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Hiroshi Sugimoto: History of History
Hiroshi Sugimoto. Mississippian Sea Bottom. Onychocrinus Ulrichi and Cyathodrinites Lowensis periods fossil. 10 x 6 in (26 x 15.2 cm). Image courtesy of Hiroshi Sugimoto.

NEW YORK.-Hiroshi Sugimoto: History of History is a unique investigation into the experience of time and history from the perspective of internationally acclaimed artist Hiroshi Sugimoto. Conceived and curated by Sugimoto, the exhibition is co-organized by the Japan Society and the Freer Gallery of Art & Arthur M. Sackler Gallery, Smithsonian Institution in Washington D.C. History of History will be on view at the Japan Society from September 23, 2005 to February 19, 2006, and from April 11 through July 20, 2006 in Washington D.C., where it will coincide with Sugimoto’s major retrospective exhibition at the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden.

Comprised of over 80 works, History of History juxtaposes Sugimoto’s own photographs, selected from the artist’s well known series of seascapes, natural history dioramas and wax museum figures, with an enormous range of traditional Japanese and East Asian artworks, as well as prehistoric, ancient, and medieval religious and ritual artifacts, all drawn from Sugimoto’s private collection. The exhibition’s juxtapositions of past and present add a new dimension to Sugimoto’s photography, which the artist has famously described as “time exposed.” Employing tools and techniques that recall 19th century photography—an 8 x 10 view camera designed expressly for the artist, low-sensitivity film, hand-printed, black and white images—Sugimoto’s photographs suggest the uncanny persistence of the eternal in the present with their powerful sense of calm and strange, fragile stillness. In History of History, Sugimoto’s preoccupation with the passage of time takes on concrete, multiple forms, as he places photographs from his various series in the context of the history of Japanese art and civilization—more precisely, in proximity with the aesthetic, sacred and geological objects that he has collected over the past decades.

Sugimoto first developed History of History for the Galerie Hermes, Tokyo, in 2003, and has enormously enlarged and refined the initial concept, adding many new objects, in order to design an installation specifically for the Japan Society. “We are extremely grateful for the renewed dedication and effort that Mr. Sugimoto has extended to this project at the Japan Society,” states Japan Society President, Frank L. Ellsworth, “from the design of the exhibition and the selection of artworks, to his writing of new texts, enabling us to enjoy and understand the objects through his own words.”

About the Exhibition - Beginning with prehistoric fossils of plant, animal life and geological formations, the exhibition offers a tour of history that includes ritual objects from Japan’s Jomon and Kofun periods (6th century B.C. to 7th century A.D.); religious reliquaries, textiles, mandala, paintings, sutra, and sculpture from the 8th through the 15th century; and, a number of recent assemblages in which the artist has combined ancient works or fragments with his own photographs and other contemporary objects. The exhibition embraces an immense span of time, materials, and representational processes, from fossilized accretions to mechanical reproductions; ritual objects and sculptures hewn from recalcitrant stone or cast in bronze, to silver-gelatin apparitions on paper. The resulting presentation is a precisely staged, richly evocative construction of history: not history as a remote past or as a set of static objects, but as a process that unfolds through attentive experience, a continual discovery of the past in the present and the present in the past. As Sugimoto writes in the introduction to the History of History exhibition catalogue:

Contemporary art and ancient art are like oil and water: seemingly opposite poles. Yet for the longest time now, I have found the two melding ineffably into one, more like water and air. Living with pieces of ancient and medieval art, I have come to feel that I might borrow upon some small increment of their beauty, so as to transplant that power into my works. Seen here are seascapes informed by my mentor, ancient art, and that unworthy pupil, my contemporary art.

In foregrounding the artist’s personal collection, the exhibition illuminates an important aspect of the artist’s biography and aesthetic commitments. In the late 1970s Sugimoto opened an antique dealership in New York while working as an artist, and continues to collect a wide range of works and artifacts. Reflecting on the place of his collection in his practice, he states that “my art is a collection of my ideas, and ideas are often inspired by my collection."

While Sugimoto’s photographic work has been widely discussed by critics as an essentially perceptual project driven by conceptual concerns and technical challenges, History of History offers an unusually direct and accessible point of entry into the artist’s investigations of time. The individual works and installations in the exhibition are accompanied by Sugimoto’s informative text and lucid voice. Regarding Time’s Arrow of 1987, for example, which combines a 13th century fragment of a bronze reliquary and one of Sugimoto’s 1980 seascapes, in a miniature print, he writes:

The sea is framed by a fragment of a Buddhist reliquary in the shape of a hoju or flaming jewel. Originally for containing ashes of the Buddha, it would have been enshrined inside a portable altar case. Note the delicate manako “fish roe” pattern peculiar to the Kamakura period (1185-1333) metalwork, as well as the powerful sculptural representation of flames, all thickly applied with layers of gilt. In place of the missing ashes, I have inserted a seascape of calm sea surrounded by fire, somehow reminiscent of the newborn earth. Time’s arrow shoots from the primordial sea through a Kamakura period frame straight at your eye.

Unlike the initial version of the 2003 exhibition in Tokyo, the Japan Society installation includes an installation of exceptionally varied prehistoric fossils. According to Sugimoto, “photography functions as a fossilization of time.” By adding these layers of natural history to the project, the artist has extended the exhibition’s historical scope by many thousands of years, and has also emphasized the ways in which the human apprehension of time is inseparable from nature’s artful recording of its own changes.

About Hiroshi Sugimoto - Born in Tokyo in 1948, Sugimoto graduated from St. Paul’s University, Tokyo, in 1970 and left Japan for the United States to study at the Art Center College of Design in Los Angeles, earning a B.F.A. in 1972. There he absorbed the tenets of Conceptualism and Minimalism, which continue to inform the technical and intellectual rigor of his work. In 1974 he moved to New York City and became a dealer and collector of Japanese and East Asian Art in 1979.

Sugimoto’s frank veneration of classical Japanese concepts of beauty and his deep respect for traditional arts and religious practices would seem to set him apart from dominant trends in contemporary art and photography. Yet like many contemporary photographers, Sugimoto views history as a dynamic process and productive “problem” for photography, not as a given that photography simply records, captures or reflects.

Working in series, Sugimoto is deeply interested in the interconnections between modern and ancient worlds and the ways in which time, an abstraction, is perceived and represented. Following an early series of time-lapse photographs of old movie theater interiors, he began to photograph museum exhibits, and created a series of impeccably detailed wax human figures and dioramas of early humans from museums of natural history. Devoid of any details such as exhibition furniture or gallery space to indicate the fabricated character of these beings

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