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Hiroshi Sugimoto (Part II)
May 11, 2006

Chrysler Building (Architect: William van Alen), 1997, private collection. Courtesy of the artist.

“Pushing out my old large-format camera’s focal length to twice-infinity,” Sugimoto writes, ". . . I discovered that superlative architecture survives the onslaught of blurred photography.” The skyscrapers and other modern buildings survive Sugimoto’s lens, but not unchanged. Take the Chrysler Building, as pictured by the artist: I can’t summon to mind another architectural photograph in which the building is so thoroughly transformed. It looks like nothing so much as a bizarre seashell or a tuft of clams, reflecting sunlight like glare off the sea. Stripped from this image is the building’s Deco confidence, forward-looking optimism, and man-made majesty. The building’s Jazz-Age crown even seems to lack symmetry. Or, more precisely, in Sugimoto’s photograph the Chrysler Building bears a natural symmetry, like that of sand dollars, which evolved over millions of years.

So time ultimately triumphs—not just surfaces, but really hits, like a physical force—in all Sugimoto’s works, from his dioramas and portraits to his modern archictectural photographs. But none of his depicts reveal time so well as his seascapes. Sugimoto’s hope in making this series was to capture something in nature that was truly “immutable”—he notes that even mountains and hills are subject to growth through geological activity and decline by erosion. Sugimoto turned to the seas. Cosmologies will differ; not even the oceans are eternal, says the geological record. And “eternal” is a problematic notion.

But when we imagine eternity, we turn to some of the very same places Sugimoto captured. Like the Pilion peninsula, overlooking the Aegean Sea—one of the oldest sites of Western civilization. “Pilion” is named after Peleus, the mythical king and father of Achilles. The peninsula is  the site of the Gigantomachy, an ancient war in which the giants tried to overthrow the gods on Mount Olympus. Heroes who made appearances in Pilion include Achilles, Heracles, Jason, and Theseus—practically a starting lineup of Greek mythology. (Or perhaps an Olympic team.)

Yet all that looks like fleeting, recent history in Sugimoto’s epoch-swallowing photograph of the Aegean from Pelion. The Peloponnesian War? A flash in the pan. Human history doesn’t register in these photographs. It’s astonishing and, I think, even a little alarming to see those elements of the universe that take no heed of us so well illustrated. That sense of the abyss feeds Sugimoto’s very Modernist confidence.

I’m sorry to see this show close this weekend. If you can’t see it yourself, at least read others on the subject. Start with Tyler Green (here and here), Charles Downey, and Heather Goss.

Related Eye Level Post: Hiroshi Sugimoto (Part I)

Posted by Kriston on May 11, 2006 in American Art Elsewhere


I really enjoyed how the seascapes were displayed in the space at the Hirshhorn. A dark, black room with the pieces hung in a line along a curving wall, lit by direct square lights glowing around the edges of the photos. What a beautiful and contemplative space!

And if any of your readers would like to see more of an art theory persepctive on Sugimoto's "Theatre" series, take a look at this.

Hmmm. They are beautiful pictures and the installation is lovely, maybe the loveliest I've ever seen at the Hirshorn but somehow, somewhere, something is bugging me about the Sugimoto show and I can't seem to shake the feeling.

The photos (and the accompanying text) emphasize the inherent qualities, mostly the inherent beauty of the subject matter - the photograph bringing out the unnoticed grace of the objects. Somehow I'm not buying it. Looking at the work I can't shake the feeling that the outcome has been preordained: the loveliness is more about the artist's hand than the subject matter.

So I guess what keeps gnawing at me is this feeling that I'm being sold a bill of goods and, as much as I want to, I'm just not quite buying it.

I agree that it's the photography that makes these photographs compelling (though I can see why you might think otherwise after I've gone on about the Gigantomachy). But insofar as he's organizing diverse subjects in order to present a larger, sort of meta theme, then certain qualities of the subjects should be considered, right? Particularly within the context of a retrospective.

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