Exploring forms and norms – Lanterns in the Noguchi museum, NYC

One of the things I sometimes consider on this blog is how design and interactive art can help us to explore our relationships to technology and how we see the world. “Exploring forms and norms” is an occasional series of posts on this topic.

A few months ago I visited the Noguchi museum in NYC where a wonderful exhibition using paper lanterns prompted me to consider the sensory expectations that different forms can create and how playing with form and the absence of form can help us to think through what we notice and what we take for granted in our interactions.

Lanterns and spaces – Noguchi museum, NYC.
Image credit: author’s own

In the upper floors of the museum space a large area has been devoted to several installations made of paper lantern structures. On one side of the room a huge, circular lantern hangs in an open-sided frame, much like a prayer bell might. The effect is almost synaesthetic in the way it muddles our sensory expectations – instead of a sturdy metal bell there’s a delicate paper lantern. And instead of emitting a deep, sonorous chime, there’s a soft, glowing light. And yet this unexpected form is intriguing, and pulls you in for further exploration.

Just as a meditation bell might signal “Pay attention”, drawing a meditator deeper into their practice of watching the breath, so the presentation of the lamp invites the viewer to observe it more closely, to walk around it, and to explore their response. Consider similar calls to attention online – an activity bell icon on Twitter versus a globe showing your notifications on Facebook. And the numbers and colours that are used instead of sounds for these icons – again a mixing of visual and aural metaphors.

A circular globe suspended in an open frame at the Noguchi museum, NYC. Image credit: author’s own

On the other side of the room, many circular paper lanterns of different sizes, and suspended at different heights, twirl gently on the air currents in the room. Whereas impermanence (the idea that nothing persists in the same form, it’s always changing) is often shown as a loss of form such as through ageing and decay, these lanterns show impermanence as a constant random motion. The lanterns themselves retain their form, but they produce endless new combinations of interactions thanks to their responses to the external stimuli of air currents and the touch of visitors.


Again, considering our online interactions, form and impermanence are common tensions. Instagram and Snapchat allow us to manipulate our own images – even our own selfies – with filters, and allow us to create stories that self-destruct. And mapped as a network of interactions between users, a viral tweet may be uneditable, but its movement through the network adds more nodes and interactions, constantly expanding the original tweet’s reach.

Back in the gallery, visitors walked amongst the suspended lanterns – ducking and twisting through gaps between them, finding spaces even among the forms. Indeed, more of the room consisted of empty space than of lanterns, challenging the visitors to see the “invisible” spaces in their navigations, rather than focus only on the visible shapes. When do we choose to focus on what is there, versus what is absent online? When do we seek more content – by scrolling endlessly, by expanding links, or by navigating to brand new destinations – versus sitting patiently with the pauses as something loads (think how long the Twitter app now deliberately takes to open) or before changing a discussion thread by adding to it?


***Note: these are my reflections on interacting with the exhibits. You can also read the museum’s description which has a different perspective, and notes how these lanterns were unique for their time in that they took the traditional paper lantern format and married it with a modern technology – the electric light.

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