A Letter to Noguchi
Artist Brendan Fernandes connects generations in Best! Letters from Asian Americans in the Arts
“It feels almost like fate,” acclaimed Chicago-based artist Brendan Fernandes says. He’s speaking, somewhat dreamily, about his connection to the late, legendary Japanese-American designer-sculptor Isamu Noguchi, a man Fernandes never met but with whom he's felt entwined for years.
The thread began during Fernandes’ tenure as a professional dancer; he’s formally trained in ballet and Martha Graham techniques. Noguchi famously collaborated with Graham herself for years, starting in the 1930s, to create sets as bold and innovative as the groundbreaking choreographer’s modern dance pieces.
Then, when an injury ended Fernandes’ dance career, he began to merge his hard-earned dance expertise with his visual arts practice. The resulting performance-based works often feature dancers interacting with Fernandes’ own dramatic set designs—such as sculptural scaffolding and ropes that dancers pull and push as they move. Just like Noguchi, Fernandes is fascinated by the interaction between human, object, and space—and the power of objects to inspire movement physically and metaphorically. His cross-disciplinary works explore issues of race, migration, and protest and have been performed at notable venues, from the Whitney Biennial to the Guggenheim.
This past year, Fernandes’ connection to Noguchi “went to a new level,” he says. His work Contract and Release—which takes its name from a Martha Graham technique—was commissioned by the Noguchi Museum in New York as a complement to the Museum’s own newly presented collection installation. Fernandes reconfigured the installation for performance, so that dancers traced his choreography through 30-some Noguchi works—sculpture, models, and more—as well as scaffolding and rocking chairs designed by Fernandes and fabricated by furniture maker Jason Lewis. Fernandes’s designs were, of course, inspired by a chair that Noguchi designed for Graham’s famed Appalachian Spring (1944).
“So many layers,” Fernandes observes. There are similarities in physical stature as well. As he prepared for “Contract and Release,” Fernandes says with a laugh, “More than once, as I was looking through archival materials, I’ve stopped and wondered if I was looking at a picture of myself or Noguchi.”
A Kenyan-born, Canadian citizen with Indian heritage, Fernandes examines his unique ties to Noguchi—and the world at large—in a powerful letter, excerpted below from the just-published book Best! Letters from Asian Americans in the Arts. Within his text, Fernandes observes parallels and overlaps between the two artists, from issues of identity and race to creativity, belonging, and beyond. It is a conversation that began years ago, and has since played out through dance, art, design—but which he’s put down on paper for the first time below.
I write to you as though we have met, as though we have traveled together, shared meals, and known friends in common. Though we have never been in the same place at the same time, I write these words with a sense of kinship. I write knowing that our energies have crossed paths.
Why do I feel this way? In part, it is that we are both hybrids—in our identities, and in our ways of thinking and making. We are hybrid artists. Our compound identities have allowed us to maneuver through many spaces, to transgress boundaries, and to be in various communities at once. Being resilient and malleable, we have learned to call many places home. In this mobile sense of belonging, we connect to one another.
You are Japanese American, and you lived in both countries. I am a Kenyan-born Goan, and my family immigrated to Canada in 1989—just after you passed away. I can’t help but feel that this is part of our connection. The year we arrived in Canada is also the year I began to dance. I now reside in the United States—in Chicago—but I came here to study and to spend time in New York, just like you.
Three years ago, I was invited to create a dance work in your former studio in Long Island City, which has become the Isamu Noguchi Foundation and Garden Museum. Through the museum’s invitation, I was able to work in your archive, where I found again and again similarities between the ways that we make and think about art.
Looking at your assemblage sculptures, I realized that in order to put them together, the museum staff had to study and practice the movements required to fit each piece together. They used plywood replicas of your pieces to practice the playful order of operations before installing the original stone and bronze versions. I loved this choreography embedded in these objects. In my own show in your museum, I had three dancers assemble and disassemble these plywood copies in close proximity to the originals. Through performance, the audience gets to see the kind of play and collaboration at work in the still originals. I am still amazed at how corporeal—how much like bodies—your bronzes can feel. Put next to dancers, there’s an interaction that happens between body and sculpture: body gets looked at like sculpture, and sculpture gets looked at like body. In the making, it felt like a collaboration between us.
This performance with your assemblages was part of a larger series of interventions we called Contract and Release. Contraction and release are central to the modern dance techniques of Martha Graham, with whom you frequently collaborated. I myself am a formally trained Martha Graham dancer, so my research gravitated to the sets you made for her many ballets. I thought about them as platforms for launching a new dance in your museum. I worked with Dakin Hart, the senior curator of the museum, to install a new show of your works titled Body-Space Devices that looked at the ways you engaged and represented the body through sculpture. This collaborative show was open for a few months while dancers and I worked on a choreography to intervene in the space. We added scaffolding and my own sculptural devices to the space—rocking chairs, inspired by a chair you made for Martha’s ballet Appalachian Spring. You made her a rocking chair that did not rock. I added the rocking back in.
Martha had wanted a chair she could sit on for the duration of Appalachian Spring. But I wanted to build a device that would challenge my dancers to remain still. I tasked them with holding poses from Graham technique while seated in the chairs, but challenged them to remain as still as possible. To do so on the rocking chairs, they would have to contract their muscles continually, until they fatigued and shook and rocked. For audiences, it gave the effect of watching sculptures start to sweat and tremble. Watching the dancers labor asked the audience to empathize in a different way. It challenged their expectations of sculpture and their privilege as viewers.
For me, your collaborations broke down similar barriers. They negotiated a newness by blending and challenging traditions of art and dance. The things you created allowed for new ways to see art and dance together. This has been a huge influence on the way that I make my work, and I thank you for this. To work within your studio, to dance on the sets you made for Martha, it felt like a collaboration with you both, and for that, I count myself extraordinarily lucky.
This kind of collaboration, of course, continued in my mind. I wondered if you and Martha talked about your experiences as a Japanese person and if the sets and props you made for her took influence from Japanese traditions? Did you ever talk with her about what being a Japanese American means to you? The dance world often (still) uses Orientalist narratives, particularly in ballet. I wonder if this came up in your collaborations—if this was one of the many traditions you and Martha sought to break from. I wonder about what bridges and distances were a part of your collaborations—how much you learned from each other’s experiences and how much space you each allowed for those experiences to enter into the work.
I also wonder how going back and forth between America and Japan affected how you thought about your identity. Did you consider yourself Asian American? I too am Asian in a sense, and so I’m also Asian American to some extent, now that I live in the United States. What does it mean for us to share the moniker “Asian American” when we are from very different parts of the continent—you the East, and me the South? I wonder what our solidarity would look like across that distance. What defines a continent in the first place? Colonial hierarchy? Rules arbitrated in Europe? These far from address or unite the complexities of the cultures and communities deemed “Asian.” Here in North America, “Asian American” is another thing again. I like the term and adopt it as something that includes me and you. There are many layers to who and what it means to be Asian, and many more to what it means to be Asian in America. But I think the term encompasses this—it is rich and ever-changing.
Being of Indian descent, having grown up in Kenya and Canada, and now living in the United States, I find my identity has always been complex and in flux. I often get asked where I am from; the answer is never direct or short. If I say I am Kenyan or Canadian, I get a suspicious look. When I say I am Asian as well, the reactions have been even more confused—as if their idea of the category “Asian” doesn’t include people who look like me. My physical appearance points to my Asian heritage, but I had also never been to India until very recently. At times, this made me question my own connection. But many people are in this same situation, of not ever having been to where they are “from.” So, I’ve learned to see the advantages in this—to see ideas of “belonging,” “home,” and “from-ness” as something more malleable. I think there is a great value in understanding belonging as changeable in a world that seems to be increasingly at war over the idea of home.
You were born in LA in 1904, but you made your connection to Japan visible, spending time there and connecting your work to various Japanese traditions and ways of thinking. Both your way of living and way of making have been inspirational to me and to others. Decentering identity and accepting who you were, but also messing it up, is something that I feel is valuable for me to do as well. You yourself were in flux, and in your work and collaborations you manifested this as hybridity. It was a queering—an establishing of a space that is never defined and is always changing. Identity is, and is always, evolving. Through a lifetime of artistic experimentation, you, Isamu, expanded and adapted what it meant to be Asian American. You brought a complexity to the table that to this day still inspires. You brought complexity to the idea of what “Asian American” means, and that allows a newness to keep emerging. We are given the term, but we can continue to challenge it, to give visibility to its many meanings, and to redefine the ways this moniker is perceived, so that the community behind it can continue to grow and evolve as well.
In our world today, it is important to recognize the kind of legacy you, Isamu, have left for us: one that shows our value as Asian Americans, one that shows the different ways people can be considered American. From our experiences, we have found ways to be and become many things. We have endured, defined, and redefined ourselves again and again. We have found ways to exist, and we have pushed hard to dismantle the hegemony of White heteronormative cisgender space.
I wonder what you would think of how precarious the US has become for Asian Americans today. This year the world has changed with a pandemic in truly unexpected ways, and Asians in America are being targeted with new hostility and propagandistic blame. Did you call America home? Did you too have to renegotiate your sense of belonging in this place as its governments waged wars and its citizens clashed over prejudices? Home for me has had so many meanings—Canada, Kenya, India, and America have all been my homes, and in each I have felt both belonging and a need to challenge.
Looking at your work, I think this challenging belonging might also have been true for you. There seems to be a negotiation at work in your pieces. To understand them best, you have to move, or else see the movement within them. I see them as collaborations. You brought people, spaces, concepts, and materials together that were not necessarily meant to be together. This has been inspiring to me and I hope our collaboration—me being brought together with you—might be similarly inspiring to others. That, after all, is how we move forward and become movements ourselves.
We have shared that kind of space. Despite never meeting, we have collaborated from across time. We have both strived to make things new, hybrid, and challenging. Although we carry and embrace various identities, we are boundless and not defined by them. We define our own terms, make them ours, and then redefine them again.
I write this as we are living through a pandemic. As I isolate at home, I have been making collages with the biomorphic forms of your sculptures juxtaposed with images from my life as a queer person. These collages have become another way your work lives with me and helps me think about new movements and exchanges. I am grateful for your continued presence. I am grateful for your legacy, for your knowledge and friendship across time.
I have so many more questions to ask you—like what inspirations did Africa (my other home) bring to your work? What did you think about while collecting African art objects? Was that a collaboration for you, too? Were you always searching for newness? What other categories and monikers did you want to stretch and bend? And did you ever think that long after you were gone, others would still be writing to collaborate with you? I will have to leave you with these and wait, until our paths cross again.
This letter is republished with special permission from the anthology Best! Letters from Asian Americans in the Arts; eds. Christopher K. Ho and Daisy Nam (New York: Paper Monument/n+1, 2021). Our sincere thanks to the editors and the author, Mr. Fernandes.