New York

Hiroshi Sugimoto

Sonnabend Gallery

Hiroshi Sugimoto’s intensely still photographs of the sea, museum dioramas, and theaters are excruciatingly concrete. For example, the Sea of Japan, the Atlantic Ocean, and the Pacific Ocean are viewed at particular spots; paradoxically, their tight framing somehow makes them seem all the more boundless. Similarly, the theaters—most of which are located in small American towns—are precisely rendered, yet anonymous. The dioramas of various creatures, some endangered, are from the Museum of Natural History in New York. In all the photographs, the same delicate chiaroscuro works to create a restrained effect, gently rather than pushily melancholy. There is a quietness here that manages to go beyond the passive and active.

All three series deal with out-of-the-way, marginal places. The seascapes most clearly evoke transience and placelessness. The theaters are empty and have a pristine, untouched look; the dioramas seem also to be seen sub specie aeternitatis (under the aspect of eternity). Nowhere is there a human presence. Sugimoto himself seems to be invisible; the camera is not felt as an intrusive, performing presence. There is an air of strange simplicity and inevitability to these images. We know there is a hidden, unhappy message here, but it is presented without pessimistic comment. The sea is not as pure as it looks on the surface, the diorama creatures are in fact dead, the theaters—often with copies of famous works of art adding to their splendor—suggest the hollow glory of art. Obliquely, in fact, the photographs are a comment on art—a suggestion of its need for modesty in the face of fate. Sugimoto has managed to suggest the core of inevitability within the dramatic passing spectacle of both life and art. I was particularly taken by the seascapes, each of which seemed like a haiku itself, expressing with great economy of means a general yet pointed sentiment and idea. The sea was caught in a variety of “moods,” without any prompting—projection—from Sugimoto; the artist shows a deep receptivity to his source scene, but manages not to end up with a repertorial look. These images, for all their stillness and seeming self-framing, are less static than the dioramas and theaters, which seem also self-framing but more self-importantly ornate.

Despite the sense of abandonment and artificiality these works engender, we believe in their “truth,” because of the lack of ostentation in Sugimoto’s presentation of the scene. The line between the real and the imaginary, the alive and the dead, has become blurred without generating a sense of unconscious urgency—of the uncanny. Each scene seems to pose like a mannequin, instantly comprehensible and blank, its meaning exhausted at first sight. It has become an icon, meditatively available but pointless beyond itself. One senses that Sugimoto treasures his found scenes, or at least his representations of them—the changing sea, seemingly profound with nameless import; the lifelike animals of the dioramas; the glitzy high-toned theaters. But he does not want to make more of them than they make of themselves. These settings seem to have lost their way in the world, becoming intriguing relics. Nonetheless, their appearances—all that is left of them—can still transfix, as long as we do not become fixated on —in fact, suspend interest in—their real meaning.

Donald Kuspit