The much-delayed reopening of the newly minted Kyoto City Kyocera Museum of Art (formerly the Kyoto Municipal Museum of Art) has arrived. With the refit and new additions of the museum completed, the inaugural exhibition highlights the antiques dealer-cum-internationally acclaimed photographer Hiroshi Sugimoto in “Hiroshi Sugimoto: Post Vitam.”
It is a selective career overview, accompanied by archaeological artifacts from Sugimoto’s personal collection, including new works such as the “Opticks” color series based on Isaac Newton’s prism experiments, and “Glass Tea House ‘Mondrian’” (2014), an installation not previously shown in Japan. If there is a particular thrust to the show, it is that we live in decadent but increasingly apocalyptic times, and therefore the spirit requires recultivation.
Sugimoto’s artistic career is awash in references to religion, especially the Buddhist paradise, Western Pure Land, which is believed to be the final destination of the soul. Indeed, he views his cumulative artistic output as a Buddha-in-the-making. The current exhibition is staged to evoke a temple setting as the museum site was once home to a cluster of temples sponsored by the cloistered Emperor Go-Shirakawa (1127-92).
The entrance to Sugimoto’s temple is a hallway studded with geometrical configurations. “Five Elements” (1980-2012) consists of 13 small-scale optical glass pagodas formed with shapes representing the Buddhist elements of earth, water, fire, wind and emptiness. The spherical components house re-creations of Sugimoto’s well-known seascapes, the imagery of which he equates both with his own earliest memory from infancy, and as a visual metaphor for the beginnings of human consciousness in the world.
After passing through the hallway, visitors encounter Sugimoto’s repurposed “Sea of Buddha” (1995), a series of monochrome photographs of the 1,000 gold-leaf Kannon sculptures that surround the seated thousand-armed Kannon in the main hall of Kyoto’s Rengeo-in, more commonly known as Sanjusangendo. This temple, which was reconstructed during the Kamakura Period (1185-1333) after the original structure was destroyed in a fire, was conceived as an earthly image of the Western Pure Land, and so Sugimoto arranges his own images as a hall of worship in a darkened gallery space of repose and reflection.
Japan’s loss of spirituality is understood by the artist to be concomitant with Westernization and modernization from the late 19th century. Therefore, he also embraces a cosmological reorientation to the less familiar “Eastern” Pure Land of Ruri (lapis lazuli glass) Blue Radiance, presided over by the healing Buddha, Yakushi Nyorai. Such invocations are found in his panel-type constructions such as “Ruri Box (Blue)” (2020).
The symbolic transition that follows is to the material and secular world of the “Opticks” series (2018). These are digitally enhanced Polaroid photographs of acrid spectrum colors that are photographic equivalents to conventions comprising mid-20th-century American color-field abstract paintings.
There is much else that is conventional here: The past is idealized, the future is bleak, the museum is reborn as a temple, art is a surrogate religion. Sugimoto also seems to get generationally curmudgeon-like in his catalog statements, lamenting the internet’s culture of overexposure and the flood of Instagrammable photography that reduces the quality of life. He even postulates the anger of Kyoto’s Shinsen-en temple’s mythical rain-making dragon for having to cross paths with contemporary cellphone signals in the sky. “Where, I wonder, is the Japanese spirituality that was once cultivated in Kyoto,” writes Sugimoto. Still, the exhibition’s larger point is that the values of the past retain their value. Implementing these might rectify the shortcomings of the present.
“Hiroshi Sugimoto: Post Vitam” at Kyoto City Kyocera Museum of Art runs through Oct. 4; ¥1,500. Advance reservations currently limited to Kyoto residents are required via the museum homepage. For more information, visit www.kyotocity-kyocera.museum/en.