As Movable as Butterflies


25 February 2019

“Lights should be as moveable as butterflies”, declared Isamu Noguchi (1904-1988), the Japanese American sculptor and designer who conceived his now-famous Akari light sculptures in the 1950s.

Noguchi's creations, along with the Japanese paper lanterns that originally inspired them, are the subject of a new exhibition at the Musée des Arts Décoratifs et du Design (MADD) in Bordeaux, called As movable as butterflies: the chōchin of Japan. Curated by Étienne Tornier, who cares for the museum’s 19th- to 21st-century collections, the show brings together objects, woodblock prints, photographs, graphic ephemera, and bespoke installations to chart (some of) the history, uses, manufacture and more contemporary interpretations of chōchin – from Noguchi’s Akari, to more recent iterations created by designers such as Jasper Morrison and Barber & Osgerby.

Following the opening of the exhibition, Disegno sat down with Tornier for a discussion about chōchin and how they are represented in the show.

This exhibition has been organised as part of “Japonismes 2018: les âmes en resonance”, a programme of events celebrating 160 years of diplomatic relations between France and Japan. Why did you specifically choose the topic of Japanese paper lanterns for this show?

The point of departure for this exhibition was my fascination for these objects. While travelling around Japan, I was particularly struck by the paper lanterns often seen on the streets there. They look so fragile, and yet they are so sturdy. I was also aware that the designer Isamu Noguchi had collaborated with Japanese paper lantern makers in the 1950s, and so I thought this would be a good opportunity to explore chōchin (or paper lantern) production. My aim was to combine a material culture approach – asking questions including: what are these objects; how have they been used since the 16th century; and what is their significance in a Japanese context? – with a more basic history of design approach.

The opening segments of the exhibition look to address many of the questions you have just outlined: these sections explore how paper lanterns were produced and consumed in Japan during the Edo (1603-1868) and Meiji (1868-1912) periods mainly through illustrative material (like woodblock prints and photographs). Why did you choose to introduce the exhibition in this way?

Images are always stronger – especially in our world today where platforms like Instagram and Facebook are so popularly used. I feel that audiences best consume with their eyes. But this is also my approach to the topic: I am fascinated by images in general, whether they are engravings, prints or photographs. My overall intention was for visitors to make a connection between the woodblock prints that look old and are very much identified with Japan, with Noguchi’s lanterns that are actually very international and can be found anywhere.

A collection of chōchin from the Edo (1603-1868) and Meiji (1868-1912) periods. IMAGE Gaspar Ibeas for MADD Bordeaux.

During a guided tour, you offered insightful critique about some of the objects displayed, like the fact that Japanese woodblock prints often exaggerated content for dramatic purposes. This commentary was not necessarily included in exhibition texts, however. Can you tell me more about your approach to interpretation?

We are not used to talking about non-Western topics here at MADD. In fact, this is probably one of the very first times that the museum has organised a show about a non-Western subject. Because of this, we thought it might be best to start off slow in the exhibition, and not to offer too much information at the very beginning. This is actually something we learned from a previous show about graphic design in [what is now] the Czech Republic in the 1930s: visitors were so overwhelmed by the information we presented to them that they could not grasp the subject well. So, we did not want to make the same mistake again. We wanted to ensure our content was accessible for our audience, who are mostly local or French.

Is this also why you have settled on a mostly chronological format for the exhibition?

Yes, I think visitors appreciate a chronological layout because it is a frame that everyone can understand.

What was your process for object selection?

I knew from the very beginning that I wanted to display a diverse range of Akari, so that visitors were able to understand how varied the pieces could be. My aim was not only to demonstrate how far Noguchi experimented with shape and form, however, but also [how much he experimented] in terms of manufacturing processes. To help tell this part of the story, for instance, I included photographs that depict Noguchi sculpting polystyrene blocks, which were later given to craftspeople in a local workshop in Japan to translate into lantern products. These photographs are paired with other archival materials, including sketchbooks, copies of design patents, and advertising and marketing materials, each adding a different layer to the narrative. And then I was also keen on exhibiting Japanese coloured woodblock prints because these objects are not seen very often – even in Asian art museums – for conservation reasons. So, I started with these materials, and then built on the object list from there.

Shigeru Uchida's Papermoon collection from 1990. IMAGE Gaspar Ibeas for MADD Bordeaux.

What were some of the other challenges you had to overcome? What were your biggest limitations?

The fact that I do not speak Japanese was a big challenge, which made interacting with institutions and makers in Japan difficult. My research trip [to Japan] was facilitated by translators, as well as a good network of French institutes based there. These French organisations were especially useful in terms of making connections in Kyoto, Tokyo and Fukuoka, but also – and perhaps most crucially – in helping me to locate a small museum based just outside of Tokyo, which loaned us a dozen or so ancient Japanese lanterns. These objects are now on display in the first room of the exhibition. Another limitation was that my research trip to Japan was only three weeks long. I definitely needed to have stayed longer. But as someone who is not a Japan specialist, I am happy with what I have been able to achieve.

Alongside the content from Japan, you showcase the works of contemporary designers, who have been inspired by the craft of Japanese paper lanterns. These projects are dotted throughout the exhibition and presented via installation-like set-ups. What role do these displays serve?

When I started working on this show, especially on this particular aspect of it, I did not want to feature a final section that questioned “What comes after Noguchi?”. I had seen an exhibition about the Bauhaus at the Musée des Arts Décoratifs in Paris earlier, which had concluded their show like this – through an exploration of how influences of the Bauhaus might still be felt today. I found that this approach, at least from my perspective, was a bit artificial and I wanted to avoid this in my show. My approach was instead driven by aesthetics, by my desire to highlight the beauty of the objects on display. I feel that this is important, especially for a Western public: if you want to attract museum visitors, you need to demonstrate how beautiful these objects are, and not just explain how they were made or used. So, this is why the contemporary design pieces appear throughout the exhibition – as a way of intriguing visitors. Also, to me the history of Akari is the same history as the Jasper Morrison and the Barber & Osgerby pieces. They are part of the same story, so why create an entirely new section for these projects?