Binding History

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HIROSHI SUGIMOTO: HISTORY OF HISTORY

ASIAN ART MUSEUM OF SAN FRANCISCO

OCTOBER 12, 2007-JANUARY 6, 2008

Curated and installed by the photographer Hiroshi Sugimoto, the exhibition "History of History," on view at the Asian Art Museum of San Francisco, highlighted not so much Sugimoto's photographic practice as his artifactual and curatorial predilections. These, in turn, shed light upon his oeuvre in a way that a straightforward exhibition of his photographs never could. Most of the objects presented--many of them owned by Sugimoto himself--bear directly or obliquely upon his photographic work, as with a thirteenth-century scroll depicting a Bodhisattva, the subject of the artist's "Hall of Thirty-Three Bays" series (1997), or the fossils that appear in certain images from the 1970s. The exhibition ranged in tenor and tack from the anthropological to the inventive, from the visual immediacy of the photograph to the circuitous cerebrations of conceptualism.

The first gallery in the exhibition might well have been titled "Sugimoto's History of Pre-history" in that it presented exclusively prehistoric fossils from as far back as the Silurian period (425 million years ago). The alien beauty of these natural artifacts rivals the hand-wrought intricacy of any sculpture. A sprawling shelf of fossilized sea lilies from 400 million years ago reveals a mesmerizing panorama of lolling plants whose wispy heads seem to flutter while the rocky surface appears veined with traces of water that also seem to pulse and course undyingly in the strange abeyance of eternity Remains of a prawn and crayfish (from the Eocene Epoch) hung nearby in flat, ghost-like silhouettes, betraying a different kind of preservation more reminiscent of a photographic image. Indeed, while the presentation of these objects obviated the camera as mediator, the direct, physical relation between these expired objects and their phantom remains conjures issues at the heart of photography and photographic theory--especially the notion of the photographic image as a physical trace or index of its object.

Sugimoto's photographic practice has long engaged with other modes and means of representation and thus, by extension, with the ontological questions that haunt photography. His photographs of wax figures (many of them based on paintings themselves) and diorama tableaux, for instance, take his imagery to a higher mathematics of re-presentation. His images from the American Museum of Natural History, such as Cambrian Period (1992) and Cro-Magnon (1994), like his wax portraits of painted portraits of Henry VIII (1999) or Fidel Castro (1999) stage subjects at multiple degrees of remove. Yet their presence seems utterly, and thus deceptively, unmediated. Sugimoto's reputation as a photographer rests on the cogent, thematic series in which he has exhibited since the 1970s: "Dioramas" (1976), "Wax Museums" (1976), "Theaters" (1978), "Seascapes" (1980), "Hall of Thirty-Three Bays" (1995), "Architecture" (1997), "In Praise of Shadows" (1999), and "Pine Landscapes" (2001). …