HIROSHI SUGIMOTO: ETERNITY IN NAOSHIMA.

Naoshima is a small island located in the Japan Inland Sea. In the 80′s the island’s mayor and Tetsuhiko Fukutake, a rich business man, agreed on a cultural and educational camping project for children. Architect Tadao Ando was called for working on the project and, in 1989, the campsite opened, surrounded by outdoor sculptures from Yayoi Kusama, Karel Appel and Dan Graham.

The real start of the contemporary art dedicated site is 1992, when the founder’s son, Soichiro Fukutake unveiled Benesse Hotel,  housing various buildings and a contemporary art museum. Tadao Ando’s architecture then revealed an exceptional place and the Fukutake’s collection richness attracted a new audience. From there, the project never stopped growing with the aim of unifying art with the natural environment. Other museums opened and more and more artwork was displayed throughout the island, playing with culture, nature and time.
On the opposite side of the island, in the village of Honmura, the link between architecture, contemporary art and history strengthened from 1998 through four additional projects orchestrated by Tatsuo Miyajima, Tadao Ando in collaboration with James Turell, Rei Naito and Hiroshi Sugimoto. Miyajima and Naito’s projects involved some 200 years old village houses restoration, while the others have moved into old sacred places, once prayer temples.
This is the way the artists found to take up the village, restored its houses and changed them into exhibition spaces, taking care of the traditional architecture of each building and working in keeping with the spirit of the place.

At the heart of the project, and with a narrow complicity with the architecture, Sugimoto’s artworks frame and focus, open and deepen our landscape perception, like windows opening on infinity or more intimate keyholes taking us back to ourselves. His photographs stretch bridges between the past, the present and the future, the world of the living and the dead, and plays perfectly with this place of memory, among the profane and the sacred.

Sugimoto was born in 1948 and grew up in Tokyo, in an area saved from WW2 bombardments. In his house was a very narrow naked courtyard surrounded by the neighbouring houses. When he was inside, he could see the sky as if he was looking through a frame formed by the lines of the walls1: this is the beginnings of  his sliced vision.
But he stepped into photography for a different reason: he wanted to build the most precise train models he could and therefore was taking pictures of locomotives. He quickly settled his own development laboratory and attended his school photography classes.
When he first saw Audrey Hepburn on a screen, he dreamt about being able to photograph her face. One afternoon, as the screening room was empty, he took his camera in and shot pictures from the screen, trying every kind of adjustments. He still today keeps the negatives from this very first experiment, presumably the start of his screening and theatre series taken across the US (Theaters series,1975-2001). Sugimoto has always loved experiments and has been reading scientific magazines all along his childhood. He was also used to new technologies thanks to his father coming back home with all the latest tech bits. This probably explains his deep taste for experiments, which has endlessly fed his creativity.
This too, actually is the starting point of the series: what would happen if I capture a whole film within a single picture? The answer was: I would have a bright and empty screen. So, as when a teenager, he went in a local East Village cinema to experiment. He opened the obturator all the way through and closed it two hours later. When he developed his film on the same evening, the result was amazing: a perfectly white and bright screen, a picture of emptiness, coming from fullness. A physical evidence – almost a demo – of time erasing the matter. If “any photograph is a presence cerificate2, it’s about a missing presence, an already past presence”. In the Benesse Hotel’s corridors, these white rectangles attract the eyes by creating ‘escapes’ in the architecture’s dense, massive concrete.

A huge photograph from Tadao Ando’s work in Osaka, The Church Of Light (1997) is also echoing the whole architect’s work. Built in 1988-89, this church is the most famous work from the architect, but also one of the smallest. Dark wood and concrete dominate the inside almost completely enlightened by an in-wall carved cross, located behind the altar and opening onto the outside. It has been designed to be a spiritual home and Sugimoto’s photograph renders this spirituality perfectly since the daylight is powerfully and gracefully coming through the cross to the inside.
Also in the Benesse Hotel’s entrance six panels featuring pine trees are displayed, photographed in the neighbourhoods of the Imperial Palace  in Tokyo (Pine Trees, 2001). This is a composition of various shots making this imaginary place a tribute to the famous Japanese painter Hasegawa Thakur (1539-1610) and his very famous work featuring a pine trees forest.
Through an in-depth study of the blacks and the contrasts, Sugimoto has tried to reproduce ink textures with photography.

Sugimoto takes our eyes beyond, in the same way Tadao Ando’s architecture endlessly opens breaches, breaks view angles and breathes new perspectives.
His oceans’ photographs are exhibited together, outside on the museum’s terrace, talking to each other and facing the Japan Inland Sea. A dialogue between what is and what was. In one glance, it is therefore possible to oppose a still peace to a tumultuous present, and compare both illusions.
Because death is a constant in Sugimoto’s work, each image witnesses what was and will no more be. Yet without nostalgia. The photographer stands aside from History: no boat on the horizon, no human being, nothing in these images can anchor photographs in a given time. This explains why this –disappeared – ocean, has here the value of eternity. These still and quiet waters we today contemplate are the same the Greeks had been contemplating before us.

The images, carrying a perfect serenity are, in a certain way, a promise of a desired immobility.
The first time the artist saw the ocean, he had a shock. He says he “spied” it, through the windows of a train as a bright autumn light was powerfully underlining the horizon, as clear and precise as a samurai sword. This experience left him an indelible memory since he felt he saw an original landscape, such a purity he would keep on looking for.
The fourteen artwork pieces have been displayed next to and facing each other, so they infuse a reassuring repetitive logic of ‘sameness’. It is this changelessness the artist has been looking for. When he began taking photographs of oceans from all over the world, a question arose: is someone today able to see a landscape such as the first man saw it? In every sea he shoots, he’s looking for this ‘first’ look, and even if horizons are all different, it is this ‘sameness’ the photographer chases, like an ultimate evidence of eternity.
Unexpectedly, the artwork is hanged outside, unprotected from daylight, humidity and time alterations. Sugimoto exposes their fragility, to better enhance their intensity.

The Go-Oh temple the artist has restored shows this perfect will to separate time and space. The restoration is part of four Art Houses projects. This temple, isolated on a small hill of Naoshima, dates back to the Muromachi period (1338-1573) and was in a very bad condition. This time, Sugimoto has been called as a designer, and he left aside the classical approach to adopt an imaginary architecture, closer to the one of the Ancient Japan first Shinto believers. He thus took inspiration from the Takiharagu architectural style, associated to the great Ise Temple, one of Japan’s oldest. He wanted to revive the Shinto and the kamis’s spirit, those living spirits one can find everywhere in nature, living either in rocks, trees or waterfalls. Before the Shinto architectural spirit took shape in the 17th century, sacred places were set in the nature, where the spirits presence was the strongest. The Temple houses three parts: the prayers hall, the sanctuary and the crypt, carved in the island granite. A glass stairway named ‘Stairway Of Light’ enables to go from one to the other, from Earth to Heaven. The glass used is the same the artist uses to polish his camera lenses.
A white pebble field, where priests only are allowed to walk, surrounds the temple. To access the crypt, one must sneak inside through a narrow door, a long and rectangular black opening. There still lives the artist’s obsession: the frame and the eye of the photographer. When going out and looking back, one can see a tiny opening, purposely open onto the sea. Once again a new perspective, a stolen glance towards the ocean relentless horizon.

A parallel with Jean-Luc Godard’s 1963 film «Le Mépris» is therefore unavoidable. The villa were Brigitte Bardot and Michel Piccoli go, in Capri, is overlooking the sea. Everywhere, narrow escapes open onto the sea virgin horizon, and infinite stone stairways lead up to nowhere. The movie making going on there, The Odyssey of Homer, talks about the same wish to go back in time. The movie starts on the wide open rectangular mouth of a camera, taking us into the same dreams as Sugimoto’s and Tadao Ando’s ones.

Caroline Ha Thuc .
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1 Sugimoto, The Times Of My Youth: Images From Memory, text from his retrospective, Mori Art Museum, 2005-2006.
2 Roland Barthes, La Chambre Claire,  Gallimard, Le Seuil, 1980.
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images courtesy: Mori Art Museum, Benesse House and Chichu Art Museum.

for more on Sugimoto’s art interactions, please read our article:
ROTHKO | SUGIMOTO
FROM DEAD HORIZON TO THE SUBLIME.