Akari Floor Lamp (Model UF3-S)
by Dike Blair

My most profound relationships with art objects almost always take place in my apartment and over a period of time. I visit museums and galleries, but I rarely develop the kind of full intimacy with an artwork like what I experience at home. As a result, it's likely that I'll have my deepest understanding of art made by friends, young artists, and former students; and, as fine as these works may be, few are works of established museum quality. But one piece in my living room, a Noguchi Akari floor lamp (Model UF3-S), is a sculpture that has illuminated my life for almost 15 years and is a work of genius.

In 1951 Noguchi visited Gifu Prefecture and was inspired by the lanterns made there, which were used for illuminating night fishing on the Nagara River. He called his creations Akari, which in Japanese means light, as in illumination; but he was also alluding to the lightness of the lamp's materials. Over the next decade he created over 100 lamp models, they're distributed internationally, and are icons of Modern art and design. They are almost certainly familiar to the reader.

My Akari looks great all day. The shade, which is made of white mulberry paper stretched over a thin bamboo armature, has aged to a lovely cigarette filter yellow. Its shape is a spherical form of the traditional chochin (lantern) topped by a Brancusi-esque cylindrical chimney. A thin, black wire tripod that evokes Calder's ingenuity, and is also ridiculously sturdy, supports the shade. The lamp's interplay of awkwardness and grace and its marriage of metal and paper are a constant fascination to me. As with almost all of his mature work, Noguchi accomplishes an astounding and seamless joining of European modernism with Japanese traditionalism.

In my apartment the lamp functions as an architectural element, something like a fireplace, but also as a "natural" element, something like a highly sentient houseplant. There's also an odd, anthropomorphic quality to the thing. At 57", it's a little too short to be human-scaled, although it can be thought of as having legs, a belly and torso. I sometimes think of it as an embodied Kami, the Shinto spirits believed to inhabit every rock, person, plant, mountain and stream. (Kami also means, paper.) The spirit of this thing-be it mineral, vegetable, or animal-is benign.

It's really a nighttime piece of art, which is itself something out of the norm. Unlike a painting, which conjures light but requires illumination to come to life, the light sculpture is light. I light mine with a 25-watt bulb and usually switch it on at cocktail hour. Every time I hit the switch, a subtle sense of wellbeing enters me, but also a sense of the ephemeral and of mortality. And although the lamp's warm glow may create some synaesthesia with my martini or cup of warm sake, this ain't the liquor talking, it happens when I'm sober. It's a funny, second-long daily ritual, a mini-meditation on beauty, death, and time.

The failings of the Modernist program are a subject of much contemporary art, but my Akari is a nice reminder of how Modernism's successes linger. Noguchi's sense of social responsibility, his ambivalence toward the art world and his urge toward a functional art, his desire to embrace internationalism, are all embedded in this accessible and affordable artist's multiple. Using only a few ounces of material, my Akari gives me all of that plus the aforementioned aesthetic and philosophic pleasures. It's a light of my life.

For an excellent essay on Noguchi's Akari, see Bruce Altshuler's essay, The AKARI Light Sculpture of Isamu Noguchi.