Becoming Japanese to satisfy the American eye


The elegant and enigmatic new exhibition at the Mori Art Museum, “The End of Time,” is a retrospective on four decades of work by Hiroshi Sugimoto. One of Japan’s most internationally acclaimed artists, Sugimoto uses photography to condense events in celebrated time-exposure series such as “Seascapes” and “Theaters,” and explores the viewer’s perception and understanding of reality with series such as “Portraits” and “Diorama,” which take as their respective subjects Madame Tussaud’s lifelike wax mannequins and the wildlife mis-en-scene found at museums of natural history.

The Mori show features 100 works, mostly photographic, and is painstakingly well designed — installation elements include a full-sized Japanese cypress Noh theater stage (Sugimoto personally developed the look in collaboration with the museum over a period of two years). “End of Time” is the first major retrospective of his work and will move early next year to the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden at the Smithsonian Institute in Washington, D.C. and then to the Modern Art Museum in Fort Worth, Texas.

Several hours before the vernissage last Friday evening, a personable Sugimoto took the time to walk through the exhibition with me.

I was pleasantly surprised that your show opens with a new body of work. “Conceptual Forms” is a study of the plaster models made in the early 1900s by German physicists to illustrate mathematical equations. How were you drawn to these models?

Well, I am interested more in the physical form itself than in the mathematics behind them. The models are in the collection of Tokyo University, and when I encountered them I instantly recognized the models from work that [Marcel] Duchamp and Man Ray had done with them many years ago. It seemed like a challenge for me to start with the same material and try to come up with something better!

Did you achieve that?

[laughing] Well, that’s not for me to say, it’s your job as a critic to judge that!

I think you did just fine, your austere treatment suits the subject perfectly. But to be frank, one thing I’m less than pleased with here is the Ryoji Ikeda sound installation in your Seascapes room, with its loud, high-frequency whine.

My friend Ikeda wanted to join this exhibition and compose some sort of sound that would be appropriate to the Seascape photographs, which he loves. It is like a sharp pin through the brain, to create tension. It is at the edge of the frequency that people can hear so it is close to a “non-sound”. I think some people will like it and some will not, probably many people won’t hear it.

Well, I can hear it only too well and it’s very irritating, my teeth are aching and I seriously think I’m getting a headache! [We move on to the next room.] I want to go back to the beginning, please tell me about your first camera.

That was a Mamiya, a 2 1/4, big range finder. I got it when I was about 12 years old.

How soon was it before you knew that you were going to become a photographer?

I think when I was about 25. I had finished my education in Tokyo [economics at Rikkyo University] and Los Angeles [photography at the Art Center College of Design] and then I moved to New York and started knocking on the doors of commercial photographers, looking for work as an assistant. Finally I was hired, but from the start I always criticized my boss, and so I was instantly fired! At the same time, in the New York art scene I saw that no artists were seriously using photography, so I thought, why not try and use my photography as a tool for contemporary art exploration?

There have been many changes in photography since then, yet you have steadfastly continued to work with black and white film and silver gelatin prints.

Yes, materials that are endangered species! My favorite films, Tri-X and Plus-X, they still call them by the same name but they are actually totally different now, the base has been changed and the amount of silver has been cut bit by bit. I may not be able to continue working the way I have unless I buy out Kodak!

What is it you like best about this media?

The richness of the material. Silver is genuine and pure and precious. There are so many different colors in silver.

Your series seem to require involved and dedicated processes. I wonder, can you work on different series at the same time?

All my series are basically ongoing, but I have to preoccupy my mind completely prior to the actual shooting, so I focus on one series at a time. This summer I worked on only Seascapes for two or three months. With the Seascapes, I have to schedule my trip and find locations and so on up to a year in advance. And traveling by air has become a disaster — at the security checks, they don’t see 8×10 sheet film much, so many times they want to open or X-ray the boxes, and that’s the end of my shooting.

Your work is very formalized — do you ever just take snapshots for fun?

Yes, I do that, I take pictures of my children on vacation for example. Then I’m just a daddy. Recently, the magazine Brutus featured some pictures I took when I was a child. But I don’t think I would want to exhibit my current snapshots.

Western critics single out your work for a quiet, Zen-like quality that is seen as very “Japanese.”

That is my intention [laughs], that “Japanese-style” is my sales point!

But you spend about half your time in New York.

I will say that since I have lived in the United States, in a way I have become more Japanese, because I am always having to explain to Americans what “Japanese” is. But I am mixing the two influences together — one of my eyes is American and one of my eyes is Japanese. When I look through them both, sometimes things are out of focus!

What is next for Hiroshi Sugimoto?

Presently I am looking at acquiring a large area of land somewhere around Tokyo. Photography is not the point, what I would like to do is some sort of land art. I guess we won’t see the results for another 20-30 years, though.

Hiroshi Sugimoto’s “End of Time” runs till Jan. 9 at the Mori Art Museum; open 10 a.m.-10 p.m. daily, except Tuesdays; admission is 1,000 yen. For more information call (03) 6406-6100 or visit www.mori.art.museum

Monty DiPietro welcomes comments at newartseen@assemblylanguage.com