Japanese photographer Hiroshi Sugimoto hadn’t really been on my radar until the recent Barbican exhibition 'Constructing Worlds: Photography and Architecture in the Modern Age' which we reviewed on this blog through December and January. The images on display in the Barbican were foggy and blurred, structures such as the World Trade Centre or Chicago’s Marina City captured with a setting on Sugimoto’s camera he likes to refer to as “twice infinity”.
“I decided to trace the beginnings of our age via architecture” he comments on his website “Pushing my old large-format camera’s focal length out to twice-infinity―with no stops on the bellows rail, the view through the lens was an utter blur―I discovered that superlative architecture survives, however dissolved, the onslaught of blurred photography. Thus I began erosion-testing architecture for durability, completely melting away many of the buildings in the process”
With the exhibition at Barbican now closed it is still possible to see work from the artist in London with Pace London's 'Hiroshi Sugimoto: Still Life' which was previously mounted at Pace New York and has been running since November, closing this coming Sunday (24th Jan). Thirteen of Sugimoto’s large-format photographs produced between 1976 and 2012 are on view and focus on Sugimoto’s ongoing Diorama series, with their sharp black and white tones and super clean focus they are a world away from the architecture series shown in Constructing Worlds but equally as seductive. Some of the work in the exhibition have also not been seen in a gallery setting before with several images from the 1980’s printed here for the first time. Additionally a couple from 1974 and 1994 are being shown in a much larger size than their initial printings.
The Diorama series, as the name suggests, looks at large-scale dioramas in natural history museums. Sugimoto made his first image when he first moved to New York in 1976 and visited the American Museum of Natural History.
“The first time I saw a diorama I was overwhelmed by the fragility of existence that it captured” Sugimoto has said “Being models of nature, dioramas include many of the world’s constituent parts. The only thing absent is life itself. Time comes to a halt and never-ending stillness reigns”
The landscapes in Sugimoto’s images at first sight seem real enough. A polar bear in an arctic landscape stoops over a seal, Californian condor populate a high mountainous vista and huge ostriches jealously guard their nest, keeping beady eyes on the nearby wart hog. These could be photographs capturing the natural world, albeit with a rather gloomy atmospheric gloomy Walker Evans one. As you look closer, however, anomalies start to appear.
The landscapes are a little too constructed. This reminds me of Stephen Shore’s images of the most common American towns (Uncommon Places) which, in their search for the most basic ordinariness, render the streets, diners and gas stations in the photographs as stage sets, totally constructed unrealities. In Sugimoto’s images the mountains, the deserts, the trees almost do the opposite – they are so perfect as to render them real again. This is the real made artificial which is then presented as real and photographed as the artificial to make them real again.
The animals also, you start to notice, are a little too still. Their narratives or staging have no spontaneity to them. They are akin to the post-mortem photographs popular in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries for relatives wanting a last memento of their recently deceased. Spooky and just slightly or wonkily 'off', dead eyes with an eternal stare.
I remember being in Get Stuffed, that amazing taxidermy shop in Angel stuffed with tigers, panthers and other endangered animals (incidentally the proprietor was jailed in 2000 after an investigation into the dubious origins and legality of many of his rare specimens) and feeling all the animals eye’s fixed on me. The creepy nature of what had been done to them seemed to imbibe them with a strange magical spirit.
Once you know the animals in Sugimoto’s photographs are dead you do not want to be alone with them, it is like being locked in a museum alone at night – there is a completely irrational tension that everything will come back to life. Vengeful animals seeking revenge for their permanent state of living death, their House of Wax.
“I made a curious discovery” says Sugimoto (again on his website) “the stuffed animals positioned before painted backdrops looked utterly fake, yet by taking a quick peek with one eye closed, all perspective vanished, and suddenly they looked very real. I'd found a way to see the world as a camera does. However fake the subject, once photographed, it's as good as real”
'Hiroshi Sugimoto: Still Life' will be on view at PACE, 6 Burlington Gardens until 24 January 2015
Sugimoto will be part of the upcoming Barbican exhibition 'Magnificent Obsessions: The Artist As Collector' which opens on 12 February.