Leah Raintree: Another Land: After Noguchi
The Noguchi Museum | August 10, 2016 – January 8, 2017
Considering those shimmering fields of handprints that cover the walls of prehistoric caves, the human impulse to make a mark on the world is not a recent mutation. Often located in the most rarified sanctums of the caves’ interiors, these pictographs seem prophetic announcements of our species’ arrival: as Homo sapiens we are knowers, but we are also makers—and ones uniquely intent on reshaping the world. One of the 20th century’s most virtuosic shapers of matter and space, Isamu Noguchi spent his long career transforming stone—that most formidable of natural materials—into works of singular power and poetry. But for Noguchi, the manipulation of the physical world was not sculpture’s only objective. In his final years, his lifelong address to psychic space coalesced into a direct challenge to the modern ideal of human mastery over nature. Often placing large areas of untouched stone alongside smaller pieces inscribed with his own marks, Noguchi forged a career-culminating appeal for a reshaping of consciousness: nature is not ours to control but is indeed the higher authority.
Taking Noguchi’s late work as a point of departure, hybrid-media artist Leah Raintree brings the iconic sculptor’s concerns into the 21st century with this small but potent show. As part of the museum’s new program inviting contemporary artists to respond to its namesake’s legacy, “Another Land: After Noguchi” presents a series of photographs Raintree took on site over the course of several months. Each depicting a fragment of one of the sculptor’s works, the photographs abstract from, render weightless—and, by way of dramatic lighting and a black backdrop, utterly transform—their gravity-bound subjects. Partially inspired by deep space photography (Raintree was particularly fascinated by images from the European Space Agency’s Rosetta mission), the photographs reframe Noguchi’s work in the context of 21st-century imaging technologies, provoking questions about how the latter are changing our worldviews. At once hauntingly beautiful and subtly foreboding, the show is rich in implication for an era in ecological crisis.
Having wound through masses of stone to get to the show (Noguchi’s sculptures command every inch of the museum, enlisting the active spatial engagement of their viewers), one is unusually aware of one’s body on arrival. And of time: more than any other material, stone embodies scales of time wholly transcendent to human experience. Entering the show’s single cavern-like room, the intimate space signals a dialogic encounter; with everything scaled to human form, we are part of the subject here. In the center of the room a single hand-sized rock bearing marks of ambiguous origin rests on a pedestal. A kind of spatial and conceptual fulcrum, object for the hand (all works 2016, with titles prefaced by Another Land) evokes both nature and human facture, directing the mind to their interrelationship. Encircling the stone, nine black photographs suffused with the silence of deep space suggest portals into other worlds. Within, slivers of marble, granite, malachite, and basalt hover partially shrouded, their variously textured surfaces cast into high relief by unseen light sources.
Among the pocks, craters, peaks, valleys, scratches and incisions that turn the surfaces of these stones into exotic topographies, it is often difficult to distinguish between those originating from Noguchi’s hand and those of non-human origin. While in Lunar Table a grid of linear grooves on a smooth, undulating surface evinces the artist’s hand, the marks in Miharu remain resolutely ambiguous. In Spin-off, one of the show’s most beautiful images, the lava-like surface of a voluptuously mountainous terrain might be the work of a master sculptor—and indeed it is. In one of Noguchi’s most profound gestures, here he let nature speak for itself: having been carved by the river in which it was found, this stone was left unaltered by human intervention. By introducing yet another authorial layer with her photograph of the piece, Raintree further challenges our notions of sole authorship as makers.
The show’s thematic grounding in Noguchi’s late work renders the allusions to astrophotography rich in significance. For what is astrophotography if not the extension of human vision—of human agency—ever further into nature? Intimations of conquest complicate singular readings. But there’s another dimension to deep space imaging that speaks to a higher human yearning, and this is its capacity to show us the incomprehensible vastness of the universe, to ignite our awe and reverence toward it, and to render us humble before its towering authority. In a new geological age ingloriously named after us for our hubris, a turn toward humility could hardly be more urgent. While the immense power of human technology has always been a double-edged sword, in which direction we wield it matters today more than ever. Offering us Noguchi’s sculptures so radically transformed by light and shadow alone, Raintree’s work suggests we gentle the blade inward and work on remaking ourselves.
TANEY RONIGER is an artist, writer, and frequent Rail contributor.