Photography Review | Hiroshi Sugimoto
A World Where Life Can Seem to Imitate an Imitation
By HOLLAND COTTER
Washington — Hiroshi Sugimoto, the celebrated Japanese-born photographer, designed the installation for his own retrospective at the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden here, and it is inspired. The first half of the show is light, cool and stylishly sparse. The second half seems dusky and cushioned, as if it were set in a temple or a spacecraft, with pictures shining like windows in the dark.
After seeing the show, I dug up some old snapshots and spread them out on my desk at home. They are pictures I took some years ago of the imperial Shinto shrine at Ise in Japan.
Architecturally, the main shrine is all exterior; everyday visitors can't go inside. And that exterior is plain, almost blank. It didn't feel to me like a setting for ardent religious emotion. It felt like a swept-clean place to think about the world as it is, with its storms, and pets, and lunatic history. Yet a potent object is hidden inside: a mirror. It is the emblem of the sun goddess, whose shrine this is: a polished surface reflecting light. You cannot see it, but the idea of it is enough. It fires your imagination; it makes Ise a power-place in your mind.
The Hirshhorn show reminded me of all of this. After I saw it, light, time, paradox and Japan were on my mind. Mr. Sugimoto was born in Tokyo in 1948, but he has spent most of his life in the United States. He came to America in the early 1970's, right out of college, studied art for a while in California, then settled in New York City, where he lives.
In the United States, he supported himself as a dealer in ancient and medieval Japanese art, and he developed an abiding interest in Zen Buddhism. He looked at the new art around him, particularly at Minimalism and Conceptualism, and began making art of his own. The Washington exhibition, organized by Kerry Brougher, director of art at the Hirshhorn, and David Elliott, director of the Mori Art Museum in Tokyo, begins with early photographs, from 1976.
They're startling. In one, a polar bear stands on a snow field, eyeing a dead seal. In another, hyenas and vultures on an African plain tear into the carcass of an antelope, very "Wild Kingdom." But, in fact, these pictures aren't shot from nature. They are of dioramas in the American Museum of Natural History in Manhattan, but with all traces of their museum setting left out.
Right away we learn something about Mr. Sugimoto's art. It is often witty, and it is always theatrical. And, like most theater, it is highly stylized. Artificiality is its reality. Paradox and indirection are its forms of truth-telling. The diorama photos fit that description, as do the pictures in the "Portraits" series (1999).
All the sitters in the series are celebrities, but most are dead celebrities — Napoleon, Lenin, Henry VIII — so these can't be called portraits from life. Or can they? They may not be accurate depictions of the people themselves, but they are accurate depictions of depictions of those people, namely the sculptural portraits found in Madame Tussaud's wax museums.
Part of the fun of these pictures is seeing artificialities pile up: Mr. Sugimoto's portrait of Henry VIII is a portrait of a Tussaud wax portrait, which is based on a painted portrait by Holbein. Also fun is the way the photographer treats historical pooh-bahs as found objects, Duchampian ready-mades. Reproductions of them are as good as the originals — better even, because they exist, while the pooh-bahs have turned to dust.
He also uses photography to give new readings of icons. His "Architecture" pictures (1997-2002) are portraits of Modernist monuments, from Le Corbusier's Chapel of Notre Dame du Haut to the Chrysler Building. The aggressive tradition they belong to is identified with clarity and permanence, but Mr. Sugimoto presents the buildings in a muzzy soft-focus. They look at once evanescent and veiled, as if they had secrets to hide.
It is this kind of conceptual play that gives the first half of the show its air of wry, deadpan wit. But that mood changes. In 1975, the artist started photographing the interiors of old American movie theaters, picture palaces. The results are engaging as documents of vanishing artifacts. But they also ask questions about the relationship of photography and time.
For each picture, Mr. Sumitomo pointed his camera at the screen and left the shutter open for the length of whatever movie was playing. The camera recorded the film not in readable images, but as soft white glow that seems to emanate from the screen. Time's passage is distilled to a radiant abstraction.
It is possible to see the influence of Minimalism — Donald Judd boxes filled with light — or of Conceptualism's interest in immateriality and change. But at least as important is the influence of Buddhism, which in Japan has close links to Shinto.
For the series titled "Sea of Buddha" (1995), Mr. Sugimoto photographed the hundreds of near-identical Buddhist sculptures of Kannon, the goddess of mercy, which fill the temple named Sanjusangen-do in Kyoto. He shot the sculptures as they appear in the temple, arranged in massed rows, like a choir. At the Hirshhorn he displays the pictures as a long horizontal scroll of edge-to-edge prints stretching down a dark, tunnel-like space. The visual effect, of perfection in sameness, is both calming and stimulating, like a chant.
This installation leads to the show's largest gallery, also dark, devoted to Mr. Sugimoto's "Seascapes" (1980-92). A dozen of these reductive pictures of water and sky, shot at different places around the world, from the South Pacific to the Baltic Sea, line a single curving wall. Composed of paired horizontal bands of equal width, they look from a distance like abstract paintings, or windows onto lunar landscapes, but up close reveal the amazingly varied textures of the oceans' surfaces.
What's most striking, though, is the symphonic whole Mr. Sugimoto has created from these pictures. On the far right he has hung one in which the bands of sea and sky are emphatically contrasted. Then, in each succeeding picture moving leftward, the contrasts decrease; the horizon line blurs until land and sea dissolve into an explosion of light, like the sun flashing off a mirror.
Apparently, the Mori Art Museum version of the show pushed the contemplative aspects of Mr. Sugimoto's art even further by including documentary pictures of a Shinto shrine that he designed and built, on commission, in Japan in 2002. His shrine replaced one that had fallen into disrepair. Its design acknowledges the Ise model but is even more abstract. It adds something entirely original: a staircase made of melted optical glass, a material used to make camera lenses.