Art Seen: International

HIROSHI SUGIMOTO // PACE LONDON

by Kostas Prapoglou

“The first time I saw a diorama I was overwhelmed by the fragility of existence that it captured. Being models of nature, dioramas include many of the world’s constituent parts.” This was one of Hiroshi Sugimoto’s earliest statements that he made following his visit to the American Museum of Natural History when he first moved to New York in 1976. This second solo show of the Tokyo-born artist at Pace London showcases seventeen large scale works produced between 1976 and 2012 as part of his ongoing Diorama project series.

Sugimoto’s practice embraces the photography of such ready-made settings—the three-dimensional museum displays with painted forest, mountain and desert backdrops which encompass narratives assembled around taxidermy animals, all arranged in a manner to illustrate natural scenes. Using specific lighting and, quite frequently, achieving exposure times lasting up to twenty minutes, the utilisation of sharp black, white, and grey tones in Sugimoto’s work generates an intense clarity and vividness—becoming heavily pronounced by the grand size of the prints.

Hiroshi Sugimoto, Polar Bear (1976). Photo courtesy of The Pace Gallery | © Hiroshi Sugimoto

Hiroshi Sugimoto, Polar Bear (1976). Photo courtesy of The Pace Gallery | © Hiroshi Sugimoto

Evocative of the slow-motion landscape scenes in Godfrey Reggio’s film Koyaanisqatsi, Sugimoto’s prints on view seem, at first glance, like real-life documentary stills. The viewer is immensely captivated by the realistic presence of the depicted animals. In Polar Bear (1976)—the very first work of the series—as in Ostrich-Wart Hog (1980), and Alaskan Wolves (1994), we are confronted by the vibrancy and intensity of the animals’ posture and motion. Sugimoto’s carefully chosen angles show them engaged with their habitual instincts in an utterly realistic manner. However, a closer look of the backdrop challenges us with a mannerism of false reality. The featuring landscapes of Alaska, the Alps, California, and the Galapagos are mere impressions of how each landscape looks like with no actual connections to a “real-time” situation.

During the process of the entire series, Sugimoto developed a keen interest not just in the boundaries between reality and fiction but also in the evolution of the ever-changing natural world and its constituents. His monochromatic images resemble notions of memory and the human tendency to preserve it by any means possible. He underlines the parallelism between taxidermy and fossilization as two very similar processes—one being artificial and the other natural—but still with the same effect. Capturing an image of an object that has already been crystallized in time manifests the prolongation of existence of a given moment into history. It impregnates the continuation of memory, optically as well as emotionally.

Hiroshi Sugimoto, California Condor (1994). Photo courtesy of The Pace Gallery | © Hiroshi Sugimoto

Hiroshi Sugimoto, California Condor (1994). Photo courtesy of The Pace Gallery | © Hiroshi Sugimoto

Sugimoto’s artistic practice and visual language also deals with the intrinsic violence within the natural world. His survey involves not only the natural changes that happen in the course of time, but also the interference of the human element with earth’s landscape. Spanning four decades, his ongoing project gradually unravels his deep concerns over the disappearance or forced relocation of wildlife and the impact of such phenomena on the stability and balance of the eco-system.

Northern Spruce – Fir Forest (2012), Pinon – Juniper Forest (2012) and Olympic Rain Forest (2012) represent Sugimoto’s increasing interest in the destiny of natural world and its progressing history. These more recent photographs portray an anthology of loci, this time vacant of animal presence. We detect a change in his narrative, characterized by a philosophical and esoteric spirit. It reflects his existential wandering and his ongoing investigation of how history is capable of eventually transforming our surrounding environment.

Hiroshi Sugimoto, Northern Spruce – Fir Forest (2012). Photo courtesy of The Pace Gallery | © Hiroshi Sugimoto

Hiroshi Sugimoto, Northern Spruce – Fir Forest (2012). Photo courtesy of The Pace Gallery | © Hiroshi Sugimoto

Departing from the influence of museum dioramas, Sugimoto has created an entirely new world of natural life—his practice prognosticates a development of his subject matter that puts viewers in a position to eagerly anticipate the next step in the photography of the homonymous series.


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Still Life
at PACE London runs through January 24, 2015.

Kostas Prapoglou is an archaeologist-architect, art writer, critic and curator based in London, UK.

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