New exhibition uses Noguchi sculpture to explore displacement and belonging

Self-Interned, 1942

New exhibition uses Noguchi sculpture to explore displacement and belonging

A timely exhibition at a Queens museum shows how art reacted to state-sanctioned racism, even before Trump promised to ban all Muslims.

In 1942 sculptor Isamu Noguchi left his thriving practice in New York to voluntarily imprison himself in the Arizona desert. Noguchi, who was born in Los Angeles, asked the United States government to intern him at a relocation camp in Poston, Arizona, one of ten sites where tens of thousands of Japanese-Americans were sent, against their will, during World War II.

The sculptor’s activism—informed by his Japanese-American identity—was ignited by the Japanese bombing of Pear Harbor. In 1942, he founded a group, Nisei Writers and Artists Mobilization for Democracy, to boost awareness of Japanese-Americans’ patriotism (Nisei translates to “second generation”). Noguchi intended to humanize Poston by building swimming pools, ball fields, and creating art to showcase the patriotism of its forcibly displaced residents. Although the government was fully behind his ideas at first, it quickly became clear to Noguchi that his projects would not be realized. He initially planned to stay for two months, but it took seven months before he was released.

The Noguchi Museum‘s Self-Interned, 1942: Noguchi in Poston War Relocation Center features over two dozen works from 1941 to 1944, pre- and post-internment. While works in the first gallery like Lily Zietz (1941) are straightforward portraiture, Yellow Landscape (1943) depicts the whole world awash in the poisonous racial animus that conditioned the camps. When interned, the sculptor worked in mostly in wood, one of the only available materials at the camp. In the final gallery, sculpture from the 1950s through the 1980s, including his signature voids and doorways, express the lasting impression Poston had on the artist. In particular, Double Red Mountain (1969) plays on the expansiveness and isolation of the Arizona desert—Poston was so remote, officials didn’t think guard towers were necessary to secure the perimeter. In between the galleries, archival documents—maps of the camp, an unpublished Reader’s Digest editorial detailing the camp’s conditions, and Noguchi’s despondent letters to officials, asking for release—contextualize the fear, hope, and despair that emerged in his work thereafter.

Self-Interned was timed for the 75th anniversary of Executive Order 9066, the directive that authorized the imprisonment of Japanese citizens and Japanese-Americans living on the West Coast. Today, when a presidential candidate can question the patriotism of a Gold Star family and still win the election, it’s also an incredibly important exhibition—though curator Dakin Hart said Self-Interned was in the works long before anyone entertained the reality of President Trump. The overtly political work expresses soft fury, the product of belonging in a country which still stupidly doubts the loyalty of citizens just like Noguchi.

Self-Interned, 1942: Noguchi in Poston War Relocation Center is on view through January 28, 2018.