Capturing a moment past and present: ‘Rebel Rebel’ at the Barbican

Artist Soheila Sokhanvari’s intricate miniatures of 27 feminist icons from pre-revolutionary (1979) Iran are painted in egg tempera onto calf vellum with a squirrel-hair brush, set against a hand-painted mural and to the soft sound of singers Googoosh & co. to form a hugely immersive site-specific installation at the Barbican’s Curve Gallery.

The Curve cocoons us in the world of these strong women of history: writers and poets, singers and actors.

“Rebel Rebel” is one of the most timely exhibition coinciding, by chance, with the latest rebellion: Woman Life Freedom… a revolt started by and guided by a new generation of Iranian feminists ✨

Images top: Poet Forugh Farrokhzad
Gallery: actors Zari Khoshkam, Faranak Mirghahhari, Fereshteh Jenabi and Zinat Moadab, and pop singer and cultural icon Googoosh.

Artwork © Soheila Sokhanvari. Courtesy of the artist and Kristin Hjellegjerde Gallery

Barbican Gallery presents Isamu Noguchi: artists, designer, philosopher

Isamu Noguchi, Peru, 1983. Photo Michio Noguchi, Noguchi Museum Archives © INFGM / ARS – DACS

‘I’m interested in space and the movement of people and objects within space. There is a certain magic to it. It is as if you are inventing an order of things. I believe there is a secret relationship between space, objects and perceptible and imperceptible movements. Every artist working in this field tries to interpret that relationship in his or her own way. It is the composition and balance of those elements that give rise to the essence of drama and – why not? – the essence of life itself.’ These are the words of Isamu Noguchi, one of the most lyrical artists of the last century.

Known today mostly for his much-copied 1944 Coffee Table (an early edition of which sits here before me) and Akari paper lights, Noguchi tirelessly pushed the boundaries of art and sculpture. Working across almost seven decades and with a multitude of materials and mediums, his carved stones, stage sets, paper lanterns, portrait busts, mobiles, and playgrounds were collectively designed to be tools for understanding our place in the cosmos, and our relationships to history, nature, and one another.

The Barbican gallery in London is hosting ‘Noguchi’, the first of a touring European exhibition which sets out to document the work of this visionary creative. Thematically organised and curated to feature only the words of the artist himself, the exhibition successfully immerses the viewer in the mind and the world of Noguchi. The stripped back béton brut halls of the brutalist Barbican and the advantage of the two levels, allow the 150 works to breathe freely, and with the absence of excessive curation, the viewer is left in an almost meditative state to observe and absorb.

Isamu Noguchi ‘My Arizona’, 1943. Photo by Kevin Noble, Noguchi Museum Archives © INFGM / ARS – DACS

Born in Los Angeles in 1904, Noguchi’s mother was an Irish American writer and his father a Japanese poet who had abandoned the family on his birth. At the age of two, his mother took him to Japan to reunite with his father, sending him back to the US and onto Indiana for schooling for fear that the biracial child would receive racism in Japan. Noguchi eventually settled in New York where he trained in traditional sculpture, but his real break came while on an internship at the Paris studio of Constantin Brancusi. Here Noguchi gained a seminal introduction to the modernist principles of abstraction and presumably met the international avant-garde who were gathered in Paris in the 1920s. It was thanks to Brancusi that he became passionate about materials and craft – elements that remained fundamental to his work throughout his career.

By the end of the decade Noguchi was back in New York sculpting portrait busts, mainly to make a living, many of which are on display at the Barbican. They are a curious mix of expressionist and whimsical. He later referred to them jokingly as ‘headbusting’ since it was a useful way to make money and meet people. It seemed to have worked as they attracted the attention of the pioneering choreographers Ruth Page and Martha Graham for whom Noguchi went on to design sets using an interplay of his sculptures. He also befriended the architect and theorist R. Buckminster Fuller, who he referred to as the ‘messiah of ideas’. The two shared a vision for shaping a more equitable world through technology, innovation and design, collaborated on several projects including a futuristic car.

By the 1940s, Noguchi was working with manufacturers Knoll and Herman Miller. He continued to explore the possibilities of material and form with his interlocking marble slab sculptures and Lunars lights, created after his devastating experience of ‘voluntary’ internment at a camp for Japanese Americans in Poston, Arizona in 1942. The Lunars went on to influence some of his best-known works, the sculptural and ethereal Akari light sculptures – a contemporary take on traditional chochin paper lanterns using washi paper and electric bulbs. After the war, Noguchi travelled to Europe and Asia to understand the different uses of sculpture in a spatial and cosmic sense. He wrote at the time, ‘I find myself a wanderer in a world rapidly growing smaller. Artist, American citizen, world citizen, belonging anywhere but nowhere.’

Installation from ‘Noguchi’ at the Barbican Gallery, London © Barbican Centre

Noguchi went on to complete over twenty public works around the world – gardens, fountains, playgrounds, plazas – using space to challenge civic and social life and its intersections with nature and time. His final contribution was Moerenuma Park. Located on a reclaimed municipal dump outside of Sapporo in Japan, it included play sculptures, fields, and fountains, and a revised version of his first-ever play rejected concept, the monumental, stepped pyramid he called Play Mountain (1933). Moerenuma Park was realised two years after Noguchi’s death in 2000.

Ultimately his was a life dedicated to sculpting the world he wished to inhabit. With a deeply humanist perspective, heightened by his prison experience, Noguchi understood the power of art and artists to make sense of the world. His work was political art. Wandering the exhibition, immersed from above and below in his delicate paper lanterns, colourful furniture, architectural playgrounds, and expressive and often funny abstract and figurative sculptures, you get the sense that in life and work, Noguchi remained an explorer with a philosophical and playful eye. In his own words: ‘Art for me is something which teaches human beings how to become more human.’

‘Noguchi’ is at the Barbican Art Gallery in London from 30 September 2021 to 9 January 2022

Gallery images in order: Noguchi assembling his Figure in his studio, 1944. Photo Rudolph Burckhardt, Noguchi Museum Archives © INFGM / ARS – DACS / Estate of Rudolph Burckhardt; Noguchi’s Memorials to the Atomic Dead is an unrealised model originally proposed in 1952 for Hiroshima Peace Park © Barbican Centre; Noguchi’s Sculpture To Be Seen From Mars, 1947. Photo Soichi Sunami, Noguchi Museum Archives © INFGM / ARS – DACS; Noguchi’s Octetra Play Equipment, Moerenuma Park, Japan. Photo Toshishige Mizoguchi © Toshishige Mizoguchi / INFGM / ARS – DACS; Samrat Yantra, Jantar Mantar, Bollingen Travels, New Delhi, India, 1949. Photo Isamu Noguchi, Noguchi Museum Archives © INFGM / ARS – DACS; Installation from ‘Noguchi’ at the Barbican Gallery, London © Barbican Centre.

Barbican’s Modern Couples explores art, intimacy and the avant-garde

‘Some women fight and others do not,’ observes Joan Didion in her The White Album. ‘Like so many guerrillas in the wars between sexes, Georgia O’Keeffe seems to have been equipped early with an immutable sense of who she was and a fairly clear understanding that she would be required to prove it,’ the American author writes of the great American painter. Much like the handful of female artists struggling within a very male modern art world, O’Keeffe refused to be considered a ‘woman painter’. She was brave and famously outspoken, writing of her flower series which she felt were sentimentalised by the male gaze, ‘I made you take time to look at what I saw, and when you took time to really notice my flowers you hung all your associations with flowers on my flower and you write about my flower as if I think and see what you think and see – and I don’t.’

Georgia O’Keeffe’s romance with the photographer and gallery owner Alfred Stieglitz, who she met in 1918 and later married, is amongst the forty art couples featured in a rich and engaging exhibition opened at the Barbican in London. Modern Couples: Art, Intimacy and the Avant-garde is the story of modern art in the first half of the 20th century told through relationships. The Barbican refuses to portray the woman as victim here – purposely avoiding the tired artist-as-muse narrative. Instead Modern Couples highlights how the union of two – or in some cases three as friends and lovers, straight, bi and gay – can create exciting artistic dialogues.

‘Its new take on modern art history, focusing on collaboration and mutual influence in intimate relationships, could not be timelier,’ says Jane Alison, the Barbican’s head of visual arts. ‘The show offers visitors a deeply personal and revealing insight into the transformative impact artists’ had on each other. Ultimately it is an exhibition about modern art and modern love.’

Organised by Centre Pompidou-Metz in collaboration with Barbican, it forms part of the gallery’s  The Art of Change, a year-long series exploring the relationship between art, society and politics. Modern Couples offers an insight to the life and work of an incredibly rich collection of painters, sculptors, photographers, architects, designers, writers, musicians and performers, shown alongside personal photographs, love letters, gifts and rare archival material. This is not your usual crowd-pleasing, instagramable exhibition. There is so much to take in, and so much to learn in the brilliant béton brut Barbican.

Amongst the legendary duos here are Camille Claudel and Auguste Rodin, Barbara Hepworth and Ben Nicholson, Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera, Dora Maar and Pablo Picasso, the brilliant Lee Miller and Man Ray, Virginia Woolf and Vita Sackville-West. Then there are some surprising unions, for instance Federico García Lorca and Salvador Dalí, or Emilie Flöge and Gustav Klimt. Seen as a muse in the past, Flöge was a talented fashion designer who ran her own couture house in Vienna, and happened to be Klimt’s partner. Both shared a euphoric sense of a new world of art outside the confines of academic tradition and a love of textiles and ornamentation, which clearly fed into both their practices. The photographs they took of each other are fun and full of life.

Others such as Lucia Moholy and László Moholy-Nagy are a union as much about love as shared ideology that helped alter the creative landscape. One particular highlight is Leonora Carrington’s exceptional portrait of Max Ernst, taken in 1937, a coded double portrait (pictured here). At the intersection of design and art, we get to see the Omega workshop created by Vanessa Bell, Roger Fry and Duncan Grant in 1913; there are Aino Aalto and Alvar Aalto and their Artek design company in Helsinki opened in 1935; and Eileen Gray and Jean Badovici’s modernist villa, E1027, in the south of France – featured here with original furniture pieces.

Modern Couples includes intimate relationships in all their forms – obsessional, conventional, mythic, platonic, fleeting, life-long – to reveal the way in which creative individuals came together. They often transgressed the constraints of their time, reshaping art, redefining gender stereotypes and forging news ways of living and loving. Crucially, the exhibition challenges the idea that the history of art is a single line of solitary, predominantly masculine geniuses.

This is a fascinating portrait of creative relationships, an engaging study of connections and conversations, of the brave and brilliant, daring and dynamic female and male artists, designers, writers of the early part of the last century. To quote the curators, it is a tale of ‘modern art and modern love, the seductive power of art …’. On until January and not to be missed.

Nargess Banks

All images are for press publication only and are subject to copyright. See individual descriptions for detail. #moderncouples

Design Talks | The Textile Building | 29a Chatham Place | London | E9 6FJ | UK
Design Talks is published by Spinach Design
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Exhibitions – Basquiat: Boom for Real at the Barbican

‘I get my facts from books, stuff on atomisers, the blues, ethyl alcohol, geese in Egyptian glyphs,’ wrote Jean-Michel Basquiat, the American artist who, in his short life (1960-1988), drew, painted, wrote, made lyrical, vibrant, radical, exciting, colourful, powerful works of art. ‘I don’t know how to describe my work,’ he said later. ‘It’s like asking Miles, how does your horn sound?’

Basquiat: Boom for Real at the Barbican Gallery takes us on a journey into his world. It reveals a raw energy as fresh today as when Basquiat began creating art, first on the streets and subways of New York with his classmate Al Diaz under the pseudonym SAMO© (same old, same old shit), then on canvas in the late 1970s and early 80s.

He remained part of the underground art scene even when he gained recognition following New York/New Wave, the landmark 1981 exhibition by Diego Cortez of the Mudd Club, which portrayed the city’s vibrant downtown countercultural scene. Here the work of the young Basquiat was shown alongside the more established Andy Warhol, Robert Mapplethorpe, David Byrne and William Burroughs. Together they captured the sprawling, dizzying energy of New and No Wave music and its impact on visual art.

The Barbican, its open industrial gallery spaces, large slabs of raw concrete softening the volume, the sounds of Duke Ellington echoing in its double-height, feels the exact right setting to be showing the first large-scale exhibition in the UK of one of the most significant painters of the 20th century.

Through image, text, sound Basquiat comes alive as he comments on the injustices in society making clear statements against racism, colonialism, class war, slavery. We discover his inspirations. Music is a powerful source – free jazz, early bebop, Bach even – and he rarely worked without something playing in his studio. Basquiat had a library of some 3000 records and his obsession was so much that he traded paintings for rare blues and bepop LPs. His hero Charlie Parker is referenced in the title of Basquiat’s 1983 record Beat Pop.

On exhibit are his notepads. He scribbled lines, poems, lyrics in neat capital letters as if he knew they would one day be on show. In one he writes: ‘I feel like a citizen. It’s time to go back and return as a drifter.’ Elsewhere, ‘Nicotine walks on eggshells medicated, the earth was formless void, darkness face of the deep, spirit moved across the water and there was light. It was good. Breathing into the lungs, 2000 years of asbestos.’

This is a show about life and time. We are immersed in Basquiat’s world but also raw New York of the early 80s. We learn of his fascination with art history and philosophy, his liking of the abstract expressionist Cy Twombly (an overriding influence), and fondness of Beat literature and poetry. Basquiat takes energy from the clash of high and low culture, from growing up in the chaos of 70s Bronx and later from downtown Manhattan’s countercultural scenes, street life, black-American life. He said: ‘I never went to art school. I just looked. That’s where I think I learned about art by looking at it.’ What’s evident here is that Basquiat gives us a new space for thinking. He foresees how we have come to navigate the labyrinth of information, of stuff, and our thoughts today.

Nargess Banks

Basquiat: Boom for Real is at the Barbican until 28 January.

Watch Jean-Michel Basquiat ‘Shooting Star’.

#BoomForReal

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Minimalist, utopian, playful: The Japanese House

‘Life can’t be contained within a single slot. People’s sense of living expands beyond it, effectively erasing all borders,’ says Ryue Nishizawa. I’m thinking of this as I roam around the life-size model of the Pritzker-prize winning SANAA architect’s Moriyama House. Built in Tokyo twelve years ago, it is a kind of living organism, working on the concept of the house as a small city, of urbanity nestled inside a building.

The Japanese House, Barbican, Moriyama House Installation Miles Willis, Image ©Getty Images

Moriyama House, The Japanese House, Barbican, installation by Miles Willis, image © Getty Images

Moriyama offers a set of compact living quarters where cuboids of varying sizes are scattered seemingly randomly on a small stretch of land intersected with landscape and nature – a little like delicate water streams. The large windows give a sense of lightness and weightlessness to the complex. Here landscape, city and house become indistinguishable. The curators have imagined the environment around this house – the traffic, the peace, the sounds, the light. Each room offers an element of the unexpected, a strange plant, a music library of free jazz. There is a sense of timelessness here.

The Japanese House at Barbican Art Gallery. Teahouse y Terunobu Fujimori, Photo © Nargess Banks

Teahouse by Terunobu Fujimori. Installation at The Japanese House, Barbican

Alongside the giant teahouse in the second room, Moriyama makes up the centrepiece for The Japanese House: Architecture and Life After 1945 at the Barbican Art Gallery in London – a comprehensive and fascinating look at post-war Japanese domestic architecture. Nishizawa’s Moriyama is minimalist, whilst architect and historian Terunobu Fujimori’s teahouse is a bit of a fairytale construction with a hand-charred timber exterior and a white plaster interior. What it does is to reveal another side to Japanese architectural language, one that celebrates craft, the handmade; gives centre stage to materials, is at one with nature and loves an element of fantasy.

Toyo Ito, White U, 1976 – Photo © Tomio Ohashi

Toyo Ito’s White U, 1976 – image © Tomio Ohashi

In 1945 Japan had to deal with many of the issues we face today. Tokyo and the main cities were devastated by war. There was mass urbanisation and a shortage of housing. And environmental issues, caused mainly by earthquakes, had to be addressed. Added to this, designers were eager to forge a new language (or languages) that spoke of this new Japan. Some architects explored ways to fuse a traditional vernacular with modernism, whilst others used architecture and design to express their fast-evolving society.

The Japanese House, Architecture and Life after 1945, Installation

Exploring minimalism, installation at The Japanese House

In the 1970s, enclosed housing became a bit of a thing and it spoke of a way of protecting habitants from the polluted and overpopulated city. A decade later the economic excesses of the ‘bubble era’ saw architects embrace the arrival of information technologies and produce houses that were exceptionally lightweight and open to the outside world. Today, new voices in design are creating habitats that will work in Tokyo, a metropolis, amongst the world’s largest – ideas that could also be applied to any other megacity in the world.

Keisuke Oka Concept drawing for Arimaston Building, 2000 © Keizo Kioku

Keisuke Oka Concept drawing for Arimaston Building, 2000 – image © Keizo Kioku

The two floors at the Barbican speak of an on-going dialogue that involves realistic solutions to housing, to more abstract ideas, utopian visions and grand manifestos. What’s exciting is the canvas they paint of a society that is complex and evolving, but also willing to explore living away from the traditional single-family house. Some of the ideas such as the giant treehouse speaks of imaginative and unexpected dialogues.

Hideyuki Nakayama O House, 2009 © Mitsutaka Kitamura

Hideyuki Nakayama O House, 2009 © Mitsutaka Kitamura

The Japanese house feels transient. The life expectancy of a domestic building is short so they tend to be lighter and less formal, and they can take on the persona of artwork or become manifestos for the creatives. Some proposals, such as Sou Fujimoto’s 2011 House NA, question our European concepts of comfort and privacy. These 74-metre living spaces in Tokyo are stacked like LEGO one on top of another and are completely exposed.

Sou Fujimoto Architects House NA, Tokyo, Japan, 2011 - Photo © Iwan Baan

Sou Fujimoto Architects House NA, Tokyo, Japan, 2011 – image © Iwan Baan

The Japanese House offers a narrative between history and modernity. Much like Japanese culture, the architecture is extreme too, from the NA’s complete nakedness to Concrete U by one of Japan’s best known architects Toyo Ito which was designed to shelter his widowed sister from the outside world. The exhibits here can be refined and rigid, then suddenly playful, kitsch even; some are like paintings, others like poetry.

Moriyama House still, 2017, image c Be?ka & Lemoine

Moriyama House still from film – image © Be?ka and Lemoine

The spirit of the show can perhaps be summed up by the brilliant documentary from Italian filmmakers Ila Be?ka and Louise Lemoine, commissioned for this exhibition. We watch Yasuo Moriyama, a 79-year-old ‘urban hermit’, a reclusive who has never left the city, at The Moriyama House where he lives. We spend time with him in his daily life, as he roams around the complex attending to his garden, chats to the beautiful actress neighbour, listens to the avant-garde jazz, ‘noise music’ as he calls it, and sleeps on the bare floor exposed to nature and the outside world. It is playful, funny and unexpectedly endearing. Domestic architecture is placed in context at the Barbican, with the life of the house is at its centre.

Nargess Banks

The Japanese House: Architecture and Life After 1945 is at the Barbican Art Gallery, Barbican Centre, London until 25 June 2017

#thejapanesehouse

Design Talks | The Textile Building | 29a Chatham Place | London | E9 6FJ | UK
Design Talks is published by Spinach Design
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