New York

Hiroshi Sugimoto

Sonnabend Gallery

Hiroshi Sugimoto is known primarily for the three series of photographs he has been working on since the late ’70s, early ’80s. The series are nominally differentiated by content—movie theater interiors, seascapes, and dioramas—although Sugimoto approaches them all with a precise sense of form: balanced if not symmetrical compositions, extreme clarity of focus, grays modulated into a sort of photographic grisaille, long exposure times reminiscent of Atget. All of this—the impulse to work in a series, to foster a project over a period of ten years or more, to apply a stringent set of compositional rules to his work—lends a tantalizing deliberateness to Sugimoto’s project, as though there were a single skeleton key leading to the machinery behind his method.

In his most recent exhibition, Sugimoto presented a disturbing series of photographs of dioramas along with his more recent series of wax figures taken in museums ranging from Madame Tussaud’s in London to the Movieland Wax Museum in Buena Park. It is not his intention to comment on institutionalization or the conditions of display, etc., to the contrary, there’s never a glare of glass to suggest diorama, never a sheen of paraffin to suggest wax dummy. Sugimoto is able to present the simulacra of famous criminals, movie stars, world leaders, Neanderthal men, ancient flora and fauna so illusionistically that the feedback loop between your brain and eyes short-circuits: it’s like looking at the sun and thinking it’s two inches in diameter while knowing that it is actually much, much vaster. In Neanderthal, 1994, a hairy beast of a man sharpens the point of a spear, insouciantly allowing little wood flakes to pile on his left foot, while a woman stretches a hide between her hand and teeth in order to scrape fat off with a stone. That the figures are in motion helps to give them a semblance of life, as do such well-wrought details as saggy breasts and paunchy stomachs. What you see in a photograph such as this is an impossibility: the lifelikeness of the figures contradicts common sense, which tells you that Sugimoto can’t have photographed a “real” Neanderthal family.

If thresholds abound in these series—the seascapes are cut into halves by the horizontal line where sky meets sea, and the theater pictures are centered on the movie screen, the glowing portal between audience and film, reality and fiction—in these new works, the threshold is sublimated into something less visible but more vexing: what divides the animate from the inanimate? In The Royal Family, 1994, Prince Charles smiles, showing his teeth, Queen Elizabeth strikes a dignified pose, her hands folded in front of her, Princess Diana looks right at you with eyes infinitely more vivacious than the white orbs in ancient statues. The joke is that, for a formal portrait, the royal family would be so stiff and so posed that they might as well be inanimate. If art is long and life is short, Sugimoto appears to be aiming at that gray area—as difficult to find as the precise point where the sky meets the sea—where the two meet, where life edges toward the inorganic, where art is supposed to take up the organic and preserve it.

Keith Seward