The Barbican is currently hosting an exhibition celebrating the Japanese American sculptor Isamu Noguchi, often considered to be one of the most experimental and pioneering artists of the 20th century.

This is also the first touring exhibition of his work in 20 years, giving people a relatively rare chance to see works that are remarkably familiar even if you might not realise that they inspired oh so many commercial copies sold in housewares shops around the world.

He was however a wide-ranging artist, in part torn between the mass-produced rush of American contrasting with the handicrafts of Japan. That comes across clearly in the exhibition, mixing items that look clearly singular artworks with others that look frankly like something you can pick up in Ikea.

The choice of Barbican art gallery works for this artist – with the brutal concrete contrasting with the domestic floor lamps and showroom-esque tables and benches.

Maybe it’s my uncultured eye, but quite a lot of the art here does look like the sort of work created by the obnoxious mother Delia Deetz in the movie Beetlejuice. I half expected some of it to come alive as in the movie and start terrorising the visitors.

Some of the more interesting, to my mind, were the fusion of lighting inside the sculpture, particularly wall mounted which made them feel more like rather nice domestic lamps than expensive art. It’s lighting that also fills the space between the sculptures, hanging from ceilings and sitting on floors.

But these lamps aren’t just illumination but are a selection of Noguchi’s most famous work – the Akari lamp.

Based on the traditional lantern from Gifu, Japan, he took design as inspiration, added an electric light bulb, and inadvertently created a lampshade that would fill every student dorm and fashionable living room in the 1960s-70s, and can still be found dotted around today.

Over 150 works are presented in the Barbican’s art gallery, including a range of sculptures – made in stone, ceramics, wood and aluminium – as well as theatre set designs, playground models, furniture and lighting.

The exhibition does end up though looking oddly familiar, as in that so much of it looks like the stuff you pick up in the average home furnishing store. That’s not to disparage the art, it’s just that thanks to being so popular when it was made, it was copied by everyone, and has become so generic in so many homes that the exhibition really ends up feeling like you’re walking through the lighting department of a branch of Habitat.

Which is a very odd emotion to leave with after visiting an art exhibition.

If you want one of Noguchi’s Akari light sculptures, they are being sold in the Barbican, with prices starting from £500, or you can get the equivalent for a fiver from Ikea.

The exhibition, Noguchi is open until 9th January at The Barbican. Entry costs £18, and tickets need to be prebooked from here.

Exhibition Rating


Barbican Centre
Silk Street, London


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