“Hiroshi Sugimoto”

“Hiroshi Sugimoto: History of History”

Hiroshi Sugimoto’s work abounds in such contemporary-art “-tions” as alienation, juxtaposition, and decontextualization. But it comes well-supplied with something that current art disdains: explication. With two overlapping exhibitions in D.C., the New York–based photographer has been in town a lot lately, addressing both public audiences and press-preview crowds. He’s even participated in several podcast interviews that are available from the Web sites of the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, currently hosting “Hiroshi Sugimoto,” and the Sackler Gallery, which is showing “Hiroshi Sugimoto: History of History.” The air along the National Mall is thick with self-clarification.

In a characteristically wily example, Sugimoto told writers assembled at the Sackler late last month that he considers himself a 12th-century Japanese artist. By comparison, he observed, 19th-century painter and printmaker Katsushika Hokusai, also the subject of a current show at the gallery, is “quite modern.”

Let’s play along. Sugimoto’s work is minimalist, contemplative, and perhaps mystical. Even though his principal medium is photography, the 58-year-old artist emphatically does not attempt to represent reality, and the camera he uses is a large-format antique, usually loaded with black-and-white film—the closest he can get to Hokusai without learning how to use a brush or an engraver’s knife. After graduating from art school, Sugimoto supported himself as a dealer in vintage Japanese artifacts, which he also collects. Among his most-discussed recent works is 2002’s Go’o Shrine, a Shinto structure that he designed for Naoshima, a dumpy little island in Japan’s Inland Sea that’s been redefined by a series of art projects. Clearly, Sugimoto is steeped in traditional Japanese aesthetics and spirituality.

So what did the 12th-century man do at the Hirshhorn last month, when he was advertised as the benshi—improvisational silent-film narrator—of Kenji Mizoguchi’s 1933 film The Water Magician? Rather than provide a somber prologue to the melodrama, he stood before the screen and wailed on the harmonica. Then he sat back and watched while an avant-garde duo played an avant-trad score on samisen and percussion.

Such surprises could come from the repertoire of a trickster Zen priest, and amid the cultural overload of contemporary Japan, it’s possible to argue that a hippie J-rock band—Acid Mothers Temple, say—is more in touch with the spirit of medieval Japan than a contemporary Shinto monk. Yet Sugimoto’s Japaneseness is a bit of a schtick. He’s been a permanent resident of the United States since 1977, and though he demonstrates a powerful kinship with various Japanese masters—including contemporary architect Tadao Ando—his photographs resemble the work of such Western painters as Mark Rothko and Gerhard Richter. And his primary guru, it seems, is another foreign-born modernist who settled in New York several decades before Sugimoto got there: Marcel Duchamp, whose work is featured in the National Gallery of Art’s current dada overview.

Locating the link between Sugimoto and Duchamp doesn’t require any detective work: The Hirshhorn exhibition includes a video in which the Japanese artist contemplates his French forebear’s culminating work, The Bride Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors, Even (The Large Glass). Nearby is one in a set of elegant wooden cases Sugimoto designed to contain a small replica of Duchamp’s piece—dada in a bento box. Sugimoto even deals in readymades, although he usually transforms them with his lens. The Hirshhorn show includes images of Henry VIII, Emperor Hirohito, and other inhabitants of wax museums (1999), brought to an eerie sort of life. The goal, it seems, is to capture the essence of things that have none.

The Sackler’s “Hiroshi Sugimoto: History of History” also includes Sugimoto photos, but it consists primarily of artifacts that he simply chose and assembled. It begins with some very eventful fossils, crawling with preserved 200-million-year-old life. It then continues through dioramas of human ancestors and eventually arrives in a place and period that’s identifiably Japanese, with textiles, scrolls, masks, and statues. A lot of these things are venerable and clearly quite valuable, but Sugimoto can’t resist the occasional Duchampian twist: A 4-foot-long stone phallus from the prehistoric Jomon period is displayed on a ’50s hospital gurney and called Testament of a Penis, and beads from the Kofun period are lined up in a medical sterilizer and titled Sterilized Life.

The ancient pieces in these installations—and in other, unironic “History of History” exhibits—are not exactly readymades. They’re rare artifacts, not mass-produced banalities. Yet Sugimoto’s treatment of them, like Duchamp’s handling of manufactured metal and porcelain objects, combines elements of mockery and mystery. Still, the Japanese artist’s attempt to explain his fascination with the things he collects can be a little too cute: “I consider fossils the ‘pre-photography time-recording device,’” he writes, connecting them to his own camera work, which he labels “a process of making fossils out of the present.”

That, fortunately, is not all Sugimoto does. From its exquisitely detailed but not very interesting depictions of wax figures, the show moves further into conceptualism and abstraction. Examples from a 1975–2001 series of photographs of movie theaters, shot with the aperture open for the entire length of a feature, offer a resonant combination of image and idea. The theaters are rendered in immaculate detail, of course, but the movies register only as an absence: They leave screens full of light, but no pictures.

Having reached this vanishing point, Sugimoto’s art loses its focus—intentionally. A 1997–2002 series of soft-focused architectural photos captures designs by such modernist stars as Ando, Mies, and Gropius, rendered just precisely enough to retain their essential shapes. These are napkin sketches in reverse, reducing structures to their original idea. Sugimoto writes that he was “erosion-testing architecture for durability.” In other words, making fossil images of buildings that will someday no longer exist, in states of decay that are purely imaginary—or optical.

Haziness also characterizes Sugimoto’s seascapes (1980–2002), which shimmer with light but show little detail other than horizon lines—and sometimes not even those. These large rectangular pictures have a clear affinity with abstract expressionism and are particularly redolent of Rothko’s darkly hued abstractions, whose floating shapes hint at landscape painting. Sugimoto works exclusively in shades of gray, however, which is one reason his art can seem so closely aligned with Richter’s. But whereas Richter—who made his own seascapes in the late ’60s, many of them in color—developed a cycle of painting photographs and photographing paintings, Sugimoto never reaches for the brush. (He transforms images only by placing them in new contexts, within either the photographic plane or architectural space.)

Indeed, as a photographer, Sugimoto shows little kinship with other makers of flat images. Instead, he’s drawn to installation and architecture. He designs his own exhibitions, and “Hiroshi Sugimoto” would be a success as an architectural experience even if it accomplished nothing else. The show opens in stark light and gradually becomes darker, culminating in Sea of Buddha (1995), a 48-panel composite photograph of the 1,001 statues of the Buddha of compassion that populate Sanjusangendo temple. A much more serene experience than visiting the shrine itself—which glares with fluorescent lighting and is usually overrun by tour groups—this piece is thoroughly enveloping, a rare trip inside the sleek surfaces that characterize Sugimoto’s work.

I don’t know how “Hiroshi Sugimoto” was installed in Tokyo last year, but it’s noteworthy that the Mori Art Museum’s layout, like the Hirshhorn’s, is circular. Both spaces lend themselves to a roundabout journey, much like the garden paths that characteristically wind around Buddhist temples and Shinto shrines. (Religious tenets aside, in Japan the two faiths have developed very similar, even syncretistic architectural styles.) Sugimoto’s installation work, his design of the Go’o Shrine, and his affinity for such figures as Ando, who designed most of the new buildings on Naoshima, suggest that the artist has become more interested in architecture than in picture-making.

One intriguing similarity between Japan’s temples and shrines is that both often hold a treasure that is seldom or never revealed. Sanjusangendo, bursting with Buddhas that are on display daily, is unusual. More typical is a shrine or temple that’s rarely open to the public and hides a single object that’s unavailable for inspection and may not even exist—for example, the famed mirror of the Ise Shrine, a structure invoked in a 16th-century mandala included in “History of History.” The power of the concealed is acknowledged by an “assisted readymade” in the National Gallery’s dada show: With Hidden Noise (1916) is a ball of twine pressed between brass plates by Duchamp, with an unknown object added by Walter Arensberg. It’s a joke that’s also a mystical object—or perhaps the reverse.

Sugimoto also demonstrates a sense of humor, and not just by playing the harmonica when solemn discourse is expected. His Colors of Shadows (2004–2005), photographs of the interior of his studio, includes tiny bits of wooden floor—just enough to reveal that these almost-all-white compositions are actually in full color. And the staircase inside the Go’o Shrine (open only by appointment) is made of melted optical glass, the same material in his camera lenses. Like Duchamp scrawling a few addenda to the Mona Lisa, Sugimoto personalizes his “History of History.”

More such touches would be welcome. Much of Sugimoto’s art, while beautiful, is suffocatingly pure. It’s all too apt that the artist is drawn to wax figurines and architectural monoliths and that whenever he encounters motion, he painstakingly reduces it to stasis. The Hirshhorn show ends with photographs of screwlike aluminum models, a dry attempt to find loveliness in mathematical forms. Sugimoto’s images of city-killing modernist structures are weirdly exonerating, as if form should not merely follow but eventually crush function. And his antiquarian vision of his homeland presents Japan as a land of idealized clarity and symmetry, when the country is actually notable for its ability to maintain little pools of tranquility in an ocean of clutter and chaos. (Naoshima, for example, is home to both an art museum and an industrial recycling plant.)

Sugimoto may be Duchamp’s artistic descendant, but the two are obviously split on the matter of beauty. Duchamp rejected the notion that he chose his readymades to spotlight their previously unheralded aesthetics; they were chosen just to be chosen. Sugimoto aestheticizes everything he sees—or at least everything that he sees in his capacities as collector, designer, or photographer. When he arranges the history of history—or of art, religion, or mankind—he tidies it up. As he notes of his gauzy architectural images, “all the wrinkles disappear.” The unspoken assumption, glossily reflected in most of his work, is that this is a good thing.CP