Sometimes, for whatever reason, a “buzz” develops around an art exhibition, and soon everybody is talking about it. I’m still not sure exactly why, but there was a real buzz at the vernissage for “I Dreamt of Flying,” a new Rika Noguchi show comprising about 40 photographic prints that is now showing at the Hara Museum of Contemporary Art in Tokyo’s Shinagawa Ward.
For months the Hara people had been talking the show up, and in the weeks before the opening the press release was delayed because, a museum staff member told me, Noguchi wanted to make absolutely certain everything was just right.
I was skeptical the Saitama-born Noguchi, who at 32 years old is one of the youngest artists ever to have a solo show at the Hara, could do justice to that venerable institution. But, with a surprisingly sensitive use of the Hara’s 1930s Bauhaus-style interiors, Noguchi has delivered one of the better photo shows to go up this year.
The key to Noguchi’s success is her specific use of the Hara’s five different galleries (and corridor and staircase) to develop a simple but compelling theme of physical and emotional transport. Noguchi explores this idea by alternating her subject matter between rockets and the sky on the upper floor, and things submarine downstairs.
The Hara’s first gallery hosts Noguchi’s newest work, three large pictures from the series “Color of the Planet” (2004). These are lush, soft green-and-blue views of trenches and possible human constructions on the ocean’s floor, shot by the scuba-diving artist near the mysterious “pyramids” found some 20 years ago off the coast of Yonaguni Island, Okinawa (a site that continues to baffle archaeologists and anthropologists alike).
In the Hara’s second, main gallery, Noguchi is showing newly made light-jet prints of work from her 1995 series “To Dive.” The series follows a diver at a Chiba Ward scuba school. We watch the lone figure as he walks amid an industrial landscape in his wet suit before descending into an outdoor training tank, and we shiver. In contrast to the comforting colors and textures in the first room, the atmosphere throughout this series is cold and inhuman, all the more so for Noguchi’s sepia-toned presentation and dominating print sizes.
Upstairs, Noguchi reaches for the heavens. The first gallery on the Hara’s second floor has my favorite work, from the 2003 series “I Dreamt of Flying.” This is the Hara’s smallest room, and in this most intimate environment we find a pair of almost completely sky-blue prints. Near the center of each composition is a rocket in flight, a thin vapor trail winding away and off the frame.
These poetic images are even more special because (I don’t know whether I ought to reveal this) the rocket is not bound for outer space — rather it is of the backyard hobbyist variety, made by Noguchi herself, a toy measuring about 30 cm from nose to thruster. Noguchi’s little rocket addresses her dream of flying through a personal, creative process involving work, distance and scale. These are affirmative pictures, pointing the viewer toward the thought that although a thing is away and beyond (even rocket scientists must work like crazy to put a machine into the sky), dreams can lift us toward where we want to be.
In the final part of this show, Noguchi takes us to “Rocket Hill” with a series of photos shot at the Tanegashima Space Center in Kagoshima Prefecture, Kyushu. Here we have, again, very large prints (one is almost 2.5 meters high), this time of the machinery and environs of a full-fledged rocket facility. These are grand, awe-inspiring views that illustrate Noguchi’s fine eye for composition, no matter what the subject matter.
The fourth gallery shows the space center at night, to dramatic effect, while the Hara’s fifth and final gallery features mist-shrouded daytime scenes. There is some beautiful work here.
Rounding out the show, in the first floor hallway and the stairwell, are selections from Noguchi’s earlier “Seeing Birds” and “Catching Water” series.
What makes Noguchi so good is her total lack of fear in scaling up images, the courage with which she uses large amounts of negative space in her compositions, and a printing and presentation style informed by a full awareness of the atmosphere she wants to convey. Mature work and a pleasing retrospective, of sorts, for an artist who is not even mid-career.
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