Hiroshi Sugimoto at the de Young, Part II

<this is a continuation of a previous post>

Sugimoto: Conceptual Forms
Mathematical Form: Surface 0002, 2004, Hiroshi Sugimoto

From photography’s earliest days there has been a lot of overlap between science and art, especially when images are removed from their original context. Images originally taken for scientific purposes can be aesthetically pleasing and images taken for artistic reasons can help describe the world in which we live. Between these two poles of photography, the descriptive and the expressive, there are myriad permutations. In Conceptual Forms Sugimoto is making images for artistic purposes, but the subjects are models of mathematical functions that originally served another purpose. In the Hirshhorn catalog he writes…

While not wholly subscribing to the post-Renaissance rational scientific view of the natural world, I do appreciate those eighteenth- and nineteenth-century optical devices and experimental implementations that gave visible form to unseen hypotheses … The mathematical models are sculptural renderings of trigonometric functions; the mechanical models were teaching aids for showing the dynamics of Industrial Revolution-age machinery. Art resides even in things with no artistic intentions.

At the de Young eight Conceptual Forms were shown on the front and back of four panels in a hall where the entire end wall was a mirror. Why the mirror? I liked the effect, but other than optically doubling the panels and length of the hall what was its purpose? Was it another reference to the camera? I don’t know. At the opposite end was Sugimoto’s sculpture Dini’s Surface, a repeating metallic spiral about eight feet tall.

Up until this point in the show the framing of the photos had been subdued, black frames for Dioramas and natural frames for Portraits, but with Conceptual Forms the frames were a silvery metal. Most likely a nod to the machined quality of the forms. There were a number of people who commented to me that they thought that the show felt over produced and that the framing of the images was one of the things that bothered them. The first time I walked through the show I took no notice of the framing (except when there was no frame) and even on later viewings it didn’t bother me.

One thing that did bother me a little was how the next (and last) room was set up. You entered the room looking at a wall with three images from Theaters, to the left was a little alcove with one image form Mechanical Forms and La Boite en Bois (The Wooden Box), and to the right a room with five images from Architecture. After the Architecture images there were four more Theater images as you exited the exhibition. To me, it seemed a bit disjointed, like they ran out of room.

That said, the Theaters series (along with Seascapes) are my favorite Sugimoto images both conceptually and visually. I find the idea of compressing an entire movie into a single frame and the resulting white screen blankness very compelling. It could be that, as with Seascapes, I feel a more personal connection with the subject matter, but I also like the formal qualities of the images. I also wonder if these two bodies of work are the ones Sugimoto himself feels closest. The seed for each was planted early in his life. For Theaters it was sitting in a dark theater as a high school student trying to capture an image of Audrey Hepburn with his Minolta SR7 and Seascapes from a train journey as a child.

My first view of the ocean came as an awakening. Of course I must have seen the ocean before, but this is my earliest and most vivid recollection of it. I spied it from a Tokaido Line train, the seascape passing from left to right. It must have been autumn, because the sky had such vast, eye-opening clarity. We were riding high on a cliff, and the sea flickered far below like frames of a motion picture, only to disappear suddenly behind the rocks. The horizon line where the azure sea met the brilliant sky was razor sharp, like a samurai sword’s blade. Captivated by this startling yet oddly familiar scene, I felt I was gazing on a primordial landscape. Perhaps it is strange that a child should have prelife memories, much less words to express them. The experience left an indelible mark on me.*

Sugimoto: Union City Drive-in, Union City, 1993
Union City Drive-in, Union City, 1993 Hiroshi Sugimoto

Thomas Kellein, in his essay in the book Hiroshi Sugimoto, Time Exposed has the following to say about Theaters:

The white rectangle in the Theaters obliterates the stream of images and captures in a blaze of light the whole time factor of moviegoing. Only thus, as the trace of an illumination, does the cinematic experience have duration for Sugimoto. Light assumes the place of a story, whatever its title, and of the arbitrary, constantly shifting positions of the camera. Not only are individual films transitory; the film medium itself, photography’s great rival, seems to have lost its capacity to survive.

Film has “lost its capacity to survive?” That seems a bit much, doesn’t it? I don’t know if he is writing from any special knowledge he has from Sugimoto, but that’s not what I get from these images. For me, the white square holds all the potential of a blank piece of paper. It can hold anything, be anything. I love that by capturing one movie, Sugimoto is talking about all movies. If anything has “lost its capacity to survive” it is the great old movie palaces and drive-ins that Sugimoto has photographed. In the age of the megaplex and Netflix I wonder how many of these theaters are still functioning as theaters? It’s not the medium of film that is changing, but how we experience it.

Finally, two thoughts. First it’s interesting that there weren’t any examples of Sugimoto’s Colors of Shadow, work from 2004 and 2005 that was included in the Hirshhorn show. Was it a space issue? And second, we’re not done with Sugimoto yet. Beginning on October 12th the Asian Art Museum will be showing Sugimoto’s History of History as well as Stylized Sculpture: Contemporary Japanese Fashion from the Kyoto Costume Institute.

* Hiroshi Sugimoto, Kerry Brougher and David Elliott

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *