Friday, July 24, 2009

Isamu and the Giant Peach

When we visited the Storm King Art Center, the first sculpture that I really wanted to look at carefully was "Momo Taro," which is on a little hill near the house at the center of the Storm King Art Center campus. It was made in 1977-78 by Isamu Noguchi, who was then in his seventies.

At Storm King, they're always telling you not to touch anything, so I didn't touch "Momo Taro," or only a little. Later I found out that Noguchi intended it to be an "interactive" sculpture. One really wants to crawl inside that cozy hole. I wish I had done that.

"Momo Taro" is made out of granite. (A somewhat earlier piece, above, "White Sun," in the Princeton University Museum of Art, is made of marble.) The Momo Taro name comes from a Japanese folk tale about a giant peach that came floating down a river. An old childless woman found it, ate some of it, and instantly became young again. Her husband ate some too, became young again also, and they made love. She had a baby, named "Momo Taro," or Peach Boy. Later variants of the tale had the boy emerging from the peach after the woman brought it ashore. In Japan, peaches are thought to resemble a woman's buttocks. (In my neighborhood, I recently learned, they are thought to resemble women's breasts.)

After Noguchi got the Storm King commission, he went back to Japan to look for a stone to place on the chosen hill. He found a big round stone, but it was too big to haul back to his studio in one piece, so his helpers split the stone in two. Inside they found this hollow space, and that made them think of the tale of the Peach Boy, Momo Taro, who had sprung from the inside of a giant peach.

That tale in turn made me think of the great Raoul Dahl story, James and the Giant Peach. I don't know if Dahl knew of the Japanese story; I think not, because his story was originally called James and the Giant Cherry. Anyway, in Dahl's story, a boy escapes his terrible childhood by getting inside a giant peach, which rolls away from his mean aunts. Eventually he flies to New York inside the peach. The inhabitants of New York see the giant peach flying through the air and mistake it at first for a nuclear bomb! Maybe Noguchi knew of the Dahl story, because it was written in 1961, fifteen years before Noguchi made his Giant Peach. I wonder if the giant stone "peach" that Noguchi found in Japan was flown to New York, or if it arrived by ship.

Noguchi apparently also visualized the split, hollow stone as an image of the sun, and as a mirror. There are eight other stones surrounding it, and they look somewhat like seating for some esoteric ritual. The whole arrangement looks a bit like a small stone henge, although the stones are not arranged in a circle.

I had a strong desire to spend some time drawing the stones and the shadows that were cast inside the hollows, but we only had a short time at Storm King and I didn't have time to do that.


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  2. You should have climbed in. I can't understand why a sculpture park would commission an artist like Noguchi -- who's work is specifically sensual and demands human touch -- would insist on telling people they cannot touch his granite work. If birds and rain can fall upon this work, how will the touch of some humans damage it?

    See here for one example:

    The story of the boy who emerged from the peach apparently was told to Noguchi after he'd been working on it. While working on it at his studio in Japan, people would come and say, "Momo Taro!"

    He remembered the story from his childhood, but insisted he wasn't originally thinking of it. I believe his thoughts were along the lines of a cosmic egg which happened to crash on the site.

    One argument in favor of physical contact with the work is another late granite piece entitled Black Slide Mantra in Sapporo (as well as an earlier white marble version in Miami, Slide Mantra):

    There are many other examples in his work where he insists on the viewers direct participation and interaction with the work. Only after museum curators get a hold of them do they try to restrict their proper appreciation by the public.

    Andrew Raimist