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All of these aspects of Noguchi's career will be explored in an exhibition opening Friday at the Yorkshire Sculpture Park, near Wakefield in England. The stars of the show are a hundred or so of the paper and bamboo Akari light sculptures that he began making in the early 1950s, and that became his best-known work. Lovely to look at and surprisingly robust, the Akari lights not only fuse Noguchi's Japanese and American influences, but art and design, craftsmanship and industry. They were also the catalyst for economic regeneration of a declining Japanese industry and, last but not least, their dramatically shaped mulberry-bark paper shades emit a very beautiful light.
The Akari project came about by chance, after Noguchi went back to Japan in 1950. By then his father was dead, and the Japanese welcomed him as a famous American artist. He visited the city of Gifu, where the traditional candlelit paper lantern industry was declining dramatically as more and more Japanese homes introduced electricity. The mayor asked Noguchi how to revive it.
Noguchi's solution was to modernize the old paper lanterns. Settling in an ancient teahouse with his then-wife, the Japanese movie star Yoshiko Yamaguchi, he designed a series of lamps powered by electricity, rather than candles. For the shades, he used the silky Mino paper that had been made in a nearby village from locally grown mulberry bark since the eighth century, but replaced the recently adopted wire frames with traditional bamboo. The design process was traditional, too. Noguchi began by making a wooden mold in the shape of the finished shade and wound fine strands of bamboo around it. Strips of Mino paper were glued to the bamboo, and the mold removed once the glue had dried. A slender metal structure was designed to hold the bulb and support the shade, both at the top and the bottom, where it seemed to float above the floor on spindly legs.