Bolt of Lightning... A Memorial to Benjamin Franklin and American Gods

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Isamu Noguchi, Bolt of Lightning... A Memorial to Benjamin Franklin, 1933-1979
“And the sky...

The sky was dark. It was lit, and the world beneath it was illuminated by a burning greenish-white streak, brighter than the sun, which forked crazily across the sky from end to end, like a white rip in the darkened sky.

It was lightning, Shadow realized. Lightning held in one frozen moment that stretched into forever. The light it cast was harsh and unforgiving: it washed out faces, hollowed eyes into dark pits.

This was the moment of the storm.” – Neil Gaiman, American Gods

Isamu Noguchi, born in America to a Japanese father, took the world of 20th century sculpture by storm. (Sorry - couldn’t resist.)

Noguchi worked in a wide variety of different mediums and formats, designing everything from stage sets to furniture. His modernist, abstract forms come in steel, marble, cast iron, basalt, bronze, water, and more, forming smooth and mysterious shapes. After the wartime atrocities and widespread persecution of Japanese-Americans during World War II, he became a political activist as well, founding a group named “Nisei Writers and Artists Mobilization for Democracy” to combat American prejudices. Noguchi’s sculptures can be found around the world, especially in America and Japan - in fact, Kansas City’s own Nelson-Atkins museum features the Noguchi Sculpture Court, the largest public collection of his works outside the Isamu Noguchi Foundation and Museum in New York and Japan.

Noguchi first proposed this sculpture in 1933 as a Philadelphia monument to Benjamin Franklin, specifically his experiments with the nature of electricity. The concept went ignored for decades until, in 1979, the original sketches and models were displayed as part of an exhibition of Noguchi’s past work. The Fairmount Park Art Association, intrigued by the proposal, commissioned a full-sized version of the sculpture, allowing Noguchi freedom to pick the site. The massive stainless steel bolt of lightning balances atop a stylized key, while a kitelike structure tops the other end. Four cables connect the lightning bolt to the ground, symbolizing a connection between the earth and the sky. Altogether, the structure weighs almost 60 tons and looms more than 100 feet tall.

American Gods, a novel by Neil Gaiman, draws its source material from myths and religions from all over the world. Settlers in the New World brought their beliefs with them, creating gods, demons, and spirits to populate their new surroundings, but America proved to be “a bad land for gods” and their powers waned over the years. New “gods” personifying the media, drugs, cancer, automobiles, and other elements of modern life have risen and are threatening the old. In this universe, roadside attractions are built through the same forces that inspired the construction of temples and holy sites in the Old World. Perhaps Noguchi’s monument is the same; a shrine to the discovery of electricity, a thunderbolt of discovery.

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