What lies behind our love of clothes?

by C.B. Liddell

Special To The Japan Times

There’s something counter-intuitive about photographic artist Hiroshi Sugimoto. While most artists are happy to achieve a distinctive style and enjoy the rewards that this brings, Sugimoto is forever reinventing the wheel by developing, then abandoning, one style after another.

“I’m always trying to come up with some kind of idea, but if I feel I’ve done it, then I feel it’s completed,” he tells The Japan Times during a visit to his Tokyo atelier to discuss his latest exhibition at the Hara Museum of Art.

“My curiosity spreads to many, many fields. Some ideas hatch, but I try not to get bored,” he says. “Once I get a signature style, I just stop and change the signature.”

While such changes of style would be a disadvantage for a lesser artist, in Sugimoto’s case they serve the fortuitous function of giving his career a convenient, compartmentalized structure that also makes it more marketable.

Entering his oeuvre is like entering a large mansion, with each room furnished in a markedly different style — whether it is the soft focus of the “Architecture” series, forcing us to pay attention to the essential structures of the modernist buildings photographed, or the mind-bending innovation of the “Lightning Fields” series, when he photographed electric shocks without even using a lens.

This ability to artistically reinvent himself means that you never quite know what to expect from Sugimoto, except that each of his shows will have a clear identity. The show at the Hara is yet another example of this. Titled “Hiroshi Sugimoto: From Naked to Clothed,” it mainly features a series of images of historical dioramas and famous designer’s fashions modeled by mannequins.

The show originated in Sugimoto’s interest in modernism.

“I’m very interested in the modernism movement,” he says. “I once covered it by surveying the architectural history of modernism, so why not just follow it in fashion? It’s all interrelated.”

Once he did start looking into fashion, however, he found it took him to some unexpected places, including mankind’s prehistoric past.

“My intention was to cover modernism in fashion from the 1920s, using the costumes of the Kyoto Costume Institute. But that collection also has garments from the 18th century, so it became a fashion-history survey,” he explains. “I then expanded my idea to include all human history, exploring how we dressed from the very beginning — from the ape to the half ape, to the human.”

This led him to incorporate photographs taken almost 20 years ago of historical or prehistorical dioramas, such as those on display at the American Museum of Natural History in New York, the Californian Wax Museum, and Madame Tussauds of London.

In contrast to some of his earlier photographic series, which veer toward minimalism, aesthetic essence and abstraction, the photos featured in this exhibition are replete with detail and information. This is inevitable considering that the subject matter is from museums whose role is to impart knowledge. But it also creates two distinct problems: First, the informational interest of the images threatens to outweigh the stylistic elements; and second, because the objects photographed come from different museums and represent widely different eras and subject matter, there is a danger of the exhibition lacking aesthetic unity.

Sugimoto gets round this by shooting in low-key monochrome and emphasizing background shadow to create a gentle but insistent chiaroscuro effect that creates an elegiac mood.

Another unifying factor is that the images are tied together by his informative but also ironic narrative, presented in the information plates. He compares his approach, which blends together pictures and words, to the traditional Japanese kamishibai, a simple picture show used by itinerant storytellers that was a popular form of entertainment before the advent of television.

“I want to make it fun to look at and fun to read, so that people’s attention can be drawn from one photo to the other,” he comments.

With the exhibition ranging through prehistory and including images related to our ancient ancestors, such as “Lucy” a hominid from around 3.2 million years ago, and depictions of Neanderthals and Cro-Magnon Man, Sugimoto speculates on the origins of clothing and how it impacted on human physiology and psychology. He believes that when humans started to wear animal skins, it had important effects.

“You could control your temperature according to whether you wore a fur on or not,” he explains. “One significant thing about human nature is that we are always in heat, and can have sex at any time and in any season. I think this is related to the control of our body temperature by clothing. This is the origin of eroticism. It’s related to how we dress and the signals we send each other.”

The fact that humans are always “in heat,” combined with the production and consumerist power of modernism, also explains the ever-changing face of fashion, according to Sugimoto. With no off-season for our sexual desires, change is always necessary to keep clothing fresh and alluring, leading to fashion cycles that usually last for about 10 years. But he also wonders whether fashion is finally losing its grip on the younger generation.

“Young people are changing,” he admits. “They don’t expect the fantasy or the symbolism of high fashion. Five or 10 years ago, they used to buy Louis Vuitton bags, but now it’s changed and they don’t pay attention to high-end brands any more.”

This mood of requiem is one more thing that unites the diverse elements of this exhibition, a sense that fashion itself has become something of a museum piece.

“Hiroshi Sugimoto: From Naked to Clothed” at the Hara Museum of Contemporary Art runs till July 1; open 11 a.m.-5 p.m. (Wed. still 8 p.m.). ¥1,000. Closed Mon. www.haramuseum.or.jp.