New York

Hiroshi Sugimoto

Sonnabend Gallery

For a long time now, Hiroshi Sugimoto has been trying to take pictures of emptiness—a good subject because it’s both elusive and ubiquitous. You can’t get at it directly but have to sneak up on it. In doing that, some of his series verge on conventions of the satirical (images of natural-history dioramas and wax museums) and of the sublime (seascapes), though they finally swerve, asymptomatically, from those conventions. His most characteristic works—the ones least like anyone else’s—have been the most patently ambiguous in their rhetorical stance: photographs of movie theaters and drive-ins, a peculiar blend of vernacular documentation and light-blasted visionary excess.

Throughout, Sugimoto’s instrument for revealing the void beneath appearances has been the trace of time. With the dioramas, he used it negatively, showing that even the frozen moment of the photograph could reveal the unnatural stillness of the scene. With the theaters and drive-ins, time became an active factor: Under extremely long exposures, the successive frames of the screened films cancel themselves out to reveal pure white light. Something similar occurred in many of the seascapes, where long exposures, erasing detail from the movements of the waves while retaining the sense of their movement as such, gave the imagery a translucent yet shadowy, insubstantial character.

But never has Sugimoto found as surprising a way to show emptiness as in the photographs of modem architecture he has been taking for the last two years. They are similar to the diorama and wax-museum works in that they make their subjects seem unreal—uninhabited, they look not so much like buildings as like models or even toys, at least when they are shown isolated from their urban contexts, as they usually are—yet they are all the stronger for the fact that they are obviously pictures of real buildings. The sense of unreality comes from the artist’s imaginative penetration of his subject. These recent works resemble the theaters (most obviously when they are likewise of interiors) in their documentary aspect but are more mysterious: Their factual content does not simply frame the void as a distinct zone, as the blinding whiteness of the movie screen; it is in the grain of the image as a whole, somehow pervading it and eroding it from within.

In fact, these must be among the least factually informative photographs ever taken of their typically well-documented subjects, which range from the Eiffel Tower and the Barcelona Pavilion to contemporary works by Tadao Ando and Steven Holl. This is not only because of the odd angles that Sugimoto has sometimes chosen (he rarely presents the building, or even a section of it, as a coherent gestalt) but also because of the way the images are blurred, lending them a pictorialist sense of generalization and a vaporous instability. It’s not exactly like the blur in Gerhard Richter’s paintings, a feeling of the image being wiped aside, or even like that of Uta Barth’s photographs, in which an extremely shallow depth of field turns the whole image into background, but more like a trembling, a vibration within the image itself, oddly reminiscent of the flickering of a silent film. The buildings all look so very far away, caught in the past or in a dream—that of the substantial reality architecture always means to represent.

Barry Schwabsky