Swallowing Paper Planes
Noriyuki Haraguchi, wall to wall (2020) installed at Root K Contemporary, Tokyo.

For the uninitiated, artist Noriyuki Haraguchi (1946-2020) was considered a leading figure within the mono-ha movement and ferociously made work up until his sudden passing in 2020. As a sculptor, painter and installation he moved between medium with the same curious eye and as an artist works were in once sense televisual, existing between the world of images and industrial materials. However, instead of transmitting pictures or projecting light, his works would eventually swallow both.

The formalism of his early works — Ships (1963–65), Tsumu 147 (Freight Car) (1966), and Air Pipes (1968–69) — incorporate visceral, symbolic gestures that can be traced to his hometown Yokosuka, a port city and naval base home to the United States Seventh Fleet, and more broadly the rapid industrialization of a postwar world. The geography of the day was a source material, as was the protest and conflict at that time fueling his greatest tool; the process of making. Yet, oil as the image of consumption would fuel his more notably pieces like the oil pool installation Matter and Mind, 1977, and his recent exhibition “wall to wall Noriyuki Haraguchi” at √K (Root K) Contemporary in Tokyo.

The heart of that exhibition was an installation of the same name. A gesture of resistance and unfocused imagery, wall to wall (2020) keeps the viewer engaged. And while it does not claim to represent anything televisual (Mono-ha rejected forms of representation or simulation) the hanging canvas screen at its centre, within the reveal formed by the plaster skim and concrete wall, is the ’empty’ void filled by his and our imagination.

Recent works from Yokosuka featured in “Grey” at Kenji Taki Gallery in Tokyo (2017)

The late 1960s were tumultuous. Students protesting the US-Japan Peace Treaty (Anpo jōyaku) turned student campus grounds into a test bed for thinking and artistic practice. Haraguchi even built his A-4E Skyhawk (1968–69) from behind the barricades while attending Nihon university, reworking the fuselage in fibre glass and exhibiting it before the campus was retaken by police. The installation came to symbolize the mechanics of aggression as imagery referenced aircraft he saw growing up and the daily broadcasts of the Vietnam war played across the TV screen. It is as if Haraguchi was subconsciously forming his own counterpoint to “Television 1975-1976” by photographer Masao Mochizuki, where the screen is treated as a material that manipulates and is easily manipulated. In Haraguchi’s case, the image of war is detuned, stripped of narrative with the jet fighter cast aside as shed skin; vulnerable and crash-landed but no less sinister.

In his choice of subjects, Mochizuki seems to have been interested in exploring the notion—popular at the time—that television was a tool, which would allow us to witness history before our own eyes. By the 1970s, television’s ubiquity meant that most people’s memories of major events were created through the filter of its screen. With television’s newfound dominance of the media, the function of photography had been relegated to rendering “visual confirmation of what we had already seen on television.” Mochizuki’s grids reflect this new paradigm. Although they are made up entirely of photographs, they reflect the nature of the medium from which they are derived. By combining these images of major events, they function as visual representations of the universal collective memory that television was creating, forming a shared visual history of a specific period.

Mark Feustel, “A Window Into the World,” Foam #30, Spring 2012

The first television sets were treasured possessions, sandwiching the audience safely at home between foreign conflict and commercial TV as the emotional gap of advertisements cushioned the blow of reality. Haraguchi’s stark material choice spoke to both of these worlds; domestic and mechanical; Bakelite and Petroleum. His materials and the formal gestures he manhandled them with allowed for his critique to flourish without being especially critical of anything. This time the ’empty’ void was Progress stripped of morality and intention.

Noriyuki Haraguchi, Hanging Iron Plate / Vertical (2020) Photo, Masao Katagami.

Similarly, his recent Hanging Iron Plate / Vertical, 2020, represents more directly material and image manipulating and manhandling each another. An iron sheet is laid across the hot coal of an open fire, covered in embers that stain and discolor the surface, then hung vertically in the gallery now picturing the horizontal plate as a vertical canvas defiant of its own mass and purpose. The simple gesture of moving the plate from one plane to the other, from mountainside to backstreet draws the landscape in as it pushes the purpose and practicality of the sheet away. During a recent gallery visit, the work was wrapped and sat noticeably to one side, uninstalled and awaiting collection. But to paraphrase Haraguchi, the work is never finished. It lives on.

This tension between origin and destination is constantly evolving. Oil Pool (2020) takes this idea to the extreme having previously been installed as part of “wall to wall”, and originated in the psycho-geography of Matter and Mind (1977) which debuted at that year’s quinquennial Documenta 6: the International Exhibition.

Noriyuki Haraguchi, Oil Pool (2020) Photo, Masao Katagami.

Matter and Mind was purchased by the Empress of Iran, Farah Pahlavi, shortly after Documenta 6, to form part of a collection she hoped would bolster the image of Iran around the world at the newly constructed Tehran Museum of Contemporary Art. The collection was colossal. It featured works by Francis Bacon, Salvador Dalí, Marc Chagall, Willem de Kooning, David Hockney, Roy Lichtenstein, and Robert Rauschenberg. Yet most of these were either lost, like Warhol’s Portrait of Farah Pahlavi, 1976, or hidden away in vaults where many remain. The Iran Revolution of 1979 saw the government replaced by a conservative guard and the Empress and the Shah of Iran flee for Egypt, never to return. None of this seemingly affected the oil pool, which remained in the museum basement throughout.


Oil had become the newest currency with conflict never far behind. As President Nixon announced America’s withdrawal from Vietnam, his economic reforms and the effect of converting the US dollar to gold in 1971 were recognized globally as the Nixon Shock. But this proved a preamble for what came next. In 1973, millions of dollars were pledged in support of Israel’s fight in the Arab-Israel war of October 1973 incensing Arab oil-exporting countries and resulting in them forming an oil embargo and blockade, forbidding any oil-laden tanker from leaving its port. The OPEC Oil Crisis concluded the following year but by then the damage was done.

Noriyuki Haraguchi, Fukagawa, Tokyo, April 23 (1978) Photo, Shinzo Anzai.

The effect on Japan was particularly severe, as it was already in the grips of its own reconstruction. The oil shortage tested the readiness of Japan’s burgeoning infrastructure and caused a shift in public mood, with them questioning the ethical basis for such massive reconstruction, a dependency on security and materials from abroad, and the rate at which images were now being produced across television, photography, and film, each bleeding into every aspect of daily life. Events were no longer defined simply by date. Events were now defined by the date of their first transmission.

The collective memory of this televisual age had shifted its shared history into the realm of shared matter. Man and Matter (1977) installed in Tehran, existed in-stasis, apart from the Theatre of Spectacle being performed by the Middle East and Western world. Other iterations of the installation now placed emphasis on the inert crude oil as a global currency and the source of this visceral, material, and symbolic change that Haraguchi first witnessed as a young boy in Yokosuka and then experienced and engaged with as a student, but with far greater effect.

All of this happened at least 3 years beforehand but the anger and resentment of that period was left hanging in the air, materialized in 1977 by Matter and Mind. It would carry greater significance at the Tehran Museum swallowing the surrounding light so that those who stare at its surface simple see themselves staring back. Having been recently restored the pool revealed it had been more than a reflective mirror. During the restoration staff noticed that it had been collecting all sorts of debris including the sunken remains of paper airplanes thrown from the balcony above. If ever there was a gesture that drew a line between the works of Noriyuki Haraguchi it would be this.


Hanging Iron Plate / Vertical, 2020, and Oil Pool, 2020 – Photographs by Masao Katagami are kindly provided by the gallery. Both works were shown as part of “wall to wall Noriyuki Haraguchi” at √K (Root K) Contemporary (Mar 7-May 23, 2020) *Inaugural exhibition

“Grey” at Kenji Taki Gallery, Tokyo (Oct 19-Nov 25, 2017)

Mark Feustel, “A Window Into the World,” Foam #30, Spring 2012

“Noriyuki Haraguchi” at Fergus McCaffrey Fine Art, New York (Jan 17-Feb 21, 2015)

“Noriyuki Haraguchi, Fukagawa, Tokyo, April 23, 1978” from the Tate Britain, Prints & Drawing Room (viewed online)

“Mouthful” Shirin Sabahi, 2018, 36′, Farsi, Japanese, English/English sub, Beirut Art Film Festival BAFF