As a photographer, living in Tokyo is a joy. And not only for the embarrasing richness of subject matter. All the major camera manufacturers, along with their showrooms and service centers, are based here. Specialist camera retailers, new and used, abound, as do printers and publishers. And there are dozens of photographic galleries across the city.
One of the better ones opened in Ebisu in 1995. After I moved to Tokyo, the Tokyo Metropolitan Museum of Photography was a regular stop for me; its exhibitions were sources of inspiration and education until it closed late in 2014. This month it reopened in a new incarnation as the Tokyo Photographic Art Museum, or TOP Museum, with a feature exhibition by New York and Tokyo based Japanese photographer Hiroshi Sugimoto: Lost Human Genetic Archive. This exhibition comprises two distinctly different galleries of work and is appropriately presented on two floors.
Today, the world died. Or maybe yesterday. I was foolish to promise citizens a better tomorrow.
Sugimoto was a student of politics and sociology and, later, fine arts before picking up his large-format camera 40 years ago to shoot the first of his Dioramas. He has since worked on various large scale conceptual photographic series and has become a celebrated and awarded photographic artist, his work added to the collections of many of the world’s great art museums.
On the second level of the TOP Museum, which also houses a compact gift shop that mostly stocks photography books, the gallery is a typical minimalist space of white walls and concrete flooring, sliced in half by a partition wall. On one side of the darkened space hang nine large silver gelatin prints; shot with an 8 x 10 camera, these are the latest instalment of Sugimoto’s Theaters series, showing crumbling or decaying theater proscenia, each symmetrically framing the pure whiteness that is the canvas of a central movie screen. Most of the venues in this Abandoned Theater series are located in the USA. His interest in modern architecture might explain the choice of subjects for this series, but what makes these images fascinating is that Sugimoto projected a different movie onto each screen during his photo sessions – Rosemary’s Baby by Roman Polanski at the Michigan Theater in Detroit, for instance ― and he exposed each photo for the duration of the movie that was screened.
Today, the world died. Or maybe yesterday. Toward the turn of the twenty-second century, the high-rises of the early twenieth century began to crumble.
The other side of the partition presents the Sea of Buddha, an arrangement of nine photographs taken in 1995. These too are gelatin prints and were taken with an 8 x 10 camera. The images are essentially the same, close-up frames of some of the 1001 sculpted 12th Century figures of Kannon housed at Kyoto’s Rengeo-in Temple, gleaming in the morning sunlight. At the rear of this space, adding to the spiritual mood, is a spotlit miniature modernist interpretation of a five-element pagoda; the crystal-like artifact is constructed of polished glass and rests on a slender wooden plinth, containing within a miniature of one of Sugimoto’s Seascapes photographs.
My introduction to Sugimoto was through his Seascapes, which he started working on in 1980, a series of bleak and melancholy minimalist abstractions that are also calm, meditative and eternal. Most famous of these formally composed monochrome compositions of sea and sky is likely the 1993 image of the Boden Sea, used on the cover of the 2009 U2 album, No Line on the Horizon.
Today, the world died. Or maybe yesterday. Amid the currents of late capitalism, art skyrocketed in popularity to become the top trading commodity, paying higher dividends than stocks or bonds.
On the third floor the minimalist modernism of a typical photography exhibition is worlds away. Entering the gallery, with its steampunk sensibilities, is like wandering through the set of a dystopian movie, or possibly a time capsule from some alternative reality ― and in a sense it is. This space too is dimly lit, spotlights drawing attention to various clusters of objects. The gallery has been divided into adjoining and interconnected cubicles and nooks with walls of rusty corrugated iron sheets and worn repurposed timber planks. The exhibition comprises 33 dioramas containing objects as diverse and far-reaching in time and space as 200 million year old shell fossils, meteorite fragments and an early model Macintosh computer; space food from the Apollo 11, Yves Saint Laurent patterned fabric and a 16th Century Noh mask; Meiji period Bunraku dolls, a display of Campbell’s tomato soup cans and vintage Time magazines; Barbie and Lenci dolls and a lone life-size latex love doll; birds nests, a stuffed parrot and an occasionally singing and dancing lobster.
Here and there are photographs: Sugimoto’s portraits of Lenin and Castro taken from wax likenesses, a seascape of the Caribbean Sea, a multi-panel vista of a rainforest, and a number of Lighting Fields, images made by applying electrical charges directly to sheets of film. But in this space the photographs are incidental, almost lost among and subordinate to the ordered jumble of objects and media. The young Sugimoto was influenced by the Surrealists, particularly Marcel Duchamp, who inspired one series of his photos and whose portrait ― taken by Man Ray ― also hangs on one of the walls here. In essence, the entire gallery space is like a surreal narrative: there are texts ― thirty-three of them, written by Sugimoto and Harumi Niwa ― that ‘narrate’ the various dioramas in the space from differing points of views, among them an idealist’s: On leaving the garden, humans knew no fear of failure ― they were prepared to fail ― and now they have; an art historian’s: All art has become parody; an astronaut’s: I’m sick of this zero-gravity life; self-sufficiency in space sucks; a journalist’s: Society had atrophied, justice wasn’t happening. What was I thinking? a militarist’s: Military industries are now a major diving force of the global economy; and finally a comedian’s: Come to think of it, a person’s life is a comedy, the way we’re led to believe we have to conform to societal standards of how to live. And they all begin with the same refrain:
Today, the world died. Or maybe yesterday.
From the prehistoric past all the way into the future, the natural world on earth and outer space, the separate realities of the arts and sciences, of war and politics, pop culture and religion, there is a smorgasbod of themes here, but, as Sugimoto looks toward his seventh decade, it’s decay, the passing of time and death that loom large over all.
This installation is unlike any photography exhibition I’ve seen: it’s a masterwork of curation and conceptualization, obviously created with a generous budget and much resourcefulness on the part of Sugimoto and the curators. There are many kinds of photographers; Sugimoto is an artist. He began giving form to his creative ideas by photographing dioramas in natural history museums and now, forty years later, he has created his own dioramas, presenting his creative impulses in a three-dimensional reality. Lost Human Geneteic Archive is a fascinating, moving and inspiring sensory experience. If this is an indication of things to come, I’m so happy the TOP Museum is up and running again.
Today, the world died. Or maybe yesterday. I don’t know.
In this exhibition you will find the worst scenarios created by my imagination regarding the future of humankind. It is up to the younger generations to take every possible step to prevent them from becoming a reality.
Hiroshi Sugimoto: Lost Human Genetic Archive is showing at the Tokyo Photographic Art Museum until November 13, 2016.
Image above taken at TOP Museum and shows Original Forest in Pennsylvania (1980) from Hiroshi Sugimoto’s Dioramas series.