Hiroshi Sugimoto at the de Young, Part I

I’m sure there have been plenty of opinions voiced concerning the Hiroshi Sugimoto show that recently closed at the de Young museum. In fact, it was some of those opinions that made me want to take a closer look at the exhibition as a whole, rather than making this post just about what I liked or didn’t like about it. I have to say though that, on the whole, I found it quite impressive.


The image that opens the show is The Music Lesson, a photograph of Madame Tussauds’ recreation of Vermeer’s A Lady at the Virginal with a Gentleman (The Music Lesson). It is an interesting choice for an opening image because it is the only color image in the show. Is it meant to show Sugimoto’s presence (his tripod is visible in the mirror)?

Sugimoto: The Music Lesson
The Music Lesson, Hiroshi Sugimoto

Kerry Brougher in an essay from the catalog for the Hirshhorn show (which shared a lot of the same work) suggests another reason, that Sugimoto is suggesting with this image that the entire exhibition space is “an extension of the camera obscura,” a dark space onto which images of the outside world are projected. The metaphor of the camera is one of the consistent themes of Sugimoto’s work along with time and the internal vision of the artist.

Sugimoto: Earliest Human Relatives
Earliest Human Relatives 1994, Hiroshi Sugimoto

The first room of the exhibit holds work from Sugimoto’s Diorama series. Here the monocular vision of the camera compresses the scene into a more realistic image. Included were Earliest Human Relatives, 1994 and Neanderthal, 1994 in which Sugimoto shows us what it might have been like to photograph pre-history.

The theme of photography in pre-photographic times continues in the next room with Sugimoto’s portraits of Henry VIII and his wives. Again he is working with wax figures which only really becomes evident when you examine the joints between the fingers and other such minute details. But, for all its polish, Sugimoto’s work isn’t just about cool conceptualism. In a wry commentary on the issue of royal succession, he places a lone portrait of Hirohito, the deceased emperor of Japan, on the wall opposite Henry and his many wives. The issue being that until last year there was no male heir to the throne causing many to speculate whether the laws would have to be changed to allow for the current emperor’s daughter to take the throne.

Is there a way to show this idea of pre-history by photographing something other than dioramas and wax figures?

Sugimoto: Baltic Sea, Rügen
Baltic Sea, Rügen, 1996, Hiroshi Sugimoto

As you approach the darkened room you can see one glowing seascape, no frame, illuminated by a square of light just the size of the photograph. The lighting is a reminder that the whole exhibition makes reference to different aspects of the camera. Once in the room you see nine more on the slightly concave wall that stretches down the long hall. The overall feeling is one of a point of land stretching out into a bay. The curved wall was apparently an artifact of the Hirshhorn exhibit where Sugimoto was faced with curved gallery walls and ended up liking the effect. Sugimoto began photographing this series as another way to show a kind of pre-history, but he also had a very specific point in mind. In a podcast from the Hirshhorn show (here) he says it is the point where people gained consciousness and language and began naming things. He would choose which sea to photograph based on whether or not he found the name interesting. My immediate thought was, which name? Their English name? Japanese name? Which made me think, are the projects conceptualized in Japanese? Are there Japanese titles to the work that differ in some way from the English titles, like some movie titles?

Sugimoto: Sea of Buddha
Sea of Buddha, 1995, Hiroshi Sugimoto

The first part of the show also included Pine Trees, Sugimoto’s riff on traditional Japanese screen painting, and Sea of Buddha, an image of the 1001 statues at Sanjusangendo (a temple in Kyoto). Pine Trees is the inverse of his Seascapes series. Rather than finding something unchanging like the sea, Sugimoto had to track down something that is vanishing. He searched all over Japan for these prototypical Japanese pines and found them only on the grounds of the Imperial Palace, a place largely untouched by the development of the rest of Japan. Sea of Buddha is a result of Sugimoto’s desire to show the statues as they were meant to be seen during the Heian Period (794-1185). Or at least how he imagined they were meant to be seen. Another example of the representation on the artist’s inner vision. Sugimoto isn’t showing us the world in a different way, he is showing us his internal vision and using the world as his materials.

<to be continued>

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