(Online) Experiential Exhibition

Can the Noguchi Museum’s Serene Atmosphere Translate Online?

A new film series, Distance Noguchi, attempts to recreate the passage of time inside the museum’s spiritual sculpture gardens.

All stills from Distance Noguchi, 2020. © The Isamu Noguchi Foundation and Garden Museum, NY / Artists Rights Society (ARS)

One of New York’s best cultural secrets is Long Island City’s 35-year-old Noguchi Museum,  dedicated to the namesake Japanese-American sculptor.  Though it reopened on September 23rd in limited capacity, after a nearly six month hiatus due to the coronavirus pandemic, the braintrust has been mulling how to translate the museum’s zen atmosphere to the digital realm. 

Enter New York-based filmographer Nicholas Knight who was faced with trying to figure out how to compel a digital audience to “experience the presence of the passage of time.” With senior curator Dakin Hart, Knight documented the “sculptural situation” in the museum’s gardens with extended films, each between one and eleven hours long. Consider a sculpture rendered in stone: taking it in, in its entirety, is difficult without observing it as time passes, or, simply put, in direct experience. In these film accounts, the camera is fixed to record ephemeral qualities like light and shadow, the wind, and the sound of birds chirping. The result is Distance Noguchi, a series of vignettes that are the audio-visual equivalent of standing idly in the exhibition spaces and gardens, observing the “preternatural restless calm” permeating the atmosphere.  

Surface spoke to senior curator Dakin Hart and filmographer Nicholas Knight to learn more about the world’s first full-length film digital museum experience dedicated to the passage of time, the process of filming long nondirective film, and how COVID-19 nuanced his conception of digital and physical space.

How did your partnership start? 

Dakin Hart: Nick was once a Noguchi staff member, before my time. As part of a 2015 show called Museum of Stones, we borrowed a great Mel Bochner piece. Nick is the one who showed up to install it. We got to chatting, and I learned that after working for Bochner full-time, Nick had committed himself fully to his own commercial and art photography. We asked him to shoot one of our installations and since then he has photographed most of them. 

Nicholas Knight: Dakin has a very lively intellect, and we found we’re able to communicate well, both in conversation and through our work.

In the past decade, there has been an on-going effort to digitize collections, and COVID has spurred many museums to rush online with digital programming, but Distance Noguchi appears different.

NK: We hope it is. Ultimately that is up to the viewer.

DH: Just as a matter of principle and practice, we try not to rush anywhere. We went relatively slowly when it came to thinking about born-digital content for the museum. We waited until May, when most others were Zooming and Tiktoking by the end of March. The Noguchi Museum was created as a testament to empirical experience and thinking, so it took a little while to get over the hump of taking this superb thing itself into the digital limboverse, now epitomized so perfectly by Zoom. The main thing about Distance Noguchi is that it’s meant to outlast Covid-19. We didn’t want to make stopgap content to tide us over. We set out to make a lasting, remote experience.

Distance Noguchi comprises 24 videos between one and eleven hours long featuring many of the museum’s iconic spaces. How did you translate the feeling of being there to the digital sphere?  

NK: Looking closely, talking openly, rejecting what wasn’t working, and taking pleasure in extreme minutia.

DH: The durational aspect became very important, because the museum is one of those places, again like something in nature, that makes you want to slow down, if not stop. We often describe it as a wormhole outside space-time, or an oasis that generates its own version of space-time. By making the videos long, we emphasize the subtle changes you notice when you temporarily reset your time sense. The sun moves. The light changes. The wind blows. The trees shake. Birds sing and fly and bathe. We’ve both spent a lot of time here; after you’ve worked at the museum and it has reordered your sense of reality, you really miss that universe when you leave it. 

How are these videos nondirective? What does that mean and how does it shape the experience? 

DH: In this case, nondirective means not coercively composed. That term, “nondirective” is adopted from the style of playground Noguchi is now famous for. He based all of his space design on nature. A good analogy would be to a forest, which does not tell you how or where to enter it, what to do with any of its parts, or generally how to experience it. It’s a limitless site of discovery. The museum is like that, and so we set out to make videos that would do something similar. Tours through the space with a moving camera are exactly that—the experiential equivalent of being led by the nose. So we went for pretty casual fixed setups that allow for simple viewer projection into space. The space itself is so still, seems so unconcerned about being seen or not, that it’s very freeing. They’re sort of a digital museum equivalent of in medias res; they just drop you into the space and let you find your own bearings.

NK: Extended duration and a stationary camera together are a way to restore the agency of the viewer. 

How do these stationary durational videos capture sculpture? Obviously, film is a time-based medium, but are these videos about time? How do you expect them to engage Noguchi visitors, especially those who might not otherwise be able to see the museum in person?

NK: Maybe they don’t capture it. But the “empty” time in these videos gets fuller and fuller as the viewer lets go of the expectation that there’s a “point” to it.

DH: There is no way to reproduce the experience of seeing sculpture in a flat medium. Noguchi was particularly really interested in sculpture that transformed its environment. The Noguchi version of a 3D animation of a sculpture would look out at space from the point of view of the sculpture, rather than at the sculpture as a thing. Which is a convoluted way of saying that we set out to make something experiential and Noguchi-sculpture adjacent, hoping that it would be powerful on a kind of parallel track to Noguchi’s concept of sculpture.

Do you believe the role of cultural institutions will change as a result of the pandemic? 

DH: I sure hope so. The American art museum, which is all I really know anything about, has matured into something less varied and engaged, or engaging, and therefore less socially vital than it should be.

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