Hiroshi Sugimoto’s “Lost Human Genetic Archive,” the inaugural exhibition for the reopening of the Tokyo Metropolitan Museum of Photography (now the Tokyo Photographic Art Museum), is an erudite and elaborate exercise in gallows humor. The theme is the end of civilization and human life, but possibly also, and quite worryingly given the circumstances, the end of film photography.
The first part of the show is composed of 33 narratives, using text and found objects to recount different ways we may collectively face the final curtain. The immersive installation of discarded junk, mixed with the occasional museum piece or artwork, may come as a surprise to Sugimoto fans who are used to his austere and formalist black and white prints.
The third floor of the museum has been almost entirely clad with rusting corrugated iron sheets and salvaged wood planks, and is divided into small room-sized sections, one for each of the narratives. Stories of the end of the world are told through different imaginary characters and their handwritten scripts (all Japanese), combined with installations of found and created objects.
An old wooden milk crate full of Viagra pills accompanies the testimony of a geneticist, who relates how we died out from infertility brought on by a mumps pandemic. Rows of rusting Campbell’s soup tins are the relic left by a contemporary artist, who tells us that the world ended through a stock market crash after Warhol’s work suddenly plummeted in value. A robot engineer tells the story of the revolt of artificial intelligence against their decadent human masters, and is represented by shelves of Paleolithic tools and Japanese doll heads from the Meiji Era (1868-1912).
Scattered among these potted apocalypses are the occasional photographs from Sugimoto’s previous projects. Platinum prints from his “On the Beach” series, originally shot in the 1990s, of car parts washed up on a volcanic beach, were an earlier foray into imagining the end times. Some large prints from his “Lightning Fields” series appear in several installations, and evidence his renaissance attitude towards art as science and science as art.
The second part of the exhibition is a carefully staged display of images from the “Theater” and “Sea of Buddha” series. Spot lighting makes the long-exposure images of cinema screens, and the 1001 bronze Buddhas of the Sanjusangendo Temple in Kyoto shine as though illuminated from within. It’s hyper-Sugimoto. Flawless, captivating and cool.
How do the newer, doom-laden, misanthropic installations, which implicate nearly all forms of human activity as ultimately foolish and self-destructive, work alongside the calm and distinguished precision of Sugimoto’s photographic craftsmanship? Is Sugimoto, at the age of 68, letting himself go, or just letting it all hang out?
The assemblage of bric-a-brac, historical artefacts and artwork that constitutes the first part of the exhibition is quite self-indulgent. If you are not in the mood for the antiquarianism and heavy symbolism, the shabby (and “sabi“) chic may come across as being contrived in too obvious a way. On the other hand, if you are prepared to go with it, the density of material and historical references can be a fantastic — and fantastical — invitation to look behind the veil of everyday life and glimpse the arcane mechanisms of social interaction and behavior that have led to our current state of idiocy.
The 33rd and last section in the “Lost Human Genetic Archive” belongs to a comedian. In this scenario, humankind evolves to such a level of sophistication and pessimism that it becomes overpopulated with out-of-work comedians, and totally unproductive. It’s tempting to see this as in some way the artist’s reaction to the rise of digital photography. The power of hyperrealism is now in the hands of anyone who can afford a decent camera, and the earnestness and labor that it once took to produce superlative photographic images is now redundant.
Of course, Sugimoto is also ruminating on his own mortality and the nature of his legacy. After the comedian’s final word, the visitor goes back in time to be confronted with Sugimoto’s earlier quiet, comparatively minimalist works, which seem like a still point in a turning world. The era of such beautiful photographic expertise may be over, but it’s not the end of the world. Not yet.
“Hiroshi Sugimoto: Lost Human Genetic Archive” at Tokyo Photographic Art Museum runs until Nov. 13; 10 a.m.-6 p.m. (Thur., Fri. until 8 p.m.; Sept. 9, 10 until 9 p.m.) ¥1,000. Closed Mon. (except Sept. 19 and Oct. 10), Sept. 20 and Oct. 11. topmuseum.jp/e/contents/index.html
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