The radical traditionalism of Hiroshi Sugimoto – WSJ
Hiroshi Sugimoto has devoted much of his art to capturing the fleeting sense of time. He photographs buildings with ultra-long exposures, lending them a blurry effect, as if they dissolve with the passage of history. His grainy photographs of seascapes, their ripple in blocks like Rothkos in black and white, feel limitless, as if one could fall into them. As an architect, the buildings he designs with centuries-old techniques also seem to be part of this infinite past.
As a history buff, it’s no surprise that the 73-year-old is an avid collector of objects, purchasing fossils, prehistoric tools, meteorites and ancient books – from a first. edition of Isaac Newton. Opticks to Giovanni Battista Piranesi Antichità Romane de ‘Tempi della Repubblica, e de’ primi Imperatori, a detailed four-volume collection of diagrams and illustrations from ancient Rome.
Currently, he is redesigning the sculpture garden at the Hirshhorn Museum in Washington, DC, where he presented the first career study of his art in 2006. His plan for the garden, which is slated to open in 2024, involves a stone-laying technique. from the 16th. and 17th-century Japan called “ano-zumi” which he hopes will bring more attention to the modern sculptures in the Hirshhorn collection. Not everyone is happy with it. “To be perfectly honest, stack the stone for me… if it’s not the right guy… only stinks of olive garden,” said Mina Wright, who serves on the National Capital Planning Commission, the one of the organizations evaluating the revitalization proposed by Hirshhorn. “It’s not a good idea for anyone.” The obsession with modernity, however, comes at the expense of art, Sugimoto says.
“We have lost the characteristic style of our time,” he says. “Frank Gehry’s style is our style now. I don’t think it’s art, honestly.
You collect many ancient items, from fossils to tools from the Stone Age. How does the meaning of history affect you as an artist?
I just want to understand the development of my mind from a child state to an adult state to an old man state now. [To know] my mind, I have to understand the history of humans and the human spirit. For example, holding a stone from the Stone Age, it fits perfectly in my hand, and I can transfer the spirit of this ancient man through this tool through my skin and, oh, I can feel it, I can understand it. 200,000 years ago. The first human, I can understand that. I am a materialist in a way: I have to have the real thing to touch it, to see it.
You describe yourself as a materialist, but many of your photographs – blurry images of buildings, seascapes – are hyperabstract.
My job is to make abstract material through my art. I [am] influenced by many, many of my collections. This is my educational material. I should be able to deduct it from my business!
What led you to photography and architecture?
When I first started out with photography I was a very, very practical kid. My dad bought a nice camera, but he didn’t know how to use it, so he threw it away. I took it. I instantly found out how to use it. I am a self-taught photographer, very advanced, already of high school age. When I arrived in New York City in 1974, I decided to be an artist, not just as a photographer. But I saw how painting was already so old-fashioned, so photography – as contemporary art, as concept art – is what I imagined I wanted to do at that time.
And the architecture?
The architecture is just a coincidence. I started to [exhibit] my shows around the world, with famous museums, mostly designed by star architects. I discovered how much [they are]. The design is very bad. They don’t think of artists. I wanted to design my ideal space for the artist, not for the architect’s ego. So I started to design my own space – my studio – and now I have created my art foundation called Odawara. People started asking me to design museum spaces and gallery spaces. I never intended to be an architect, but found out that I was an architect.
With the renovation of your Hirshhorn sculpture garden, what are you looking to achieve?
I want to create a premodern decor for the space, which means using the Japanese historical stone technique which is totally handmade. It brings out modern art against the premodern background. I cannot send the stones from Japan. So I use American stone and then a Japanese technique from the 16th and 17th centuries. I try to train American stone artisans to be as Japanese as possible. Working with the government, I had to negotiate with many types of people. Some people don’t want to change anything.
Yep, you’ve gotten some criticism for your renovation proposal that it might look cheap or out of date. Why do you think some people react this way?
I do not know. There are always Conservatives around. To make my art, I make all my decisions on my own. I want to make my architecture as artistic as possible, but some curators don’t want that.
Is modern architecture in general against your more historical and artistic way of working?
I don’t know if architects should now be treated more like artists. Function and art are therefore one against the other. It’s very interesting. Which direction do you want to go? Only works? Buildings today all function essentially in the sense that they are as cheap as possible, as high as possible, with the lowest possible cost. At the beginning of modernism, in the 1920s, 1930s, we dreamed of a [more artistic] modern architecture, but now [buildings] only need to run. We have lost the characteristic style of our time. Frank Gehry’s style is our style now. I don’t think it’s art, honestly.
Why do you think it is?
This is what the [modern] the economy is, our style of production, capitalism; he asks to do [buildings] as big as it gets, as cheap as it gets, as comfortable as it gets…. We should stop growing. We should shrink.
In which way?
Overall size of development. To grow 5% each year, we must destroy nature. It is impossible to keep growing. We have to think of other social methods, not of capitalist ideas. Now in the state of Covid, I think that’s a message from nature: you shouldn’t grow taller.
And here are, in his own words, some of Sugimoto’s favorite things.
“Right, a bonsai pine tree sent to me by Melissa Chiu, director of the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, as a birthday present. Bonsai is the symbol of the Japanese garden. We have been working together for many years to renovate the Hirshhorn Sculpture Garden. The downward glass sphere is quite unusual. It’s made from lead glass that allowed scientists to see inside nuclear reactions during the Manhattan Project, when the Americans made the atomic bomb. Underneath are cuneiform writings on clay tablets, between 3000 and 2000 BCE. These little tablets are usually IOUs. It is the beginning of civilization. On the far left, there are stone tools. The oldest are around 200,000 to 250,000 years old. Humans began to use tools to separate themselves from animals and, probably around this time, realized the time and were able to imagine the future. Also on the far left, The Principia, by Isaac Newton – my copy was published circa 1739-1742 – and the first edition of his Opticks, from 1704. Newton is my most respected scientist. Opticks This is the first time anyone has studied the nature of light, and it guides me as a photographer because photography is a tool to control light and time. The ledger in the middle is antichità Romane de ‘Tempi della Repubblica, e de’ primi Imperatori, by 18th century Giovanni Battista Piranesi, commissioned by the Pope to excavate ancient Rome. For this book, he used his imagination and his excavations to create a picture of ancient Rome. On the left are fossils that I collected as part of my Odawara Art Foundation. In the middle are meteorites, pieces of the Gibeon meteorite, collected around Gibeon, Namibia; the lunar meteorite, collected in the Sahara; and the Ensisheim meteorite, found in France in the 15th century, the first meteorite recorded in Europe [from which samples remain]. He was chained in a church basement to prevent him from returning to God’s place.
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