Through his photographs, hiroshi sugimoto, one of Japan’s most important contemporary artists, obscures and alters reality, blurring the boundaries between truth and illusion.
Following in the footsteps of artists such as Takashi Murakami, Jeff koons, Bernar Venet and anish kapoor who’ve held showcases at Chateau de Versailles, hiroshi exhibited his works there in a four-month-long solo show that ended recently in april.
He’s best known for his mysterious and highly technical black-andwhite images fashioned through a combination of 19th-century large-format camera, signature long exposure and 20cm x 25cm negatives. Throughout his career, the Japanese artist – who splits his time between tokyo and new York – has been striving to make visible the notion of eternity through his art.
A Moment In Time
Hiroshi, who combines an Eastern way of thinking with Western cultural motifs, views photography as a medium for exploring the permanence behind the transient nature of all things. There’s almost a meditative quality to his art, even as he’s influenced by Surrealism and Dadaism, especially Marcel Duchamp. He believes that the subject of photography is like a found object, and a photographer never makes an actual object, but just “steals” images from the world.
He views his work as a method for preserving time and memories. “That’s the character of the medium of photography – it can deal with time,” he notes. “It is a medium for recording time and history, a quality I use in my work. For me, photography is a kind of time machine. I can travel back in history and confront it with the future. I can almost bring back the dead to our world. That’s the magic of photography.”
Housed in the permanent collections of the Metropolitan Museum of Art and Museum of Modern Art in New York, the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C., the Centre Pompidou in Paris and the Tate in London, Hiroshi’s realistic images of intangible or impossible phenomena have defied the notion of photography as an “objective” art form.
Blurring distinctions between the real and the fictive, his life-sized portraits of figures from wax museums look as if the subjects had actually sat for the photographer.
“Madame Tussaud haunted me, so I accepted her offer,” he jokes. “I instantly decided to have a ghost party here at Versailles. I transformed it into a huge stage for Noh, the 15thcentury tradition of Japanese theatre. Through my photos, all those people who’d been here – Princess Diana, Elizabeth II, Louis XIV, Charles I, the Duke of Wellington, Queen Victoria, Fidel Castro, Salvador Dali, Emperor Hirohito, Benjamin Franklin, Napoleon Bonaparte and Voltaire – are invited back as spirits.”
Examining the concept of time in his Theatres series, he went to movie theatres and drive-ins, in order to take photos with exposure that lasted the duration of the film being screened – so that all that materialised was a glowing rectangular screen at the centre and the immediate architectural details.
In his own way, he “exposes” time – he makes reference to the length of exposure that could sometimes be an hour and a half or more, during which images are slowly burned onto film.
Bordering on the abstract, his Mark Rothko-like Seascapes project is a meditation on time explored through repetition and constancy. He captures images of oceans and sky that have no trace of humanity in numerous locations around the world, with the horizon cutting across the composition – inviting the question whether a bystander would have viewed the scene the same way primitive humans did.
From Business To Art
The child of a couple who worked in the pharmaceutical industry, Hiroshi, 71, who was born and raised in Tokyo, moved to Los Angeles in 1970 at the age of 22, before settling in New York four years later.
“I come from a very business-oriented family, but my mother practised Japanese dance and my father, traditional Japanese storytelling,” he recalls.
“After the student movement in the late ’60s, many young people left Japan to see the wider world – I was one of them. I didn’t have a long-term plan; I just wanted to see the world as a backpacker. I ended up in California.
“I needed a visa, and being a student was the easiest way. I was already a good photographer, so I applied to art school, to the photography department. That’s how it started.”
Since then, his work has expanded to span the mediums of performing arts, sculpture, installation and architecture.
“It’s all related to my vision; it’s very natural,” he explains. “I combine several fields, several forms of knowledge: curating, live performance, writing, architecture. I orchestrate everything to remain in a cycle in perpetual motion.”
After receiving requests to design structures from restaurants to art museums, Hiroshi founded his own architectural practice in 2008.
He collects fossils, and holds the belief that the existence of humanity since the beginning of time has a shared universal consciousness – which has influenced his decision to incorporate ancient building materials in his architecture.
“Wood, stone and glass: these are materials which have been used since the birth of civilisation,” he says. “But even with civilisation at its present state, these old materials retain an inexplicable allure far surpassing any modern ones.
“Using the most ancient materials is, I believe, the most innovative approach to materials one can take. It was in honour of this paradox that I named my architectural practice the New Material Research Laboratory.”
These days, you’ll find him spending more time in Tokyo due to his most ambitious architectural undertaking to date: the Odawara Art Foundation’s Enoura Observatory, which aims to be an artistic destination.
Opened in 2017, the complex dedicated to promoting Japanese performing arts and culture – comprising exhibition spaces, Noh stages, a teahouse and offices – is the culmination of his career. Hiroshi was deeply involved with the entire project, from conceiving the look of the spaces to the project’s completion.
He states: “I commissioned the Enoura Observatory with the idea of creating a museum-like setting for my art to be shown under the best conditions. I never expected that my art would be sold at such high prices in the past, so now I want to invest in a space where I can show my new works properly for the years to come.”
When asked how his work has evolved over the past four decades, Hiroshi replies playfully: “It’s just a continuation of my activities in various things. I don’t know whether it’s getting better or worse, but it’s getting to be known, that’s for sure.”
His take on the role of the artist is this: “Do whatever you want to do and then it will be filtered by society. There are no good artists or bad artists. Art is related to the origins of the human species and consciousness, so art activity has no purpose but, these days, people become artists because of commercial success. Artists used to be motivated just by their deep minds but, in this century, art has become commercialised. That’s a sign of the end of the world.”
It is precisely the knowledge that the world as we know it will someday end that inspires Hiroshi, as the uncertainty of the future encourages him to continue his art, in which he makes linkages with the earliest humanity.
1. Hiroshi Sugimoto’s shots, taken in 1999, of the wax figures of Elizabeth II and Diana, Princess of Wales, on display at Chateau de Versailles.
2. Portrait shot of the wax figure of Charles I, taken in 1999.
3. Hiroshi Sugimoto, the feted Japanese artist.
PHOTO SUGIMOTO STUDIO
4. The Glass Teahouse Mondrian is a pop-up pavilion by Hiroshi which combines wood and glass.
5. Portrait of Emperor Hirohito, by Hiroshi Sugimoto.
6. Hiroshi’s works on show at the Marian Goodman Gallery in London.
PHOTO THIERRY BAL
7. Hiroshi on the terrace of the Enoura Observatory in Odawara, Japan, which he designed.
8. One of Hiroshi’s sculptural pieces at the Marian Goodman Gallery in Paris.
text Y-JEAN MUN-DELSALLE