Hiroshi Sugimoto: Time Machine—How to capture the past, present, and future
By Mathilda Drukier
I first saw Hiroshi Sugimoto’s works over summer at the Tate Modern’s Capturing the Moment, an exhibition which I would highly recommend for its amazing selection of works (e.g. Paula Rego, Francis Bacon, and Gerard Richter) . I was struck by Sugimoto’s Seascapes. I felt a sense of fear and unease that I was expecting to see at the Rothko exhibition at the Louis Vuitton Foundation but did not experience because of over crowdedness and choppy curation. However, it was at the Hayward gallery that I had this “semi-religious” feeling that I had been looking for. Curated in an incredibly intimate manner, the viewer is taken on a journey different emotions filled with beauty, humour, and existential dread, everything a girl could dream of.
Hiroshi Sugimoto, Anne Boleyn, 1999, photograph taken from Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, 2005
Born in 1948 in Tokyo, Hiroshi Sugimoto has spent his career between Japan and the USA revolutionising photography. His universe is without binaries, ideas of space are constructed as both abstract and concrete. His style is best encapsulated in the portraits of wax figures from Madame Tussauds. In his photo of Anne Boleyn (1999), the second wife of Henry VII is captured mid performance on a lute. The work acts between traditional portraiture reminding the viewer of styles of Flemish style paintings, much like Frans Hals’ Lute Player (1624). The figure looks like a real woman dressed as Boleyn, however, Sugimoto plays without expectations of what a portrait should be using the wax figure. How many times can an image be a replica without losing the essence of the subject it is depicting? Can it actually, as in this case, bring the subject even more to life? The work then plays with what is real and what is invented, layering this idea, first with the photograph and then with the wax figure, both of which are not reality. This deconstructed approach to photography immortalises Boleyn in a way, and almost makes her come to life, allowing us to imagine her in the flesh, more easily in the flesh than in her Madam Tussaud’s statue through these multiple reproductions of her. The same effect is seen in his photos of taxidermy animals. In the White Mantled Colobus (1980), an idealised setting of nature that looks like a Hollywood set, Sugimoto is playing with photographing reality and its replication. This makes us re-evaluate the role of photography and how photos themselves are imitations or replicas of their subject.
Hiroshi Sugimoto, White Mantled Colobus, 1980, photograph taken from Sotheby’s, 2023
His works also are of great beauty, with his series of Theatres and Drive-ins, which are haunting and beguiling in their depictions of these abandoned spaces. Here Sugimoto is using with the role of theatre. It is rendered useless, empty of its audience, while also giving it a life outside of its interaction with one. This plays on the immortalisation of photography as this empty space carry on its purpose without an audience. This is not the only instance that Sugimoto plays with architecture, taking incredibly zoomed in and unfocused images of famous modernist buildings, encouraging us to engage with them in a different way. This is a common theme with all of his works, as he photographs the world in a way that we have not imagined it before, completely deconstructing the typical use of photography and playing with our expectations.
Hiroshi Sugimoto, Palace Theatre, 2014, taken from Marian Goodman Gallery 2023
Although Sugimoto says that his camera is a time machine that looks into the past and not the future, I feel that to a certain extent they take the future into consideration. His works are a guide to viewing the future, with the Tate viewing his Seascapes as a view of where the planet is heading towards, a sort of empty oblivion. I find his works are a reminder that the world around us is much bigger than we are, and that we exist within an infinite universe. I think this is particularly noticeable in his Seascapes. This collection of works is ominous, showing the expansive ocean and trapping the viewer in its captive geometry. The works feel deep, yet shallow, expansive, yet restrictive, and encourage the viewer to be drawn into this still but somehow incredibly loud work.
The exhibition is on at the Hayward gallery until the 7th of January, and I would highly recommend visiting it. If you cannot visit it in time, I would just go Tate Modern to see the Seascapes in person.
Thank you to my friend Isabel for help editing this, I miss you a lot!
Hiroshi Sugimoto, English Channel Weston Cliff, 1994, taken from Phillips, 2019