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Seascapes in Sound, Hiroshi Sugimoto

After spending Wednesday night at the National Gallery, Ionarts was at the Hirshhorn Museum last night for the Hirshhorn After Hours event. The museum was packed with people, drinking cocktails and then going upstairs to look at art. It was great to see. I took a turn through the Hiroshi Sugimoto exhibit, the first career survey of the Japanese photographer. That was after I sat down in the Lerner Room, on the museum's third floor, and listened to a new piece of music, Specification Fifteen, performed by the computers of digital sound artists Richard Chartier and Taylor Deupree.

In front of the sunset panorama of that view -- the National Archives, the National Gallery, the tower of the Old Post Office Pavilion -- two earnest young men, heads clean shaven, stood at their iBooks, manipulating the electronic and sampled sounds that came out of six speakers. The work -- Specification Fifteen, which can best be summed up by the words "space music" -- began with a low rumble like an electric transformer, punctuated by high soft synthesized notes and unidentifiable metallic jangles, before some sounds like rushing water and perhaps a jet plane's roar were slowly added. A crackling sound may have been a tire rolling over gravel, rain falling on a tent, or the frying bacon sound of an old LP. The ostinato of what may have been a heavily altered telephone ring buzzed underneath train horns or perhaps instrumental sounds, sampled or synthesized, maybe a cymbal crash. Near the end there was a section of buzzing sounds, taken from electric clippers or something like it, evoking a cloud of insects. Whatever choices the artists made at their computers appeared to have been in advance of the sounds emerging, because at the end of the 45-minute work, both walked out but the music continued to change and then fade out. A museum official let us know when it was time to applaud.

Hiroshi Sugimoto, Tyrrhenian Sea, Conca, 1994, private collectionIn creating this music, Chartier and Deupree were inspired by the Seascapes series of photographs made by Hiroshi Sugimoto, in response to a desire to view natural sites as primitive man might have seen them. To make these 13 large-format photographs (and four smaller ones), he traveled to seashores around the world and photographed only water and sky at the site, with no other object or person or animal in them. In most of them, the horizon line is placed right at the center of the photograph, so that the frame is equal parts light sky and dark water. The room in which they are shown is cavernous and dark, with spotlights on the photographs, assisting in Sugimoto's ritualistic plan.

The idea of the composition was to imitate the same sense of "stillness and opposing yet related spaces" and "the effect of minute variation under a seemingly uniform surface." This is a theme in several other series of photographs in the show, especially the Colors of Shadow series, from 2004. These are shots are of the bare white walls of the artist's apartment, finished in shikkui (traditional Japanese plaster). As the sunlight plays over corners, it creates shadows, fine shades that vary over the pure white surface. These do not look nearly as good in the online images as they do in the museum. Also in the interest of infinite variation is the Sea of Buddha, a rare photograph of the 1001 "Thousand-Armed Merciful Bodhisattva Avalokitesvara" figures, representing the Pure Land Western Paradise, in a Buddhist temple in Kyoto. These images are displayed end to end in a scroll that seems to go on forever.

The other side of Sugimoto's artistic personality is playful, and some of the series of photographs are made with tongue in cheek, like the Portraits series (1999), in which he recreates oil portraits by Hans Holbein the Younger. This is also part of the motivation behind the Conceptual Forms series, objects and photographs of those objects derived from mathematical theories of unusual shapes and forms. That the pieces are described with the mathematical formulas that inspired them blew my mind. There is a sort of conceptual wink at conceptual modern architecture in the Architecture series, begun in 1997: Sugimoto made large photographs of recognizable contemporary starchitecture -- Le Corbusier's Villa Savoye and Notre Dame du Haut, the World Trade Center -- but blurred. When you approach each image, you experience the familiarity of recognition but the out-of-focus quality causes you quickly to want to turn away.

Sugimoto's least interesting works -- still beautifully composed -- are more documentary, like the Theaters series, begun in 1975. They are documents of the unreal, which adds a nice conceptual twist, as are the photographs in the Dioramas series. At first glance, they look like photographs of animals in the wilderness, but they were all taken in taxidermical displays in natural history museums. The music performance will not be repeated, but I advise you to take in this exhibit of photographs, on display through May 14. If you missed this night of art and music, you can listen to the Hirshhorn's podcasts, including interviews with Hiroshi Sugimoto and Richard Chartier.


Charles T. Downey said...

Margarita, thanks for the comment and the reminder. I should have mentioned that in my post.

Garth Trinkl said...

Charles, I'll disagree with you. I happen to find Hiroshi Sugimoto's Theater series one of the most conceptually brilliant and beautiful series in his career -- easily equal, if not better in my opinion, than his seascapes. For over 50 years, these Theaters were home to America's greatest 20th century art form -- Hollywood and American documentary film.

I sincerely hope that some of these Theaters will be preserved over time from the ravages of urban decline and "creative/destructive capitalism"; for their architecture [despite segregated audiences inside] is truly as important to the American experience as 20th century American poetry, jazz, abstract expressionist painting, music theater and opera, and multiple-media happenings and performance art.

Charles T. Downey said...

Garth, thanks for your comment. We love opinionated readers at Ionarts. As I said, the "Theaters" are beautiful photographs, and the subject is important, I agree.

Anonymous said...

so i'm more than a year late on this.... imho the theatres are glorious, luminous, enrapturing. those images compel you to take the time to search out detail and your (my?) eye delights in each nook it catches, and the whole while you're enveloped in that light. i cannot wait for these images to come to the de Young in SF next week -- it's been years since I've seen them.