Summer 2006

Hiroshi Sugimoto: The End of Time

Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden <br /><br />Washington, D.C. <br /><br />Japanese photographer Hiroshi Sugimoto has achieved an astonishing mastery of his medium, but as this broad career survey, organized with Tokyo’s Mori Art Museum, showed, his work relies on more than technical prowess. Sugimoto nudges photography into a conceptual realm, challenging our ideas about perception and reality at every step. His depictions of wax figures of dead monarchs from Madame Tussaud’s become genuine royal portraits, blurring the line between reality and representation. His images of dioramas from the American Museum of Natural History, accentuating the mannerist qualities of the stuffed and staged animals, are both funny and haunting. <br /><br />Organized by series, the show also featured photographs Sugimoto made by placing his camera in the back of an empty theater and then opening the shutter for the duration of the film. The effect is an entirely white screen — the sum total of all the light transmitted. The screens’ blank slates contrast with the flamboyance of the old movie-house interiors,creating an austere, nostalgia-tinged atmosphere. Sugimoto’s architectural studies look at well-known Modernist buildings through an unfocused lens, melting the structures’ hard edges and reducing them to their basic forms. The Chrysler Building’s spire looks more like a photograph of a souvenir model than the building itself. A 1997 record of the World Trade Center turns the towers into sculptures. <br /><br />The subtly textured photographs of large bodies of water, presented as oversize prints in a darkened gallery, were the highlights of the show. Each was identified by the place where it was taken, although there are no distinctive characteristics in any of them — just open water in the lower half and open sky above. Sugimoto calls these pictures "seascapes," a label that could evoke J. M. W. Turner. But the sense of the spiritual, as well as the horizon line across the print, might remind visitors more of Rothko. Some visitors actually got down on their knees to look longer and closer at these images. In this atmosphere, the rather preachy wall labels seemed superfluous. But otherwise, this was a show of confident, understated brilliance. <br /><br />The exhibition will be on view at the Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth, Texas, from September 17 through January 21, 2007. <br /><br />–Roger Atwood<br /><br />