The Fence and the Chair: Isamu Noguchi, Appalachian Spring, and Internment as Modernist Setting
Volume 3, Cycle 1
“New land, new home, new life; a testament to the American settler, a folk theater. I attempted through the elimination of all non-essentials to arrive at an essence of the stark pioneer spirit, that essence which flows out to permeate the stage.” Thus sculptor Isamu Noguchi described his set for the iconic 1944 ballet Appalachian Spring, choreographed by Martha Graham to a score by Aaron Copland. The ballet follows a Husbandman and Wife in nineteenth-century Pennsylvania as they wed, move into a farmhouse, and receive the blessing of a Revivalist and his Followers. A photograph of the empty stage taken in its original setting at the Library of Congress’s Coolidge Theater evidences the austerity of Noguchi’s design (fig. 1). A house, a bench, a stone, a fence; Noguchi delineates each with plain wood, rendered ghostly white by the photograph’s dramatic contrast. The effect is nearly skeletal, as if flaying away the flesh of settlement to reveal its bones.
Yet within Noguchi’s description, the set does not remain frozen by camera’s flash but rather flows, emanating forth to fill the theater. The artist’s words dissolve inert wood into an apparition that is at once ephemeral and mobile. As I will discuss in this paper, what flows from Noguchi’s set is nothing less than the history of Japanese internment, and specifically the spatial and material logic of the camp at Poston, Arizona, where Noguchi was voluntarily interned for six months. Just as Noguchi’s life was shaped by Poston’s fences and barracks, his set shaped Graham’s choreography and the bodies of her performers, revealing the imbrication of aesthetic form and history, of setting and settlement.
Noguchi saw sculpture as the art of carving space, noting in a 1946 interview “I say it is the sculptor who orders and animates space, who gives it meaning.” Far from a disinterested aesthetic act, this sculpting of space was a means of addressing “the continuum of our existence,” a phrase that suggests the connection—rather than separation—of the theatrical and real spaces (Noguchi, “Statement,” 24). Noguchi’s set activates and parcels the space of the stage, inflecting the movements of the dancers who pass through them much as his own life was transformed by Poston’s architecture. Following Noguchi’s example, this paper approaches interment not as a moment in history, but as a set of spatial and material forms that migrate into Appalachian Spring. In elucidating the connection between Poston and Noguchi’s set, this paper argues for internment’s persistent structuring logic within even the most barren of spaces, on the emptiest of stages.
But of course, the stage was not empty. Look again at Noguchi’s set, this time in a photograph populated by dancers (fig. 2). They fill the stage with an ineffable presence that exceeds the material confines of their bodies, echoing Noguchi’s description of his set. The tension of Erick Hawkins’s arms as he grasps the fence, Martha Graham’s perfect carriage as the white-clad Wife, Merce Cunningham’s dramatic silhouette merging into the stone beneath his feet: these images are not merely the affordances of choreography-honed flesh and muscle, but the aggregation of a lived life, stilled into poses that compress the material and affective into a single body. Their dramatic doubled shadows, the product of multiple stage lights, would seem a visual—if not material—instantiation of all that exceeds the intelligibility of form. The ease with which these dancers move on and off stage, from the space of life into the space of art, highlights the limitations of any strictly formalist reading. As Noguchi understood, while we are shaped by the forms that govern our lives, we are not defined by them. For him, the spaces of performance and life were in fact one and the same: “Theater space is not just one level, but extends out into the firmament. It is the sculpting of space. The space of the universe where we happen to be.”
A small fence protrudes from the right side of the stage, a pair of horizontal poles anchored by a single vertical. The structure’s rectilinear lines and right angles contrast with the diagonals that comprise the roof of the house on the opposite side of the stage, imparting the fence with a significance belying its modest size. Rare 16mm film footage of the original production provides a glimpse of the fence within the Coolidge Auditorium, whose intimate dimensions, originally designed for chamber music, meant that the fence remained in the audience’s field of vision for the entire production (video 1). Though immobile, the fence pushes and pulls the space of the stage over the course of the production, molding, dividing, and inflecting both the environment and the dancers’ bodies, and returning to Appalachian Spring the history it attempts to render abstract.
The fence asserts this importance from the very beginning of the performance, as the Husbandman, played by Erick Hawkins, slowly strides out against the languid notes of Copland’s score and rests a single arm on its rail, gazing off into the distance (video 2). With this gesture, the fence begins to “signify what a fence means in a new country,” to quote Graham. Its presence parcels out the undifferentiated space of the stage while also implying a beyond, a mythic expanse of wilderness that contrasts with the orderly space of settlement behind it. As dance critic Edwin Denby wrote of seeing the production in 1944, the effect was “the fresh feeling of hillside woods and fields . . . . The horizon is not the treetop garden horizon of Letter to the World nor the expanse of summer sky and the sea of Salem Shore, but it is the real open air that is suggested in all three.”
Yet rather than hard demarcation, the fence creates a threshold that extends across the front of the stage, invisible but insistent nonetheless. This barrier can and is frequently breached by the dancers’ bodies, as in the moment during the prologue when the Husbandman rests his arm upon it. Suddenly, a bright burst of string arpeggios sound, initiating the spirited dancing of the four female Followers (video 3). Their exuberant movements swoop across the front of the stage, breaking the fence’s threshold and transforming the space around it into a liminal zone between settlement and wilderness, between the Husbandman’s still body and the Followers’ kinetic frenzy. Within the production the fence functions not just as a threshold between spaces, but also as a kind of ballet barre, a place of repose from the movement behind it. The pensive poses of the dancers at rest, eyes fixed on the space beyond, infuse their bodies with potential energy, like coiled springs ready to expand. At any moment they might rejoin the dancing on stage or move outward into the distant wilderness, imbricating the real time of the production with the historical time of settler colonialism—which of course had already come to pass by 1944.
In fact, the pernicious history of American settlement and its attendant justification of “civilizing” the untamed landscape was not a distant memory, but structured the spatial logic of the United States’s ten internment camps. Poston had been established on the Colorado River Indian Reservation over the vigorous objections of the governing tribal council, with Commissioner of the Bureau of Indian Affairs John Collier overruling these concerns by arguing that the camps would provide much needed infrastructure. Accordingly, the spatial instantiation of internment was carried out through the partitioning of land. Franklin D. Roosevelt’s infamous Executive Order 9066 authorized the military broad powers to designate areas “from which any or all persons may be excluded.” As a result, approximately 120,000 people of Japanese descent were rounded up and placed in internment camps as a means of protecting against “espionage and against sabotage to national-defense material, national-defense premises, and national-defense utilities” (Roosevelt, Executive Order 9066). The logic of settler colonialism and its parceling of spaces was therefore integral to internment, a connection made material through Collier’s intervention.
Collier had also been instrumental to Noguchi’s decision to enter Poston, convincing him to establish an arts program to build community, preserve artistic knowledge, and acclimatize the internees to their incarceration. For Isamu, whose father was the distinguished Japanese poet Yone Noguchi, the recasting of people of Japanese descent as enemies during World War II initiated a searching reevaluation of his ethnic heritage. While he lived outside of the areas designated by the executive order, the artist decided to voluntarily enter the camps. For Collier, Noguchi became a tool with which to make settlement material, charging the artist with building a recreation center and playground within Poston. Predictably, Noguchi’s enthusiasm for the project soon gave way to despair as he experienced the harsh realities of camp life. As he wrote to a friend from Poston, “This is wierdest [sic], most unreal situation—like in a dream—I wish I were out. Outside, it seems from the inside, history is taking flight and passes forever. Here, time has stoped [sic] and nothing is of any consequences, nothing of any value, neither our time or our skill.”
Noguchi’s eerie sense of the camp as apart from history, even as its very landscape was determined by the intersecting histories of settlement and war, was embodied in the barbed wire fences that surrounded Poston, and reverberates within Appalachian Spring’s spare forms. The psychological and physical weight exerted by these structures is palpable in Toyo Miytake’s meticulously composed photograph of three boys at California’s Manzanar camp (fig. 3). Miyatake’s framing places the fence receding into the dramatic mountain landscape, an insistent barrier between the viewer on one side and the boys on the other, who finger its sharp barbs as if to test whether it was really there, just as the dancers tested the threshold of Noguchi’s fence.
In its explicit depiction of the fence, the photograph stands apart from the thousands of documentary photographs of internment camps commissioned by the United States War Relocation Agency. The absence of visible fences in these images can likely be attributed to both their propagandistic motivations and the sheer size of the camps. Poston, for example, was in fact a complex of three camps on 71,000 acres, which at its peak housed 17,000 people. Photographs of the camps barracks show identical rows of rectangular buildings with nary a fence in sight, presumably too distant to picture in the same frame (fig. 4). Internee Kakunen Tsuruoka’s 1943 watercolor Twilight Landscape (Poston) makes explicit the simultaneous presence and absence of Poston’s fences, materializing that which could not be conveyed by photography (fig. 5). Tsuruoka’s Poston is an atmospheric landscape rendered in dusky blues and pale yellows, against which the uniform barracks emerge as a dark yet defined shadow. Unlike the aerial photographs, Tsuruoka’s composition includes a fence, barely visible through the layers of hazy watercolor. This effect is echoed by the power lines that extend from the imposing vertical poles, which vanish into nothingness as the thin tip of Tsuruoka’s brush lifts from paper. These lines of division twinkle in and out of visibility, signaling the common work of desert and physical barrier to create a zone of exclusion within the borders of the United States. Like the fence in Noguchi’s set, the indistinct horizontal lines of Tsuruoka’s watercolor order the space around them, delineating brambly bush from the camp’s neat geometry, and cordoning the composition into distinct areas through their gentle yet insistent presence.
What would it mean to breach the liminal zones around Tsuruoka and Noguchi’s fences, as the dancers’ bodies did throughout the production of Appalachian Spring? Consider Alberto Giacometti’s 1932 sculpture The Palace at 4 A.M., which Graham reportedly took Noguchi to see at the Museum of Modern Art (fig. 6). The formal affinities between set and sculpture are obvious, with Giacometti’s sparse wooden lines forming an architectural “drawing in space” of interpenetrating volumes, at once permeable and distinct. As Rosalind Krauss has written, the effect is of an object that is at once “part of real space and somehow sectioned off from it.” In her reading, the threshold created by the fence sutures together the place of art and the world around it, or in the case of Appalachian Spring, the space of the stage and the space of the audience. Yet more than simply as a formal division, Noguchi understood the partitioning of space as an ethical problem engendered by the “amoral crisis” of the war. As he wrote of his work for the stage, “it is possible to realize in a hypothetical way those projections of the imagination into environmental space which are denied us in actuality.” The fence’s sculpting of space and the bodies around it thus emerges as a rejoinder to Noguchi’s feeling of history “taking flight and pass[ing] forever” within Poston. His transposition of the fence from camp to stage transforms the space around it into a place of both possibility and division, action and rest, making tangible the historical forces that shaped Poston, and embodying that which could not be apprehended from within its borders.
Directly opposite the fence, a chair. Perched on a platform and framed by diagonal lines indicating a roof, the chair both marks and makes its immediate environment into a domestic interior. Noguchi fashioned its body from three sheets of plywood, nailed together and shaped into an evocative hourglass. An additional sheet of laminated pine is affixed on top of this base, creating a triangular seat upon which the Wife and the Pioneer Woman frequently sit, creating, like the fence, a place of repose from the action on stage (figs. 7 and 8). With its sparse yet evocative lines, the chair allows rest to take many forms, the dancers’ movements transforming it into a seat, a cradle, a wedding bed, and a place of prayer over the course of the production. Put differently, the chair is a scriptive thing, to borrow a phrase from Robin Bernstein, who uses the term to describe the way things engender and shape the action of the stage.  Like the fence, the chair both guides movement and transforms itself in relation to these movements. Its primary characteristic is mutability, morphing from thing to thing in concert with the action around it.
The chair’s mutability returns us once again to Poston, where Noguchi, bereft of materials, led expeditions to scavenge the gnarled hardwood branches that littered the Arizona desert. Their significance to the sculptor is evidenced by his return to wood as a medium after his return from the camp, as well as their presence in his personal collection, small yet dramatic fragments that appear to never have felt the touch of the sculptor’s hand (figs. 9 and 10). Poston’s dearth of supplies led many internees to scavenge for materials in the seemingly barren desert, as evidenced by a rattlesnake carved by internee Takizo Obata from a single branch of mesquite (fig. 11). Obata rescued this particular branch from the woodpile, and with a few scrapes of his knife carved a head and a band of rattles into each end. The body of the snake remains untouched by Obata’s knife, the mesquite’s dramatic grain and curved form allowing it to morph, like Moses’s staff, between snake and branch, between figuration and material object.
Appalachian Spring’s chair follows a similar logic. Its distinctive hourglass shape is an unmistakable quotation of Constantin Brancusi’s Endless Column, whose repetition of modular forms allowed it to embody the infinite expanse of its title, as if perpetually begging for a few more units to be stacked on top (fig. 12). Within the space of the stage, Endless Column’s mutability of form becomes a mutability of function, absorbing the dancers’ gestures and adapting itself to fit their needs. The chair’s anamorphic capacity is encapsulated by a solo danced by the Wife near the ballet’s conclusion (video 4). The passage begins with the Wife kneeling in front of the structure, cheek resting against its seat as she caresses its unvarnished wooden surface. Springing forth, she dances a sequence that follows a simplified life trajectory, moving from pious young girl to a mother cradling a baby in her arms. The choreography concludes with a series of spins that culminates in the Wife seizing the chair and spinning it around, its circular movement echoing her twirls just an instant earlier. At the end, she once again sits upon it, the fabric of her skirt concealing the base, visually merging her body into its wooden curves. At this moment, body and object become indistinguishable, acknowledging the interdependence and interchangeability of wood and flesh, of body and sculpture. Like Obata’s transformation of branch into snake, shaping its wood much as his own life had been shaped by the desert, this merging of dancer and chair materializes the forces that determined both its form and the Wife’s movements.
The notion that objects embody rather than reflect the forces of the world guides the formal logic of the chair’s most explicit referent, the Shaker rocking chair (fig. 13). For the Shakers, simplicity and solid craftsmanship were understood as physical manifestations of spirituality, much like the vibrations that shook their bodies during prayer and were themselves quoted in the Revivalist’s frenzied choreography. The clean lines and meticulously fitted joinings of a rocking chair manifested the purity and unity of God’s perfection, recalling the Shaker proverb “Every force evolves a form.” The Shaker rocking chair’s embodiment of spiritual force serves as a touchstone for this paper’s discussion of history and form, showing how the invisible forces around us may be made manifest, and in turn transform us.
If the fence and the chair are material instantiations of Noguchi’s experiences at Poston, their affordances embed these histories into the bodies of Appalachian Spring’s dancers. Of course, these bodies carried their own histories that diverged from those of the set, or in the case of Yuriko Kikuchi, one of the Followers in the original production, harmonized with them. Yuriko, as she was later known, spent time at the Gila River Relocation Center before going to work for Graham as a seamstress. Although she had little formal dance training, Graham soon realized her immense talent, and invited her to dance with the company even as she continued to sew costumes. Yuriko was also among the dancers Graham brought to Bennington College to help her determine the choreography for Appalachian Spring, and as among Graham’s favored performers, danced the part of the Follower who was to be lifted by Cunningham’s Revivalist:
My body curved round like a ball, with my hands cupped about two inches from his face. I placed my face as close to his as I dared. I was ecstatic, and remember looking down on the three Followers, who were lying on their backs on the floor watching the lift and wishing that next time it would be one of them. (quoted in Tokunaga, Yuriko, 83)
In this passage, Yuriko’s joy emerges from the ecstatic, and even erotic, charge of Graham’s choreography, and perhaps also from her wonder at being transported into the wilds of Vermont after her hardships at Gila. Like Noguchi’s set, her history shaped the choreography of the performance, but was also subject to the pressures of history, both proximate and distant. As Bernstein writes, “Things script meaningful bodily movements, and these citational movements think the otherwise unthinkable” (“Dances with Things,” 70). The otherwise unthinkable materialized by Noguchi’s set and Yuriko’s body are the historical events that molded the land and their lives. Marriage, birth, death and life: all are transformed and beholden to these forces. To quote the lyrics of the Shaker hymn whose melody provides the soundtrack for Appalachian Spring’s iconic marriage scene, “When true simplicity is gained / to bow and to bend we shan’t be ashamed.” Rather than denying history’s inexorable forces, all we can do is dance through, around, and with them.
I am grateful to Leon Hilton, Usha Iyer, Aileen Robinson, and Jamie Parra for their feedback on previous drafts of this essay, and Yechen Zhao for his assistance with the images.
 Isamu Noguchi, quoted in Robert Tracy, The Spaces of the Mind: Isamu Noguchi’s Dance Designs (New York: Proscenium Publishers, 2001), 44.
 Noguchi arrived in Poston on May 12, 1942, and stayed through mid-November of the same year. For a detailed account of Noguchi’s activities leading up to and during his internment, see Amy Lyford, Isamu Noguchi’s Modernism: Negotiating Race, Labor, and Nation, 1930–1950 (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2013).
 Graham’s initial script for Appalachian Spring includes the character of an “Indian Girl,” enigmatic and embodying nature. Jacqueline Shea Murphy has convincingly discussed the “Indian Girl” character as evidence that Graham based Appalachian Spring in part on Hart Crane’s poem, which includes the character of Pocahontas as an embodiment of nature. See Jacqueline Shea Murphy, The People Have Never Stopped Dancing: Native American Modern Dance Histories (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2007), 158. See also Martha Graham, Script for Appalachian Spring, c. July 10, 1943. Martha Graham Papers, Music Division, Library of Congress, Washington D.C., loc.gov/resource/ihas.200154133.0?st=gallery.
 Isamu Noguchi, “Statement for Fourteen Americans” (1946). Reprinted in Isamu Noguchi: Essays and Conversations, ed. Diane Apostolos-Cappadona and Bruce Altshuler (New York: Harry N. Abrams, 1994), 24.
 My discussion of Noguchi’s set is indebted to Caroline Levine’s recent discussion of form and its affordances, which she describes as form’s capacity to materially transform the world around it as it moves through time and space. See Caroline Levine, Forms: Whole, Rhythm, Hierarchy, Network (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2015), 6–11. For important recent considerations of the political efficacy of Levine’s method, see also “Theories and Methodologies: On Caroline Levine’s Forms: Whole, Rhythm, Hierarchy, Network,” PMLA 132, no. 5 (2017), especially Anahid Nersessian’s “What is the New Redistribution?” (1220–25).
 See André Lepecki, “The Body as Archive: Will to Re-Enact and the Afterlives of Dances,” Dance Research Journal 42, no. 2 (2010): 28–48. Thank you to Leon Hilton for suggesting this reference.
 Isamu Noguchi, “Collaborating with Martha Graham,” (1986). Reprinted in Isamu Noguchi: Essays and Conversations, 84–85.
 This particular aspect of Noguchi’s set received scant attention by scholars, likely due to Nathan Kroll’s now-iconic 1957 film version of Appalachian Spring, whose mobile cameras capture the ballet’s fluid dynamism but only pictures the set as a whole at the beginning and end. In contrast, the 16mm study film of the original 1944 production captures Noguchi’s setting in its entirety, revealing the extent to which the fence structures the space of the stage.
 The Coolidge Auditorium is located on the ground floor of the Library of Congress’s Thomas Jefferson Building, and contains 485 seats.
 Martha Graham, Script for Appalachian Spring, July 10, 1943, Library of Congress, Copland Collection 255/22/511.
 Edwin Denby, quoted in Deborah Jowitt, “The Critical Burden of History,” Dance Research Journal 32, no. 1 (2000): 131–137, 132.
 For more on the relationship between settler colonialism and Japanese internment, see Jodi A. Byrd, The Transit of Empire: Indigenous Critiques of Colonialism (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2011).
 Franklin D. Roosevelt, Executive Order 9066, February 19, 1942. Document available at archives.gov/historical-docs/todays-doc/?dod-date=219.
 As Noguchi wrote in a letter from Poston, “My reason for coming, apart from my sympathy and interest, was the recommendation of Mr. John Collier that I might contribute toward a rebirth of handicraft and the arts which the Niseis have so largely lost in the process of Americanization” (Isamu Noguchi, Letter to “Mr. Fryer,” July 28, 1942, Poston Documents, Noguchi Archives, Long Island City, New York). This summary is indebted to Amy Lyford’s remarkably detailed account in Isamu Noguchi’s Modernism, 113.
 This is perhaps best expressed in Noguchi’s remarkable 1942 essay “I Become a Nisei,” which remained unpublished until it was reproduced by Amy Lyford in Isamu Noguchi’s Modernism, 215–20. As he wrote, “But it was only after December 7, when I again found myself upon the shores of the Pacific, that I actively came to associate myself with the Nisei in any way.” (Isamu Noguchi, “I Become a Nisei,” 1942, Isamu Noguchi Archives, Long Island City, New York).
 While plans survive for these structures, neither was realized because of lack of materials.
 Isamu Noguchi, Letter to MR, May 30, 1942, Isamu Noguchi Archives, Long Island City, New York.
 See Hayden Herrera, Listening to Stone: The Art and Life of Isamu Noguchi (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2015), 213.
 Rosalind E. Krauss, Passages in Modern Sculpture (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1977), 114.
 Isamu Noguchi, A Sculptor’s World (New York: Harper & Row, 1968), 123.
 Robin Bernstein, “Dances with Things: Material Culture and the Performance of Race,” Social Text 24, no. 7 (2009): 67–94, 69.
 Reproduced in Delphine Hirasuna, The Art of Gaman: Arts and Crafts of the Japanese Internment Camps, 1942–1946 (Berkeley, CA: Ten Speed Press, 2005). For an excellent consideration of interment crafts, also see Jane E. Dusselier, Artifacts of Loss: Crafting Survival in Japanese American Concentration Camps (New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 2008).
 As Noguchi wrote of the set, “It is empty but full at the same time. It is like Shaker furniture” (quoted in Herrera, Listening to Stone, 213).
 The 1920s and 1930s saw a revival of interest in Shaker furniture as part of the period interest in folkloric collectivity and nationalism. While several books on Shaker furniture were published at this moment, none were found in Noguchi’s library at his death. My understanding of the relationship between Shaker spirituality and material culture is indebted to Sally M. Promey’s Spiritual Spectacles: Vision and Image in Mid-Nineteenth-Century Shakerism (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1993).
 Quoted in Edward Deming Andrews and Faith Andrews, Shaker Furniture: The Craftsmanship of an American Communal Sect (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1937), 22.
 See Emiko Tokunaga, Yuriko: An American Japanese Dancer: To Wash in the Rain and Polish with the Wind (New York: Tokunaga Dance Ko., 2008).
 Joseph Brackett, Jr., “Simple Gifts,” 1848.