Friday, 13 July 2012

Sugimoto and the polar bears

Some years ago in the MOMA Oxford I looked at a triptych of Sugimoto seascapes, I am not sure whether the one here was one of them, all I know is the "image" of them has remained with me. I found the beauty of the sea, set in a steel grey sky as beautiful as the vision to want to record it.

Sea of Galilee, Golan, 1992 (gelatin silver print on paper)
Sugimoto, Hiroshi (b.1948)
The Israel Museum, Jerusalem, Israel  - Bridgman
My tutor recommended that I look at Sugimoto's work, and in particular his work on film theatres, as my work seems to focus on performance. I am glad that I was steered towards this work, I ordered an expensive book and have been looking at the images for a a while now.

In his opening essay on the work of Sugimoto - "Impossible Photography"1, Kerry Brougher writes:

"In a bleak, forebidding landscape, where a pale sky and snow-covered ground meld together to produce a white void, a polar bear hovers over its victim. Caught just after the kill, the photograph shows the beast poised over a freshly dispatched penguin, ...."

I carried on reading, but there was something that didn't quite ring true, something about penguins and polar bears. I'm no naturalist but I though that polar bears were northern hemisphere and penguins in the south. Perhaps the title "Impossible Photography" held the clue - the title was a remark on the impossibility of the photograph or perhaps he hadn't looked at the print by then. But I did and I noticed there was no penguin, it was certainly a depiction of a polar bear and his kill, but the newly slaughtered animal was clearly a seal. The seal's relationship with a penguin was in a more distant time when, casting Darwinian theory to the scene, the seal and the penguin evolved from sometime after the creation of the primordial soup that we all surely owe our ancestry to. So, what was going on with Brougher? I stopped reading his essay, as I wondered whether he had actually looked at the photograph he was using as part of his introduction to Sugimoto's work. I couldn't work out in my mind whether he hadn't bothered to look at it, certainly no-one in the production team had thought to question it (maybe none of them had bothered to look at it either?). In what is otherwise a wonderfully well put together, near 400 page, catalogue of his work by Taaki Matsmoto, I wonder whether he thought it irrelevant to study the work before commenting on it. Unfortunately it put all his (Brougher's) commentary on shallow footing and so I concentrated on his co-auther's contribution and, more importantly, the body of work contained in the book. Kerry Brougher has recently been named acting director of the Smithsonian's Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, effective Dec. 22 2012, however he was Director of MOMA Oxford between 1997 and 2000 and it might have been during that time when I first saw the Sugimoto's that still resonate with me now. What to think??

I have been looking at Thomas Struth's work and the comparison I therefore make is between the aforementioned photographer's work of art galleries and museums, and Sugimoto's film theatres. Whereas the Japanese photographer appears to place his frame such that the composition is both in harmony with the architecture he was capturing and also portrays a strong sense of balance. Struth's compositions by comparison seem quite haphazard, almost clumsy. Sugimoto's theatre's are havens of peace and quietude. I am aware that might be the point, i.e. that Struth wasn't trying to create an atmosphere of peace and quiet.............................

It is Sugimoto's vision, the theatre's, the seascapes, the burning candles, the range of work included in this book that is extraordinary, extraordinary in it's range other than for one thing, which is the total absence of people. There are portraits, but they are of Madame Tussauds' figures. The prehistoric humanoids are from dioramas in the American Museum of Natural History. It seems Sugimoto doesn't do people shots.

The conceptual forms, which whilst having a strong conceptual genesis are also studies in light and form. The direct connection to mathematical models, of trigonometrical functions and formulae are no worse off by having their capture completed with beautiful rendering of light over their form, their sensual shapes that appear to revel in their curvature. The other pure mechanical still lifes, whilst being less balanced structurally speaking, are still wonderful examples, almost exercise, etudes, of light and form.

The book is highly recommended and will be a page turner for me for some time to come.

1 Hiroshi Sugimoto, ISBN 978-3-7757-2412-8 Hatje Cantz p 20

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