Simon Starling’s “At Twilight” and How Everything is Connected

“Everything is connected!” exclaims Dirk Gently in every episode of BBC America’s Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency, based on a series of books by the late English author Douglas Adams. The affable yet bumbling Gently, who operates on “the fundamental interconnectedness of all things,” would’ve had a field day at Japan Society Gallery’s exhibition Simon Starling: At Twilight (After W. B. Yeats’ Noh Reincarnation), set to close on Sunday, January 15.

How else can we explain how a British visual artist (Simon Starling) based an exhibition on an Irish poet (William Butler Yeats) whose journey into writing Noh plays was influenced by an American poet (Ezra Pound) and a Japanese poet (Yone Noguchi) whose son (Isamu Noguchi) was the famous sculptor who founded a museum in Queens?

For starters, At Twilight is the solo institutional debut in New York City of Starling, who won the 2005 Turner Prize, an annual award presented to a British visual artist under the age of 50. Starling previously worked with Yukie Kamiya, who made her Japan Society Gallery curatorial debut, after she was appointed Gallery Director in November 2015. The two collaborated at the 2014 Yokohama Triennial and the Hiroshima City Museum of Contemporary Art in 2010. Kamiya describes Starling as having a “longstanding commitment to understanding global cultures, including Japan,” a description which possibly can be applied to W.B. Yeats as well.

Simon Starling, At Twilight, W.B. Yeats, Noh, theatre, poetry, arts, Ezra Pound, Yone Noguchi, Isamu Noguchi, Japan Society, Japan Society Gallery, NYC, Japan, Great Britain, masks

The Hawk’s mask with video of W.B. Yeats’s “dance play” in the background

In Simon Starling: At Twilight (After W. B. Yeats’ Noh Reincarnation) Starling created a multimedia work that brings together Japanese and Western Modernist works, emphasizing the influence that centuries-old Japanese Noh plays had on Western avant-garde art. Starling based his inspiration on At the Hawk’s Well, W.B. Yeats’s one-act “dance play,” which the poet wrote after exploring Noh, the 600-hundred-year-old traditional Japanese art form that contains elements of dance, drama, music, and poetry and was designated a UNESCO “Masterpiece of Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity.”

Simon Starling, At Twilight, W.B. Yeats, Noh, theatre, poetry, arts, Ezra Pound, Yone Noguchi, Isamu Noguchi, Japan Society, Japan Society Gallery, NYC, Japan, Great Britain, masks

Simon Starling, At Twilight / Mask of W.B. Yeats, 2016. Mask by Yasuo Miichi; Courtesy of the artist and The Modern Institute/Toby Webster Ltd., Glasgow

Considered one of the greatest poets of the 20th century, Yeats began experimenting with writing plays mid-career. The 1923 Nobel Prize winner, who lived from 1865 until 1939, never actually visited Japan, but he was introduced to Noh and Japanese culture by American expatriate Ezra Pound, a poet who helped develop the Imagism movement by combining classical Chinese and Japanese poetry. Pound himself was introduced to the arts of East Asia by poet Laurence Binyon, who was a curator at the British Museum, where Pound studied ukiyo-e prints and the waka verses inscribed on them.

Another of Yeats’s connections to Japan came from Yone Noguchi, a Japanese poet who lectured about haiku at Oxford in the early 1900s and whose essay about Japanese Noh plays was published in 1915 in the journal The Egoist, edited by T.S. Eliot. Noguchi visited Yeats and Pound at their winter writing retreat at Stone Cottage in Sussex, England, and helped to fuel the Irish poet’s interest in Japanese culture.

Noguchi’s son, Isamu (born in 1904), would become a world-renowned sculptor, landscape architect, and furniture designer. The Noguchi Museum, which was founded and designed by Isamu in Long Island City, lent important works to the exhibition, and some of the new masks Starling created for At Twilight were influenced by works by Isamu as well as Constantin Brancusi, a Romanian sculptor who was one of the pioneers of modernism, and Jacob Epstein, one of the leading British sculptors of the 20th century. Starling worked with master mask makers Yasuo Michii and Kumi Sakurai to make his new masks, a delightful gathering of Yeats and his collaborators Pound and Michio Ito, the Japanese dancer who played the Hawk in the original 1916 performance, as well as Pound’s muse, heiress and activist Nancy Cunard. Starling made the mask representing Cunard based on a 1928 abstract sculpted portrait of her by Brancusi. The masks are fixed upon sticks to create a kind of ethereal “forest” positioned around a video screen showing a reenactment of the climactic Hawk’s Dance from At the Hawk’s Well, choreographed by Javier De Frutos in association with Scottish Ballet.

Simon Starling, At Twilight, W.B. Yeats, Noh, theatre, poetry, arts, Ezra Pound, Yone Noguchi, Isamu Noguchi, Japan Society, Japan Society Gallery, NYC, Japan, Great Britain, masks

Simon Starling, Project for a Masquerade (Hiroshima), 2010 – 2011. Made in collaboration with Yasuo Miichi, Osaka; Installation view at Kunsthal Charlottenborg, Copenhagen; Photo by Anders Sune Berg; Courtesy of the artist and The Modern Institute/Toby Webster Ltd., Glasgow

While this display, which is situated at the beginning of the exhibition, is the most visually exciting, At Twilight delights with Starling’s fascinating research and archival materials. They represent how Japan and Britain, Noh and Western poetry were connected in the early 20th century.

That would be truly appealing to Dirk Gently because everything – from art to nations – is connected.

Simon Starling, At Twilight, W.B. Yeats, Noh, theatre, poetry, arts, Ezra Pound, Yone Noguchi, Isamu Noguchi, Japan Society, Japan Society Gallery, NYC, Japan, Great Britain, masks

Simon Starling, At Twilight (collage), 2014-2016.
Courtesy of the artist and The Modern Institute/Toby Webster Ltd, Glasgow

“With the help of Japanese plays . . . I have invented a form of drama, distinguished, indirect, and symbolic, and having no need of mob or press to pay its way – an aristocratic form.”
– W.B. Yeats 1916