign.


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