I’m standing on the top tier of a Romanesque outdoor theater, which is perched on a cliff overlooking Sagami Bay, waiting for the man who designed it to emerge.
Hiroshi Sugimoto apparently has gone walkabout but, just seconds after his assistant scuttles off to find him, the artist suddenly appears, not exactly stage left, but from a partially concealed staircase, smile beaming out of his bronzed face like a mischievous schoolboy who’s just given his teacher the runaround.
“It’s dangerous work,” he starts, ostensibly to explain his appearance — Wellington boots, faded and slightly muddied jeans tucked inside, white polo shirt tucked inside those and hands resting atop a sharp-looking metal-tipped cane. “I’ve been onsite every day and I’ve slipped, fallen and burned myself. … But it was fun. I started planning this place 20 years ago. We got there eventually.”
The open-air theater is part of the Sugimoto-inspired Enoura Observatory, an art complex that occupies a 10-acre (40,000-square-meter) tract of land, formerly a disused citrus grove, on a secluded bluff in the city of Odawara, Kanagawa Prefecture.
It incorporates a further three outdoor stages as well as a 100-meter-long art gallery that juts out from the hillside, thrusting toward the ocean; a rusting chamber that starts underground and exits at a sheer, though shallow, drop; and a Japanese tea room whose entranceway is marked by a torii gate constructed from a pleasingly jumbled assortment of ancient boulders.
The grounds are also littered with centuries-old Buddhist temple lanterns and gateways and other gigantic rocks, some arranged in a Stonehenge-type circle, that are part of Sugimoto’s private collection of relics of yore. Within the next 12 months, he plans to add another building to house his extensive hoard of fossils.
Before our meeting, one of Sugimoto’s assistants joked that the observatory was a storage site for the artist’s insatiable appetite for cultural and historic artifacts — an interest that began more than 40 years ago when he moved to New York and opened an antique shop to support the artistic discipline upon which he has since built his career: photography.
A self-confessed humorist and “natural punster” (“Wordplay might even be the fountainhead of my creativity, though I’ve never admitted it to any art critic,” he once wrote), Sugimoto chuckles at this suggestion. “Enoura is my own institute — I don’t have anyone else to answer to,” he says. “So I have 100 percent free license, although budget-wise it certainly wasn’t 100 percent free.”
Roaming the grounds, that creative freedom is evident in every corner. It allowed him to create the unique 100-meter gallery, whose length, normally associated with speed rather than leisurely, meditative perusal, is another example of his untiring humor.
It also enabled him to create spaces to show another of his passions: theater. In 2011, he directed a full-length version of the bunraku puppet play “Sonezaki Shinju” (“The Love Suicides at Sonezaki”), which went on to tour worldwide to universal acclaim.
Indeed, within the complex, it is the open-air theater — based, he says, on an actual Roman theater — from which he gains the most satisfaction. Despite a stiff early autumn breeze and a spattering of rain, it’s also the place he chooses for our interview.
“This, right here, is the most pleasing place for me, here looking out over the ocean,” says Sugimoto, 69, who was born and raised in Tokyo.
“It’s rare these days to get such uninterrupted vistas. I never tire of it,” he adds, getting to his feet to get a better look. “The light, the colors … it changes every day … every minute.”
The view holds a special place in Sugimoto’s heart as it was the same panorama that greeted him the very first time he remembers seeing the ocean. In fact, it was the first memory he has, period. He was 4 years old and traveling aboard the Tokaido railway line on a trip with his parents, when, peering out of a window, the shimmering waters of Sagami Bay suddenly came into view.
“This is the first memory I have from childhood, from a spot just down there,” he says, pointing to an area just below the observatory grounds where the Tokaido Line ran at the time. “This was the beginning of my own consciousness, the starting point of my mind. It was the first time I wondered about who I am, a question I am still asking myself. Somehow, I was guided back here.”
Returning to the first moment of consciousness, to humanity’s primordial state, has long informed Sugimoto’s art, not least of all his seminal work, which — perhaps unsurprisingly — depicts unfettered views of the globe’s oceans, from the Tyrrhenian and Boden seas to the Bass Strait and South Pacific.
The “Seascapes” series of mesmerizing monochromatic photographs, begun in 1980 and popularized on the sleeve of Irish band U2’s album “No Line on the Horizon,” came about “during one of my internal question-and-answer sessions” when Sugimoto contemplated whether there was any extant scene that could still be viewed just as primitive man would have seen it. The sea, he concluded, with its ever-present infinity line was the only “immutable” that remained and the start point of a two-decade journey “back through time to the ancient seas of the world.”
From that moment on, Sugimoto’s art became conceptual examinations of the passing of time and how it has influenced human consciousness. In another celebrated photographic series, Sugimoto visited dozens of old movie theaters, where he would set up his large format camera and leave the shutter open for the duration of the film.
The resulting images of overexposed, radiating movie screens illuminating ornate, empty-seated cinema interiors — relics long lost to time — encapsulated in one frame a two-hour period that is normally beyond human perception. The camera, a tool we normally associate with recording flitting fragments of time, was greedily gobbling up long swaths of our consciousness.
“There’s no specific time in my photography. I’m not a time hunter,” Sugimoto told me in a previous interview in 2010. “The world cannot be represented as any particular moment in time. It’s fluid, free-flowing, hard to grab at one point.”
Only humans have a sense of time, or one that is so inextricably linked to a memory system, he says.
“Our ability to recognize that something happened at this particular time and these other things happened as a result marks the beginning of human culture,” he says. “And because of this understanding, this sense of time we were able to cultivate our own cultural systems, our language systems and art itself.
“Right from the start, I thought there might be some way to represent this special human sense of time to be represented as art, but through a machine — a camera. So I saw it as a new way of using the photographic medium, to be part of a representative art form. This was my plan for my life’s work from the moment I arrived in New York in 1974.”
Through that medium he has also challenged these culturally innate views of time and reality, with two series depicting beautifully lit images of seemingly real scenes and people, among them a polar bear slaughtering its prey, Neanderthal men hunting and historical figures such as Henry VIII and Napoleon, all shot employing slow, painstaking 19th-century photographic methods seemingly ill-suited to the subject matter at hand. The images turned out, predictably but still somehow shockingly, to be museum dioramas and Madame Tussauds waxworks, images that the artist calls “as good as real” but intentionally deceptive.
“Photography is never anything more than a copy of reality,” Sugimoto says, a broad smile breaking across his face as he adds that often it’s just a “‘faking up’ — the original fake news.”
“But photography,” he continues now seriously, “also trained me in the art of time travel. The camera is my time machine.”
It seems only natural, then, that it is a device that has been at his side throughout much of his life, playing a pivotal role in other childhood “awakenings” that have influenced more than just the “Seascapes” series.
Sugimoto recalls as a 15-year-old going to a cinema in Shibuya to see “Roman Holiday,” armed not with popcorn and soda like other teenagers, but a recently released and much-hyped Minolta SR-7 camera that his newfangled gadget-loving father had bought, but never used. The younger Sugimoto, however, had decided on an important deployment for it — to take photos of the cinema screen and his new-found obsession, Audrey Hepburn.
He remembers seeing this as “an experiment” — he had recently joined his school’s photography club, but had no idea how to photograph a moving picture, which he eventually achieved by using highly light-sensitive film and a lens well suited to low-light shooting. Much later, in his “Theaters” series, he would find an altogether different solution to this conundrum, though one that ignored the stars of screen — or any other detail of a moving picture for that matter — in favor of something far more illusive.
Still earlier, his science teacher showed him and his classmates what happened when cutlery was placed on top of photosensitized paper and placed out in the sun — a process he refined in his 2006 series “Lightning Fields” when he did away with his camera and exposed huge photographic plates using 19th-century electric generators of the kind developed by British scientist Michael Faraday — the man credited with discovering electromagnetic induction. (This process, he says, was a reaction to heightened airport security following the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks in New York in 2001. The film he used was sealed in special X-ray proof boxes and far too large to fit inside airport scanners utilized with some relish by newly empowered, and over-zealous, security officials).
His fascination with architecture was also piqued during childhood. Sugimoto recalls designing and constructing a wooden chair, under the guidance of his “best friend,” a carpenter named Nakazawa who was employed by Sugimoto’s father to perform odd jobs around the house. “I was only 8 or 9 at the time and Nakazawa taught me how to use chisels and other tools, and how to make the chair, which was, I suppose, my first architectural project.”
Over the past 25 years, he has been commissioned to design and construct a number of architectural projects, most notably the rebuilding of the 15th-century Go-Oh Shrine on Naoshima, Kagawa Prefecture, which is part of the Benesse Art Site. He has also worked on the Izu Photo Museum near Mount Fuji and Christie’s Tokyo.
The Enoura Observatory, which opens to the public on Oct. 9, is his first noncommissioned project. It’s a joint effort with architect friend Tomoyuki Sakakida, co-founder of Sugimoto’s design and architecture entity, the New Material Research Laboratory, who, Sugimoto says, helped realize Sugimoto’s sometimes fantastical, other times “illegal,” architectural concepts.
“With photography, I intentionally did not want to see myself as a professional,” he says. “My goal was to become a contemporary artist and photography was the tool I chose to get there. I never trained as a professional architect, either, so everything I do is untrained. I’m an unlicensed architect.”
Nonetheless, the resulting site is breathtaking and a place he plans to bring to life with exhibitions of his and other artists’ work, theatrical productions and music, another of his enduring passions. (His assistant tells me he can often be heard singing Italian arias as he walks around the site.) The facility was envisioned by Sugimoto, says the observatory’s official website, “as a forum for disseminating art and culture both within Japan and to the world.”
Yet, predictably perhaps, the complex has another conceptual, and darker, purpose, according to Sugimoto. He also sees it as a future relic — a relic of his relics, as it were, envisaging a time thousands of years in the future, a time when man revisits a shattered planet and comes across the remains of Enoura.
“The design policy of this site is for it to remain as the most beautiful ruins after civilization has finished,” he says. “So, 5,000 years from now, if civilization still exists, people will come here and say ‘Oh! What on Earth was this? This must have been the site of some strange ritual.’ That kind of thing.
“All the wooden parts will be gone and all you will see is the base stones … maybe some steel might remain, this ancient Roman theater, too, though maybe not the optical glass stage. The 100-meter gallery, only the stone wall will remain. That’s wonderful, I think. That’s how I designed it. The ruins were the starting point. So, from ruins to ruins. Life is something that exists between ruins and ruins.”
It is not the first time he has contemplated this idea. In 1997, Sugimoto began a millennium project commemorating 100 years of architecture. The haunting images that resulted — blurred photos of structures around the globe created by setting his large-format camera beyond the infinity focus point — he subsequently described as “architecture after the end of the world.”
“All architecture is illusion, this space too — it’s my illusion — a fetish in my brain,” he says with a chuckle. “It’s all artificial space. But it is also something that represents my memory as a person and the memory of humanity.”
Enoura Observatory: 362-1 Enoura, Odawara, Kanagawa Prefecture. Visits to the observatory are on a reservation-only basis and bookings can be made through the Odawara Art Foundation. For more information, visit www.odawara-af.com/en/enoura.