The Rejection of Isamu Noguchi's Hiroshima Cenotaph

By Winther, Bert | Art Journal, Winter 1994 | Go to article overview
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The Rejection of Isamu Noguchi's Hiroshima Cenotaph


Winther, Bert, Art Journal


The career of the Japanese American sculptor and designer Isamu Noguchi (1904-1988) weaves through six decades of the turbulent politics on the border of the East/West discourse. Edward Said, one of the most influential critics of this discourse, shatters the most basic premise of the rhetorical context of much of Noguchi's work: "Throughout the exchange between Europeans and their 'others' that began systematically half a millennium ago, the one idea that has scarcely varied is that there is an 'us' and a 'them,' each quite settled, clear, unassailably self-evident."(1) For if we call this "prima facie us/them identity into question and scrutinize its politics, then the view of Noguchi as a modernist synthesizer of East/West miscegenation becomes untenable, and he emerges as an artist whose innovative progress was alternately stimulated and inhibited by the changing parameters of territorialization and deterritorialization.(2) As cultural attributes of the East/West binary opposition come to seem more like shibboleths and cliches than inalienable attributes of race, Noguchi emerges as a nimble correspondent to the ebb and flow of Japanese American (naturalized as East/West) cultural and political relations.

The postwar military occupation of Japan by the United States from 1945 to 1952 is the setting of a dramatic and bitter episode in Noguchi's itinerary through the East/West narrative. The various strands of nativism characterizing early modern Japanese history had reached a crescendo with the virulent hubristic military expansionism and emperorism of the 1930s and early 1940s. This ideology was undermined by the American victory in 1945, and modern Japanese cultural identity had to be reformulated around the fact of American power.

Noguchi went to Japan in 1950, at a point when the Japanese quotient of his biculturalism was worn thin by long years of American life and estrangement from his nostalgic childhood memories of Japan. Already at this time he was a modernist of some stature in the New York art world, where his inimitable series of slotted stone sculptures had appeared in prestigious venues. But his life in the United States had not been without experiences that threatened to marginalize him on account of the Japanese part of his identity (his father was Japanese, his mother European American, and he had been raised in Japan from age two to thirteen). For example, in 1934, when Noguchi protested the contemporary practice of lynching African Americans in a bronze sculpture called Death, his antiracist statement was dismissed by art critic Henry McBride as "just a little Japanese mistake."(3) And during World War II, Noguchi voluntarily joined one of the internment camps for Japanese Americans out of solidarity for those who were held in suspicion because of their race. Noguchi's combination of impressive credentials as a New York modernist and experiences of alienation from European American culture conspired to make him an unusually significant visitor to the Japanese art community in 1950. At a time when Japanese artists thirsted for access to European and American modern culture and groped for ways to relate Japanese cultural identity to modernism, Noguchi was lionized as a successful American artist who could demonstrate a strong sense of empathy for the plight of contemporary Japanese artists. The warmth of this reception encouraged Noguchi to rekindle his ties to Japan with a vengeance, and from 1950 to 1953 he settled in Japan and worked feverishly on numerous ambitious projects. His position in Japanese culture evolved quickly from that of an eminent visitor to that of a leader at the forefront of Japanese cultural reconstruction; in 1952 he said, "I do not just want to make sculpture...I want to build a nation."(4)

One of the most intriguing works to result from this ambition was his design for a cenotaph to the victims of the American atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima in 1945. Two enigmatic photographs remain of plaster models that Noguchi produced at the time (figs.

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