“Lost Human Genetic Archive”: Japanese photographer Hiroshi Sugimoto at Tokyo Photographic Art Museum

Tokyo Photographic Art Museum celebrates grand re-opening and 20-year anniversary with exclusive exhibition of recent work by Hiroshi Sugimoto.

The New York-based artist of international acclaim uses a large format camera to capture minute details, creating photographic series that give the opportunity “to contemplate the future in order to ensure that humanity and civilization do not become mere relics of the past”.

Hiroshi Sugimoto, 'Paramount Theater, Newark', ('On the Beach', 1959, directed by Stanley Kramer), 2015, gelatin silver print. ©Hiroshi Sugimoto | Image courtesy Gallery Koyanagi.

Hiroshi Sugimoto, ‘Paramount Theater, Newark’, (‘On the Beach’, 1959, directed by Stanley Kramer), 2015, gelatin silver print. © Hiroshi Sugimoto. Image courtesy Gallery Koyanagi.

“Hiroshi Sugimoto: Lost Human Genetic Archive” opened on 3 September 2016 at Tokyo Photographic Art Museum, celebrating TOP Museum’s grand re-opening and the 20th anniversary of the museum. The exhibition, running until 13 November, occupies two floors of TOP Museum and features three bodies of work dealing with the theme of “the demise of mankind and civilization” and revealing the artist’s view of history and the world.

The show presents the world’s premiere of Sugimoto’s recent series “Abandoned Theater”, the first Japanese showing of his “Lost Human Genetic Archive” series and a new installation work entitled Sea of Buddhas.

Hiroshi Sugimoto, 'The Last Supper: Acts of God (Sandy)', 1999/2012, gelatin silver print. © Sugimoto Studio

Hiroshi Sugimoto, ‘The Last Supper: Acts of God (Sandy)’, 1999/2012, gelatin silver print. © Sugimoto Studio.

Hiroshi Sugimoto: Time, Memory, Artifice

Now based between New York and Tokyo, where he was born in 1948, Hiroshi Sugimoto studied at Saint Paul’s University, Tokyo and Art Center College of Design, Los Angeles in the early 1970s, and moved to New York in 1974. His multidisciplinarity lies in the ability to conjugate and blur the lines between photography, painting, installation, and most recently, architecture. Celebrated for his large-scale photographs, Sugimoto bridges Eastern and Western philosophies and ideologies, and explores the nature of time and perception, and the origins of consciousness.

Pivotal elements to his practice are the preservation of memory and capturing time, aspects which are visible in his most important series of works. The images in the series “Dioramas” (1976-) are taken in natural history museums, and depict stuffed animals displayed in artificial habitats. “Theaters” (1978-) are photographed by exposing the photographic film throughout the entire projection of a film, ultimately showing a glowing white screen that ‘traps’ all the movie’s frames into one, still image. “Seascapes” (1980-) are large-scale photographs that capture the essence of marine landscapes throughout the world, retaining only their crucial elements of air and water.

Ammonite Cluster Jurassic period (201 – 144 million years ago). © Sugimoto Studio

Ammonite Cluster Jurassic period (201 – 144 million years ago). © Sugimoto Studio.

Sugimoto has shown extensively worldwide, and his most recent solo exhibitions include, among others, “Hiroshi Sugimoto: Past and Present in the Three Parts” (2016) at Multi Media Museum of Art, Moscow; “Sea of Buddha” (2016) at Pace Gallery, New York; “Past and Present in Three Parts / Art and Leisure” (2015) at Chiba City Museum of Art, Japan; “Stop Time” (2015) at Fondazione Fotografia Modena, Italy; “Acts of God” (2014) at Fraenkel Gallery, San Francisco; and “Past Tense” (2014) at The J. Paul Getty Museum at the Getty Center, Los Angeles.

His work is held in numerous public collections including The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York; Museum of Contemporary Art, Tokyo; The National Gallery, London; The National Museum of Modern Art, Tokyo; Smithsonian Institute of Art, Washington, D.C.; and Tate, London, among others.

Giovanni Battista Piranesi, 'Il Campo Marzio dell’ Antica Roma', Vol. 1-4, Second Edition, 1756. © Sugimoto Studio

Giovanni Battista Piranesi, ‘Il Campo Marzio dell’ Antica Roma’, Vol. 1-4, Second Edition, 1756. © Sugimoto Studio.

Lost Human Genetic Archive: the end of civilisation

The exhibition at TOP Museum opens on the third floor gallery, with a presentation of 33 scenarios depicting the end of civilisation. This is the new and updated Tokyo version of a work first shown in his widely acclaimed solo exhibition “Aujourd’his le monde est mort [Lost Human Genetic Archive]” at Palais de Tokyo in Paris in 2014, and comprises his own work, antiques, fossils and books or historical material collected by the artist.

A text written by the artist (PDF download) walks visitors through several installations based on history or civilisation. Various characters like ‘the idealist’, ‘the geneticist’, ‘the politician’, ‘the robot engineer’, ‘the meteorite collector’, ‘the militarist’, ‘the benevolent dictator’, ‘the aesthete’, ‘the beekeper’ and other at times humorous figures are presented as relics. The display and each character presentation open with Sugimoto’s words giving an ominous message:

Today the world died. Or maybe yesterday, I don’t know.

Hiroshi Sugimoto, 'Sea Scapes, Sea of Galilee, Golan', 1992, gelatin silver print. © Sugimoto Studio

Hiroshi Sugimoto, ‘Sea Scapes, Sea of Galilee, Golan’, 1992, gelatin silver print. © Sugimoto Studio.

In an extended monologue on paper, the artist goes on to reference the Renaissance, when a perfect connubium between religion, science and art existed, and its artists were profoundly religious while also dedicated to serious scholarship. But Sugimoto reveals that the period that attracts him the most is that age of darkness called ‘obscurantist’, when the world was pervaded by what he refers to as “a sacred mystery”. In today’s world, with the knowledge that man has gained throughout the centuries of discoveries, art has to deal with the contemporary, he says, in which the spiritual is given a much smaller space.

Sugimoto thus concentrates on the future, which still holds a veil of mystery, and writes in an apparent nod to Dante’s infernal descent:

In this restricted present, the only field in which my dreams can still unfold is the future, its form not yet being fixed. Imagining the worst conceivable tomorrows gives me tremendous pleasure at the artistic level. The darkness of the future lights up my present, and foreknowledge of a coming end guarantees my happiness today. In this exhibition you will find the worst scenarios created by my imagination regarding the future of humankind.

Thunder God, Kamakura period (13th century). © Sugimoto Studio

Thunder God, Kamakura period (13th century). © Sugimoto Studio.

Through the objects and works on display, visitors are faced with an imaginary story, but founded on actual history that forces a reconsidering of our own civilisation, what we have created and our contemporary society. Among the ancient artefacts, historic art pieces and objects on show are a Thunder God statuette of the Kamakura period (13th century) under ‘the art historian’ profile, a three stone head sculpture of the 15th century along with meteorite shards under ‘the meteorite collector’, an ammonite cluster of the Jurassic Period under ‘the paleobiologist’, and a portrait of Marcel Duchamp by Man Ray (1920) under the profile of a certain ‘Love Doll Angé’, who identifies herself saying, “I was born to be desirable, the object of men’s love”.

The Sea of Galilee, pictured in one of Sugimoto’s “Seascapes”, opens the exhibition, with the grey of the sea and the white of the sky in perfect contrast, dividing the image in two empty monochromes, like a colour field painting, perfectly portraying what the artist calls “an empty shell of humanity”:

Our earth, the third planet from the sun, had plenty of water 550 million years ago when organic compounds started an explosive chain reaction that culminated in the phenomenon of human life, which in turn gave rise to civilization over the last 20,000-year glacial period. But there were many problems and civilization went into decline, until all that remained was an empty shell of humanity.

Hiroshi Sugimoti, 'Abandoned Theater', 2015, installation view at Tokyo Photographic Art Museum, 2016. © Sugimoto Studio

Hiroshi Sugimoti, ‘Abandoned Theater’, 2015, installation view at Tokyo Photographic Art Museum, 2016. © Sugimoto Studio.

Abandoned theatres: remnants of civilisation

On the second floor gallery, a new series of work entitled “Abandoned Theater” makes its world debut, originating from Sugimoto’s earlier and ongoing series “Theater”. For the new works, the artist visited abandoned movie theatres built in the 1920s and 1930s across the United States, which have become disused due to economic reasons or changes in the film viewing environment and its obsolete structures. Sugimoto put up new screens in the deserted spaces, and projected movies onto them. Like for his “Theater” works, he kept the shutter of his camera open for the whole duration of the film and recorded the light transmitted to the screen.

In the press release, TOP Museum writes about the series:

Utilizing a large-format, 8×10 camera and a minute printing technique, the works confront the viewer with the faded glory of these beautiful interiors, bringing back to life the history and profound tranquility of the spaces. The vivid whiteness of the shining screen, is actually the aggregate of countless stories, making us realize anew that photography creates a record of time and light, taking our awareness beyond the framework of civilization or history and leading it to the concept of time itself.

Hiroshi Sugimoto, 'Franklin Park Theater, Boston',(Rashomon, 1950, directed by Akira Kurosawa), 2015, gelatin silver print. ©Hiroshi Sugimoto | Image courtesy Gallery Koyanagi.

Hiroshi Sugimoto, ‘Franklin Park Theater, Boston’,(Rashomon, 1950, directed by Akira Kurosawa), 2015, gelatin silver print. © Hiroshi Sugimoto. Image courtesy Gallery Koyanagi.

In a text about the “Abandoned Theater”, TOP Museum curator Harumi Niwa reveals that Sugimoto’s inspiration for the series came from a photograph he took during a trip to Paris to prepare for his 2014 show at the Palais de Tokyo. At the institution, he came across a locked room marked ‘Hall 37’ and after having it opened, he used it to shoot a work using the film The Stranger (1946) by Orson Welles. The opening lines of the film are “Today my mother died, or perhaps it was yesterday,” which would later provide inspiration for Sugimoto’s “Today the world died, or maybe yesterday.”

A Sea of Buddhas: harbingers of destruction

Sugimoto negotiated for years with the Sanjusangendo, ‘Hall of Thirty-Three Bays’, a temple in Kyoto, in order to photograph the one thousand and one 12th-century Buddha statues housed there. The Senju (1000 Armed) Kannon (Avalokitesvara) statues were created as an expression of the Pure Land, as Niwa reveals in a text. They were made by order of Emperor Go-Shirakawa, who believed in the Buddhist philosophy of Mappo, which predicted the destruction of civilisation.

For the TOP Museum exhibition, nine large prints are combined with the ‘Five Elements’, traditionally a stone pagoda that expresses the five Buddhist elements of earth, water, fire, wind and the void. Sugimoto’s pagoda is built of optical glass and contains within its globular section one of his “Seascapes” representing water.

Hiroshi Sugimoto, 'Sea of Buddha', 1995, installation view at Tokyo Photographic Art Museum, 2016. © Sugimoto Studio

Hiroshi Sugimoto, ‘Sea of Buddha’, 1995, installation view at Tokyo Photographic Art Museum, 2016. © Sugimoto Studio.

In a statement about the work on his website, Sugimoto writes about “Sea of Buddha”, reflecting on a comparison between ancient and contemporary art making:

The art scene I knew in New York in the 1970s was dominated by minimal and conceptual art, experiments in visualizing how abstract concepts. It occurred to me that similar motives inspired the making of art in twelfth-century Japan, when they reproduced the afterlife conceptualized as the Buddhist Pure Land Western Paradise in model form in this world. Thus we have an installation of a thousand and-one Senju Kanon “Thousand-Armed Merciful Bodhisattva Avalokitesvara” figures passed down eight-hundred years to this day in Kyoto.

After seven years of red tape, I was finally granted permission to photograph in the temple of Sanjusangendo, “Hall of Thirty-Three Bays.” In special preparation for the shoot, I had all late-medieval and early-modern embellishments removed, as well as having the contemporary fluorescent lighting turned off, recreating the splendor of the thousand bodhisattvas glistening in the light of the morning sun rising over the Higashiyama hills as the Kyoto aristocracy might have seen in the Heian period (794-1185). Will today’s conceptual art survive another eight-hundred years?

C. A. Xuan Mai Ardia


Related Topics: Japanese artists, photography, historical art, museum shows, events in Tokyo

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