Museum of Stones
Think of a circumstance in which rock and water rub up against each other: in a river gorge, along a coast, where a gutter empties onto a flagstone, or rain falls regularly on a travertine wall. At any given moment, rock is the sculptor and water is the material. Expand the timeline a bit, however, and the relationship reverses; water becomes the sculptor and rock the material. A creative awareness of this paradox, as refracted through a kaleidoscope of different cultural traditions, is The Noguchi Museum in a nutshell.
As a yin-yang, this reciprocal relationship between water and stone is one of a pile of material, allegorical, literary, scientific, metaphorical, artistic, structural, and cultural contexts in which stone operated in Noguchi’s imagination and as a touchstone for his work. The rock with which David killed Goliath; Scylla and Charybdis, the proverbial rock and hard place; the fact that one translation of calculus is pebble--as in the counters used in the development of mathematics (and in voting) in the ancient, Latin-speaking world; the walls that say so much about us in separating my things from your things all over the planet; the glacial erratics and other natural “miracles” that helped inspire the systematic approach to inquiry that became the scientific method; standing stones, humanity’s earliest attempts to dominate nature and explain existence, and the memorials by which we try to deny the insignificance of a biological lifespan on a geologic timescale. These points of reference frame the works in the exhibition.
Museum of Stones grew initially out of the artist Jimmie Durham’s critique of sculpture and architecture as stone denaturing regimes that advance the Western European notion that we need to establish impenetrable bulwarks against time, nature and each other. Much of Durham’s work aims to restore to stone some of the capriciousness, liveliness, transience and impressionability it exhibits in nature. The exhibition is an attempt to fuse Durham’s critique with an appreciation for the ways in which rock and stone act as barometers of civilization and its disconnects. Noguchi believed, as the Japanese tend to, that rock and stone have a lifecycle they should be allowed to experience in full, but he also recognized rock and stone as the seminal raw materials of technology and believed deeply in their use.
Noguchi learned to square a block of marble—and then to transform it into an abstract icon of Modernism—from Constantin Brancusi, the high priest of command and control carving, and he ended his career, at least in one of his many modes, as something closer to a process artist: not conjuring images from stone but exploring materials, often through processes at some remove from his own hand. It’s not that he gave one approach up for another so much as that he allowed different paradigms to accumulate, complicating his thinking and his work, over time.
His ambivalence is encompassed by one definition of the semantic difference between rock and stone: nature makes rocks; we make stones. If all goes to plan, the exhibition will create a series of boundary layers in which rocks and stones are difficult to differentiate from each other.
Museum of Stones is the first exhibition in the Museum’s history to insert the work of contemporary artists into the original Noguchi installation. The exhibition will include approximately fifty works by approximately thirty artists, installed throughout the Museum. It will also feature an installation of fifteen Chinese rock-related objects on loan from The Metropolitan Museum of Art.
Image: Installation view of Museum of Stones. Photo: Elizabeth Felicella.