Capturing light

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Hiroshi Sugimoto has made his name as a chronicler of time immemorial. His photography emerges from and lives in the interstices of personal and collective memory, as part of what he calls “the history of history”. His preoccupation with memory is perhaps linked with the formative experience of growing up in war-ravaged Tokyo. Sugimoto (born in 1948), like many Japanese artists of the immediate post-war generation, developed an ameliorative instinct to look back and reconstruct what had been lost. Sugimoto does not claim to be a historian or archivist systematically tracing a coherent narrative, but rather a polymath artist preoccupied with discovering, reassembling, and preserving selected fragments from the past. His narrative is disjunctive but not transgressive, and freely intermixes scientific, cultural and religious relics to create transfixing photography.

 Is it possible to bring history into focus, or is history too elusive?
In observing the passage of time, the observer’s perspective is the most important.

 Do you think our future can be sustained only if science and religion are reconciled?
Science, art, and religion all originate from the same seed. Perhaps it is time to go back to those origins.

 What happens when art and religion intersect?
Art used to serve religion. Art lost its patron. Now art is religion. Believers can be saved …

Sugimoto first caught the attention of the New York art scene in the seventies with Dioramas(1976) – black-and-white photographs of stuffed animals taken at the American Museum of Natural History. Two years later, Theaters, his hallucinatory photographs of local New York cinemas, earned him recognition as an emerging photographer of the postwar era. The theatre series was a result of Sugimoto asking himself: “Suppose you shoot a whole movie in a single frame?” Dressed as a tourist he walked into a cheap cinema in the East Village with a large-format camera.

“As soon as the movie started, I fixed the shutter at a wide-open aperture, and two hours later when the movie finished, I clicked the shutter closed. That evening, I developed the film, and the vision exploded behind my eyes.” The resulting images are uncannily painterly and surreal. This is Sugimoto’s revolution: transforming photography into a canvas. Appropriately, the Japanese Art Association awarded him the 2009 Praemium Imperiale Prize for the Painting category as recognition of how his images transcend normal expectations of the medium.

 After this recognition, what’s your next artistic revolution?
Revolution time is over now. I have always looked backwards; perhaps my next artistic endeavour will be cave painting.

Sugimoto is not merely a photographer with “a camera with its shutter open, quite passive, recording, not thinking” (to borrow a phrase from Christopher Isherwood’s I am a Camera revelation in Goodbye to Berlin) but an artist who manipulates the physical appearances of artefacts from the past into modern (and postmodern) art forms. Unfiltered light and pure darkness, and a spectrum of every possible monochromatic shade in between, suffuse his images – as if time and space have somehow been frozen in his photographs. In his new series, Lightning Fields (2009), Sugimoto uses a 400,000-volt Van de Graaff generator to apply an electrical charge directly onto his film to conjure up thrilling light play. These images appear as if Sugimoto had actually stood in a thunderstorm with his camera to capture lightning bolts exploding across a pitch-black sky – the effect is rapturous.

What did you find interesting about re-enacting old experiments in LightningFields?
When I began my experiments I was unaware that scientists had conducted similar ones in the late 1800s. These experiments may hold the key to matter,antimatter, and the creation of the universe.

Sugimoto has also been deeply influenced by the tradition of ritual copying in Japanese culture, or what he has described, in his now trademark rhetoric of repetition, as a“replica of a replica”. This is most evident inhis re-enactment of Marcel Duchamp’s ownreplica of The Bride Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors, Even (The Large Glass) sculpturein 2004. Sugimoto is a polyvalent artistwho often fuses painting, sculpture, andarchitecture into his philosophical projects.Even though he isn’t a trained architect, herecently designed the Izu Photo Museum in the foothills of Mount Fuji and established an architecture firm, called the New Material Research Laboratory.

For his AppropriateProportion (2002) installation on Naoshima Island, he re-constructed the mediaeval Go-Oh Shrine (a place of ancient Japanese Shinto worship). Trying his hand as an amateur scientist, in his Mathematical Models (2006), Sugimoto attempted to translate Newton’s equations into three-dimensional sculptures, and experimented with William Henry Fox Talbot’s 19th century photographic processes in Photogenic Drawing (2008).

Why did you shift towards architecture?
I am only an unlicensed artist. To proceed with my architectural projects I needed to establish a firm so that I could have a licensed staff at my disposal.

What’s old about your new architecture studio?
Traditional Japanese methods in architecture are quickly disappearing. The oldest of materials, stone, clay, fibre, are new again.

What did you discover about photography from William Talbot and your own experiments?
I discovered that Talbot was a great scientist, botanist, archaeologist, and philosopher. If Talbot had not invented photography and subsequently spent so much time protecting his invention from competitors, he could have achieved many other scientific innovations.

Informed by André Breton and Marcel Duchamp’s artistic response to the shocking speed of time and human progress, and Surrealist photography, Sugimoto has transformed clunky nineteenth-century machines and Duchampian ideas into disarmingly decorous sculptures (Conceptual Forms, 2004). He states that “art resides even in things with no artistic intentions.”

His famous Seascapes (1980) are abstract and minimal ‘paintings’ of seas around the world, rendered like greyscale Rothkos. The Seascapes series is Sugimoto’s tribute to a perennial world still untouched by progress. He confronts the seas to unearth their “mystery of mysteries”, and to commune with nature at its purest: where sea intersects sky. He calls this his “ancestral home”.

Do you think the relentless progress of man and technology is a danger to nature?
We are in the late stage of capitalism. Reproduction and mass consumerism are expanding at unprecedented rates and there is no way to control human desire. But at least I can preserve the image of the sea before it is gone.

Over the last four decades, Sugimoto has received critical encomium for his determination to bring intellectual content and historical meditation into photography. Somewhat ironically, by bypassing new trends and relying solely on traditional techniques, Sugimoto has been able to produce revelatory photography that keeps him ahead of the scrum of experimental artists of recent years. Sugimoto is more concerned with concepts that can withstand the test of time, like his Sea of Buddhas (1995), which captured the mesmerisingly repetitive imagery of the thousand Bodhisattvas which still stand, eight-hundred years after their creation, in the ancient Kyoto Hall of Thirty-Three Bays.

The art scene Sugimoto knew in New York was dominated by minimal and conceptual art and experiments in visualising abstract concepts. It occurred to him that similar motives inspired the making of art in twelfthcentury Japan when they conceptualised the afterlife. After seven years of red tape, Sugimoto was finally granted permission to photograph in the Japanese temple of Sanjusangendo, Hall of Thirty-Three Bays. Having all the late-mediaeval and early modern embellishments removed, as well as having the contemporary fluorescent lighting turned off, Sugimoto recreated “the splendour of the thousand Bodhisattvas glistening in the light of the morning sun rising over the Higashiyama hills as the Kyoto aristocracy might have seen in the Heian period.” Sugimoto asks a contemplative question; “Will today’s conceptual art survive another 800 years?”

by Peter Yeoh

Taken from the Glass archive – Issue Two – Rapture

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