New York

Hiroshi Sugimoto

Sonnabend Gallery

With endless, near-serial, ritualistic repetition, Hiroshi Sugimoto shows us more or less identical blank screens of more or less identical drive-in movies. Our perspective is that of the film projector, but there is no film to project. Whether the show is over or it has not yet begun, the sense of absence is conclusive—the theater is empty. This silence suggests that the screen is an ever-receding horizon of expectation that allows for the free association of Modernist monotony, post-Modern ambiguity (the representation of the unrepresentable), and the traditional transcendentalization—iconic absolutization—of pure space.

But perhaps Sugimoto simply means to suggest that the movies are no longer a viable mode of imagination or consciousness. Only their site remains credible, however dead: the screen has become a technological residue, a self-museumifiying apparatus. The theater has become a museum we visit to forget the past rather than to remember it. Sugimoto’s void is not that of memory but figures the primordial site of “vision,” the “dream screen,” as Bertram Lewin calls it—the flattened (internalized) mother’s breast on which all dreams are projected in unspeakable intimacy, the place where the first language, that of images, inscribes itself as the foundation of all other languages. Sugimoto’s dream screen has lost its ability to arouse our power of projection, which no longer seems latent, even dormant, for the screen itself has been externalized in a somnambulist act of self-recognition that turns into self-defeat.

One can say even more about these splendidly paradoxical hallucinatory photographs, time-lapsed yet timeless in effect (there are empirical traces at the edges), that inevitably send us in opposite directions whose limits they test. Emblematic of the fabled Japanese love of detail and patience, they seem to dead-end in a design nuance that produces a debatable epiphany. They are also documents of a declining scene, not unlike the photographs of Bernd and Hilla Becher, if more clean and detached, and more suggestive of a self-reflexive, even solipsistic camera. They also seem to modernize, with unwitting ironic literalness, Alberti’s diagram of perspective, suggesting—because there is nothing to see except the act of seeing itself—that the schema is obsolete, even if its reductive abstractness articulates a quality inherent in perception. (The specificity and fixity of perspective diminish as it becomes relative to innumerable other acts of perception. The screens are in effect Leibnizian petites perceptions on an infinitely divisible continuum of perception.)

Sugimoto once photographed a series of screens in indoor movie houses. Their baroque quality had narrative implications, but these new outdoor “minimalist” screens—their strange luminosity promising much but delivering literally nothing except their own surface (a hollow sublime that has become a seemingly primordial end in itself)—are completely postdramatic. As such, Sugimoto’s photographs possess a Zen-like austerity and perfection.

Donald Kuspit