HIROSHI SUGIMOTO: 'History's' Treasures Reveal the Japanese

The Washington Times (Washington, DC), May 27, 2006 | Go to article overview

HIROSHI SUGIMOTO: 'History's' Treasures Reveal the Japanese


Byline: Joanna Shaw-Eagle, THE WASHINGTON TIMES

The Arthur M. Sackler "Hiroshi Sugimoto: History of History" exhibition keeps you on your toes. If you don't watch where you step, you might stumble into a floor-mounted trilobite slab from Morocco, the lead artwork in the exhibit. Could these fossils, which are 200 million to 550 million years old, really be part of a museum art display?

The answer is a resounding "yes" from internationally known Japanese-American photographer Hiroshi Sugimoto, who here uses his personal collection as space and time capsules.

Unlike the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden's recent midcareer retrospective of Mr. Sugimoto's work, the Sackler shows the photographer juxtaposing his own aesthetic, sacred and geological treasures with his much-revered photographs.

Organized by New York's Japan Society and the Smithsonian Institution's Sackler and Freer galleries, this exhibit outshines the Hirshhorn's.

As his own exhibit curator at the Sackler, he begins with the fossils - there are 16 in the show representing history's earliest-surviving imprints and the beginning of what he sees as "our eternity."

He then takes us through Japan's history, from the prehistoric Jomon era, to the 8th-century Chinese-art-influenced Nara period, through Heian and Kamakura times.

Finally, he comes full circle with a seascape - the Caribbean Sea in Jamaica, what he calls his image of "eternity."

With Mr. Sugimoto's exploring of "eternity to eternity" - reminiscent of "from dust to dust" from the Anglican Book of Common Prayer - he shows us exquisitely beautiful East Asian and Japanese art objects.

An early Jomon period clay figure (ca. 5,000-4,000 B.C.) reveals just how expressive Japanese art can be - and how early. Mr. Sugimoto, who wrote the exhibit labels, states the figure could have been made for a shamanistic spirit-possession ritual, as a stand-in for a "kami," or god.

"Offering up the figure," the photographer writes, "the shaman goes into a trance, delivering a divine pronouncement; then, at the very climax, the shaman breaks the figure and it falls to the ground, signaling that the kami has departed."

"Nevertheless," Mr. Sugimoto continues, "we have no material evidence to prove that this was the case with this figure, save for its expression."

The exhibit's first gallery, dimly lit to preserve its delicate early objects, drew me in with the rare textile fragments from the Horyuji Temple (Nara period, A.D. 710-794) and Shosoin Imperial Repository, also from Nara times.

Again, Mr. Sugimoto writes perceptively, "These small swatches of textiles from the Shosoin afford us a glimpse of the aesthetics of that time. The ancient temple Horyuji, near Nara, preserves textiles from an even earlier period, dating as far back as the Hakuho era (A.D. 645-710).

"Some pieces, evidencing Persian design motifs from the Sasanian dynasty (A.D. 224-642), apparently traversed the Silk Road all the way to Japan."

How did the photographer collect such rare pieces? Born in 1948, he came by this art by working as an antiquities dealer in New York in the late 1970s and 1980s, according to the Japan Society. He did this to support his own art and, quite unexpectedly, became interested in his own country's art.

He continues to collect and says he likes to show off his new treasures.

The second gallery's carving of a female Shinto deity from the later, 12th-century Heian period shows the marrying of Buddhist and indigenous Shinto religious forms at the time. …

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