Listening to Stone: Experiencing the Garden Through the Eyes of Sculptor Isamu Noguchi

Pieris japonica
Pieris japonica

World renowned sculptor Isamu Noguchi viewed earth as material for art, and sculpture as creation of social space.  His concepts have enlivened the author's experience of moving into and through our Japanese stroll garden. Photo: April Bingham.

“Noguchi’s rediscovery of Buddhist gardens, to which his mother had introduced him as a child, prompted a new way of thinking about the sculptural enterprise. A sculpture did not have to be a self-defined object. It could also be a space or a garden and earth could be a material for art.” ~From Listening to Stone: The Art and Life of Isamu Noguchi, by Hayden Herrera (2015), p. 121, in the chapter “A Close Embrace of the Earth.”~

After reading The Life of Isamu Noguchi: Journey without Borders, by Masayo Duus (2004), I was eager to read widely and to learn as much as possible about this Japanese-American sculptor, and how his work evolved over his long career. As a docent for the Seattle Japanese Garden, I was particularly interested in how his understanding of space evolved, and how that might deepen my understanding of our garden.

Noguchi (1904-1988) was born in the U.S. to an American mother and a Japanese father. His mother moved to Japan when he was very young, then sent him, as an adolescent, to be educated in the Midwest. Abandoned by his father and sent away by his mother, Noguchi tried throughout his life to understand and express this dual heritage. Although he settled in New York City and made a home there, he traveled extensively throughout his life -- to Paris, London, Italy, Mexico and China – as well as to Japan, where he also made a home. Everywhere, his passion was to understand the art, monuments & traditions of the past -- and to make connections, personal and aesthetic, with the cultural movements of the present.

Although he excelled at creating portrait busts in the “academic tradition” of the previous century, he was not content to make art that simply reflected the past. Much of his early work was modernist and abstract. This included designs for furniture and lighting, as well as stage sets and props for Martha Graham and other avant-garde dancers and choreographers. But even as a young man in the 1930s, he envisioned, in his proposals for “gardens” that were decades ahead of their time, an expanded definition for sculpture. These included “play gardens,” sculpture gardens and projects similar to those that, later in the 20th century, would be known as “environmental art.” These early proposals, documented in drawings & models, remained unbuilt. Years later, he created sculpture gardens, some monumental in size and scope, in the United States, Japan, France and Israel. These gardens were much more than locations for the display of sculptural artworks.

Throughout his career, Noguchi moved toward “a broadened conception of sculpture as the creation of social space.” (Isamu Noguchi, by Bruce Altshuler, 1994). He had long been interested in modern dance & theatre, and their relationship to Japanese religions & rituals -- including Shinto, Zen and Noh theatre. In discussing his work, he referred to

“…my long involvement with sculpture as space and with a vision that the frontiers of sculpture might open up by relating it to the land and to real walkable space… The making and ownership of art could also be beyond personal possession – a common and free experience.” (From The Isamu Noguchi Garden Museum, Isamu Noguchi, 1987)

As a Japanese Garden docent, I talk with visitors about time and space in Japanese-style gardens. In contrast to Western gardens, which strive for long-lasting color & extended bloom times, Japanese gardens are temporal in nature. Participating in the changing of the seasons and realizing the fleeting nature of beauty (of flowers, fall color, and the changes wrought by time and age) is essential to “understanding” such non-Western gardens. In addition, the Seattle Japanese Garden is a stroll garden, and thus invites visitors to move through space as well as time.

Isamu Noguchi produced an impressive range of work over a long period, but I don’t think that we need to have a full understanding of that range & history in order for our experience of the Seattle Japanese Garden to be enriched. Since I completed docent training in the spring of 2013, I’ve believed that we leave behind the ordinary world when we pass over the entry stone and through the gates of our garden. However, after having led tours for three years, and with an understanding of Noguchi’s concept of space, I realize that our garden doesn’t simply present us with a non-Western narrative. Rather, it invites us to move through a public space that is both park and work of art, and to interact with all of its elements (stone, water, plants, animals, structures, and also light, weather, people and, as they unfold, cultural events). It’s not a Zen Garden or a courtyard garden to be viewed from a stationary position, but rather a space to move within and through. Each of us has a different experience, and each time we visit, we encounter a garden at once old and always new.

Corinne Kennedy is a trained guide for Seattle Japanese Garden and a contributor to the garden's blog.