Hiroshi Sugimoto, Polar Bear, 1976. © Hiroshi Sugimoto, courtesy of the artist.
Hiroshi Sugimoto at Hayward Gallery is an immaculately constructed universe of its own. This universe is governed by its own original laws of physics, with the exhibition’s curator stepping into the role of deus-cum-physicist. Wandering across this conceptually organised three-storey maze, I was reminded at once of Dante’s Divine Comedy (given the thematical division of each of the floors) and a French time-travel masterpiece La Jetée (given the varying polemics on time that Sugimoto engages with so eagerly). Sugimoto’s experimentations create a breech in the coherence of popular photographic theories associated with writers such as Roland Barthes or Susan Sontag who, in fact, were never photographers themselves. It was Barthes, for instance, who suggested that what a photograph repeats mechanically (by virtue of being taken with a camera) could never be repeated existentially (you can’t breathe second life into a photographic subject).
Through rethinking photography not only as an aesthetic medium but also a technological one, Sugimoto challenges Barthes: his photographs do not merely reduce the thing photographed into its referent, if at all. At times, Sugimoto photographs are of a referent of a referent. Such is the case with his study of dioramas, in which Sugimoto photographed taxidermized animals positioned before painted backdrops. Using black-and-white film and shooting with 20-minute exposure, Sugimoto hoped to achieve not what Barthes would exclaim to be ‘the return of the dead’ but rather his own anti-existentialist take on immortality.
The effects are astonishing. Photographs such as Polar Bear (1976) and Wapiti (1980) are both captivating and uncanny, naturalistic and surreal; the animals appear at once staged and in their natural habitat. The only mark of artificiality is revealed through the photos' pervasive sense of mourning: here is a polar bear, wailing for a dead penguin; there is a stag, lamenting as if over the fate of all of nature.
Hiroshi Sugimoto, Diana, Princess of Wales, 1999. © Hiroshi Sugimoto, courtesy of the artist.
Another of Sugimoto’s experiments: Madame Tussauds’ waxworks photographed within the trappings of conventional portraiture. Figures like Anne Boleyn, Salvador Dali, Oscar Wilde, and Diana, Princess of Wales (all 1999) appear as if taken from an eerie yearbook, each of the historical figures patiently awaiting their turn in front of the camera. It is through this unification of style (each portrait features the same pitch-black backdrop) that Sugimoto manages to intimately transcend history, generating a sense that his works are bigger than life itself.
This sentiment is then followed by the exhibition’s curator, who utilizes the space of the gallery to an immersive extent. Each of the three floors is organised thematically, and if Sugimoto’s photographs of stuffed animals and wax figures reflect the passage of time on Earth, then the lower floor featuring the ‘Chamber of Horrors’ (another Sugimoto-Tussauds collaboration) must signify Hell, and the top floor, featuring themes of light and spirituality, Heaven. Impressively, this concept is executed with attention to the tiniest of details: the lighting choices actively respond to the general mood of each of Sugimoto photographs, reflecting thus a total understanding of his artistic practise.
Hiroshi Sugimoto, Lightning Fields, 2009. © Hiroshi Sugimoto, courtesy of the artist.
Among more abstract pieces located on the top floor, the Lightning Fields series (2009) are particularly worthy of attention. Produced through submerging electrically charged film into self-made ‘seawater’, Sugimoto managed to recreate conditions in which ameboid organisms came to be, capturing his experiment without the use of camera. Spread out on massive gelatine silver prints, each photograph is a snapshot of a chemical reaction, whose final shape, just like the Rorschach test, is up for the viewer to decide. By combining intention with chance, Sugimoto likens the photographic process to a life-generating event. With each shot, a lightning strike; a good summation of his work. This other-worldly exhibition is a must see.
Hiroshi Sugimoto: Time Machine is at the Hayward Gallery, London, until 7 January.
Under 30s go for £8 Wed-Fri, and after 5pm on Saturdays.
Edited by Samuel Blackburn