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Hiroshi Sugimoto:  Memories of Origin

by Yuko Nakamura, Director
WOWOW, Inc., Japan, 2012
DVD, 85 mins., in English and Japanese
Sales and distribution, $N/A.

Reviewed by Giovanna L. Costantini

Hiroshi Sugimoto:  Memories of Origin, a documentary produced by Japanese television WOWOW, opens with the artist immersed in a reflecting pool behind a large format camera as he photographs “Infinity” (2006), an abstract aluminum sculpture commissioned for the Art Center at Château la Coste, France.  From a spherical base in the water, it rises in perfect arcs to the sky where it dematerializes into space.  Part of a body of work titled “Mathematical Models,” it represents a transformation of mathematic and geometric principles into computer-generated solids produced from Japan’s most advanced machining tools.  Like his photographs of sculptural renderings of trigonometric functions in the series “Conceptual Forms” (since 2004), Sugimoto’s interest in pure, elegant lines, starkly controlled contrasts, integrated design and stable form reflects his desire to create aesthetic models of reality, to concretize thought, and to render visible “invisible facts” as he calls them, internal to the artist.  “His work expresses unseen objects, the world within the heart,” observes Tadeo Ando, architect of the Château La Coste Art Center.

For over 200 days filmmakers followed Sugimoto across the globe, from the shores of his native Japan where he first began to photograph the renowned “Seascape Series,” to his studio in Chelsea, New York where he is shown at work with his assistants.  Positioned between two worlds, one deeply inspired by tradition, the other oriented towards the future, the film conveys the pristine beauty of Japan’s natural landscape with its rocky bluffs and mist-shrouded mountains, as well as the soaring skyline of the modern metropolis, the built environments of New York and Paris driven by ambition, progress, and commerce.  It is an intimate glimpse into the life of the artist, one in which Sugimoto speaks openly about his work and contemporary art.  Interspersed with selections from his major photographic series, it recreates something of the artist’s inner journey towards enlightenment, imbued with the past, inquiring of the present. “Thousands of years of human history are within me,” Sugimoto reflects as he climbs a ladder to a promontory where he stands overlooking the sea and the horizon.

In the studio Sugimoto prepares films for his 2009 series “Lightning Fields,” a dramatic body of monochromatic photographs whose effects recall the stunning calligraphic brushwork of Song Dynasty (960-1279) ink paintings.  After years of painstaking trial and error with different metals and apparatuses under varying atmospheric conditions, he employs a 400,000 Volt Van de Graaf generator to charge a metal ball with static electricity.  Polarized by metal plates onto which he positions large sheets of photographic film, he etches electrical currents emitted from an electrode directly onto a transparency. The sparks create intricate abstractions that give the appearance of meteoric showers, treelike branches, silken tendrils and the delicate vascular tissue of living organisms.  Luminous, the images seem to exert a strange magnetic power over observers who draw to them as moths to a flame.  In other studies, he discharges the electrical current into Himalayan salt water to produce diaphanous, ethereal effects of watercolor.  As an experimental composer, he creates other impressions by chance, through tests with insulated instruments that include a fine mesh grill used to roast gingko nuts, a needle inserted through the end of a wooden stick, and kitchen implements such as wire whisks, egg beaters, measuring cups and slotted spoons. “Ordinarily it would be a failure, but it is interesting,” he observes pointing to an effect of winter static in the corner of one of the works that appears to form a constellation.

In some works Sugimoto confounds perception as in his celebrated Diorama series.  In these picture-box scenarios, reiterations of representational imagery in art, dead animals are juxtaposed with specimens that appear to be alive, each frozen, taxidermied, confined within the static displays of New York’s Natural History Museum.  The series questions relationships between natural and artificial environments, the real and the imaginary, through graphic contrasts that heighten tension between a sense of lifelessness and ferocity.

His later work focuses increasingly on the recovery of Japan’s collective memory.  In an antique market in Japan he holds a small handwritten text and ponders its scale.  “If you read books, you only acquire knowledge,” he says turning its fragile pages.  “But you can feel directly from the objects.  Obtaining the old books can give you so many things.  Just knowing about them and actually feeling them are totally different.  You experience the proportion of the objects, and it starts to sink in.”

“It’s like human wisdom,” reflects Tadeo Ando.  “He is uncovering human wisdom from 30 or 40 centuries ago and it is his intellectual world.  I think people are strongly inspired by his intellectual world.  He can see what we cannot see.”

Self-taught in architecture, he attempts to revive Japan’s lost architectural concepts through the reconstruction of an ancient Shinto shrine.  Asked to rebuild the deteriorated Go-Oh shrine, whose origins date back to the Muromachi Period (1338-1573), he sought to recreate an “imaginary architecture” in keeping with ancient Shinto worship.  “Animist worship,” wrote Sugimoto, “was thought to have focused on sites in nature where some special quality or force was felt.” In “Appropriate Proportion” (2002) he attributed the shrine’s ineffable source of power to a giant rock.  Since the shrine was comprised of three main parts, a Worship Hall, a Main Sanctuary and a Rock Chamber reminiscent of a tumulus, he dug out the underground chamber by hand so as not to disturb the ancient spirits.  Into the chamber he then laid rough-hewn optical-glass steps to create a “stairway of light.”  Illuminated by the sunlight the glass stairs shine as crystal.  They join the celestial and terrestrial worlds in a stream of luminosity.

In 2011 Sugimoto served as producer, composer, and art director of a revival of “Sonezaki Shinju” (The Love Suicides at Sonezaki) a play based on an original manuscript by the famous Japanese dramatist Chikamatsu Monzaemon (1653-1725). It was staged as a lost type of Bunraku performance, an ancient form of puppet theatre that originated during the Edo era (1603-1868), a period in which neo-Confucianism, ethical humanism, and rationalism flourished in Japan.  It was also during this era that art rose to a high level of refinement through such styles as ukiyo (the floating world) of Hokusai (1760-1849).  Bunraku combined chanters, Shamisen players and large puppets whose complex, expressive heads and hands were carved from wood and repainted before each presentation.  Puppeteers operate in full view of the audience, garbed in black robes, some with black hoods over their heads.

One of the most compelling segments examines the artist’s installation at the ruined Power House, on Cockatoo Island for the 17th Sydney, Australia Biennale.  The site’s haunting atmosphere of deterioration, corrosion and abandonment fascinated Sugimoto for it was a vast industrial complex that had once been filled with mighty generators, steam engines, smokestacks, switches and electrical controls.  Now the plant and its machinery lay buried under layers of dust as thick as volcanic ash.  The surroundings provided an evocative setting for Sugimoto’s sacred and profane appositions, his inversions of energy and inertia as positive and negative electrical charges. Against the shadows of engine rooms filled with steel equipment, Sugimoto’s “Lightning Fields” flank a quasi-ceremonial stairway constructed in a series of stages with intervening platforms.  The negative images of the “Lightning Fields” have been reversed to positives, illuminated by glowing light boxes.  At the pinnacle of the stairway, a 13th century sculpture of the deity Raijin, God of Thunder, presides atop a high wooden column.  He is fearsome, potent, animated by the same hidden forces that surge in Sugimoto’s artworks as “sparks floating in water.”  On close inspection one sees incandescent, microbial images that the artist compares to sperm—recollections of beginning that Sugimoto finds very beautiful.

From a place on the coast overlooking the sea, Sugimoto inspects the site where he plans to build a Noh theatre.  He wants to leave this theatre for the next generation so that persons may see and feel what he has experienced during his lifetime.  Noh is a highly symbolic dance drama performed on an outdoor stage beneath a temple-like roof supported by pillars at the four corners. It is the oldest surviving form of Japanese theatre, originating in the fourteenth century when it was presented by male priest-performers attached to Buddhist temples.  Derived from a term meaning “talent” or “skill,” Noh survives today in much the same form as in the past with a repertory of traditional plays identified with Buddhist themes.  The tempo of a Noh performance continually fluctuates in keeping with the Buddhist view that the world is in a state of continual flux.  Comprised of choreographed elements and stylized costumes, the main character wears a mask imbued with magic power.  Expressing a powerful, all-encompassing emotion that builds to a climax at the close of the play, the mask is meant to conceal individuality.  It elevates the play’s main action beyond a presence in this world to an otherworldly dimension.

As an historical personage in Noh theatre who returns to the world to find spiritual release after death, Sugimoto returns to a cliff overlooking the ocean that holds deep significance for him.  It is a site of memory where he remembers a train ride he experienced as a child in which he emerged from a tunnel to glimpse the sea:

“When I trace back that memory,” he recalled, “I realized that it was my very first memory of my life. At that moment I thought, ‘Oh, I do exist.’ Consciousness of being alive emerged.  Until then, everything was vague; I had no consciousness of my existence.  So the vivid memory of the ocean had a certain impact that I still remember.  The consciousness of being alive is the birth of awareness, of my being as an entity.  But when we see it on a long clock, this awareness is the same as the evolution of human beings, evolving from apes to people.  I came to the realization that I was alive.  It also made me realize that I would die some day.  So I thought, ‘Is there anything worth doing in my life?’  The last phrase in the medieval epic Heike Monogatari (The Tale of the Heike) was great, when they fall in battle at ‘Dan no ura.’”

“We see what must be seen and disappear in the sea.”


Last Updated 8 September 2012

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