Original Japanese-inspired lanterns illuminate Mudam

A view of the exhibition ‘a cloud and flowers’ at Mudam

Photo credit: Nick Ash | Mudam Luxembourg

While some viewers may associate paper-thin, foldable lampshades with what they’re buying today at Ikea, Mudam’s latest exhibit, a cloud and flowers, takes a look at the original Japanese-inspired lanterns that were a groundbreaking work of art in the 1950s.

Artist Danh Vo has created an intimate, meditative space based on the works of critically acclaimed sculptor, Isamu Noguchi, who died in the late 1980s and is known for designing the first Akari lamps.

The true beauty of these fragile art forms is marred by their familiarity with the mass market. What started as Noguchi’s radical design – fusing the traditional with the modern – has now become mainstream mediocrity. But, that was not always the case. Noguchi has breathed new life into these handcrafted paper-thin lights for a contemporary audience; using their shapes to soften the look of the harsh electric lighting that came to prominence during the 20th century.

Nick Ash | Mudam Luxembourg

The design of Noguchi lampshades is heavily influenced by the traditional lanterns the Japanese used to attract fish to their boats so that trained cormorants could catch them. The romantic sight of illuminated fishermen left a lasting impression on Noguchi, who constructed his own lampshades using the same traditional Japanese methods and materials.

It is important to understand the evolution of these lamps from rustic homemade essentials to highly functional handcrafted art forms. Too bad there is no information panel clearly explaining their history inside the exhibition for those who are not familiar with the work of the artist. Of course there is a pamphlet to read but, if you forgo that, I invite you to chat with one of the gallery staff who will regale you with the full history of the Akari in addition to other information that tends to be omitted from official leaflets.


Noguchi once said, “The art of stonework in a Japanese garden is that of placement. His ideal does not differ from that of nature. Vo takes this directive and applies it with rigorous measure, building a Zen garden under the electric gaze of Noguchi’s lanterns.

The garden is made of reused stones and marble fragments complemented by plant arrangements. The effect is both grounded and fleeting. From mounds of moss and tree branches, these arrangements are destined to wither, die and be replaced by other seasonal flora. It is not a static display. Each room is a moving room, from the gentle swaying of the lamps above, to the continual renewal of the flora. It is a reminder to the observer to appreciate what we have, to show gratitude, to hold this life close but to be ready to let it go.

Nick Ash | Mudam Luxembourg

In a neglected corner of the room is a transcribed letter from the 19th century that details French Catholic missionary Jean-Théophane Vénard’s last correspondence with his father before his execution in Vietnam.

The letter, which appears as a feature in almost all of Vo’s installations, is hand-written in the art of calligraphy by Vo’s father. It is a harmonious, skilful and evocative work, forcing the reader to reflect on life, death, power, property and our own belief systems. This gives us pause – especially readers unfamiliar with French, especially old French texts, and the swirling, dense letterforms of calligraphy. The whole process becomes a meditation on patience as well as perseverance. It’s a labor of love, one that’s recreated by Vo’s Vietnamese father every month.

There is a sadness in these rituals, but also a comfort, a familiarity in the birth and death of events and cycles always different while remaining the same. And it is this romance in the exhibition that is as refreshing as it is rare. Vo raises the bar for our understanding of relationships, emphasizing how intertwined we are all: with nature, with history, with form and function, with our collaborators and more specifically with each other. It is an exhibition that breathes light, love and hope.

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