- Hiroshi Sugimoto: Memories of Origin by Yuko Nakamura
Hiroshi Sugimoto: Memories of Origin, a documentary produced by Japanese television network WOWOW, opens with the artist immersed in a reflecting pool behind a large format camera as he photographs Infinity (2006), an abstract aluminum sculpture commissioned for the Art Center at Château la Coste, France. From a spherical base in the water, it rises in perfect arcs to the sky, where it dematerializes into space. Part of a body of work titled Mathematical Models, it represents a transformation of mathematical and geometric principles into computer-generated solids produced from Japan’s most [End Page 294] advanced machining tools. As with his photographs of sculptural renderings of trigonometric functions in the series Conceptual Forms (2004–), Sugimoto’s interest in pure, elegant lines, starkly controlled contrasts, integrated design and stable form reflects his desire to create aesthetic models of reality, to concretize thought and to render visible “invisible facts,” as he calls them, internal to the artist. “His work expresses unseen objects, the world within the heart,” observes Tadeo Ando, architect of the Château La Coste Art Center.
For over 200 days, the filmmakers followed Sugimoto across the globe, from the shores of his native Japan, where he first began to photograph the renowned Seascape Series, to his studio in Chelsea, New York, where he is shown at work with his assistants. Positioned between two worlds, one deeply inspired by tradition, the other oriented toward the future, the film conveys the pristine beauty of Japan’s natural landscape, with its rocky bluffs and mist-shrouded mountains, as well as the soaring skyline of the modern metropolis, the built environments of New York and Paris driven by ambition, progress and commerce. It is an intimate glimpse into the life of the artist, one in which Sugimoto speaks openly about his work and contemporary art. Interspersed with selections from his major photographic series, it re-creates something of the artist’s inner journey towards enlightenment—imbued with the past, inquiring of the present. “Thousands of years of human history are within me,” Sugimoto reflects as he climbs a ladder to a promontory where he stands overlooking the sea and the horizon.
In the studio, Sugimoto prepares films for his 2009 series Lightning Fields, a dramatic body of monochromatic photographs whose effects recall the stunning calligraphic brushwork of Song Dynasty (960–1279) ink paintings. After years of painstaking trial and error with different metals and apparatuses under varying atmospheric conditions, he employs a 400,000-volt Van de Graaf generator to charge a metal ball with static electricity. Polarized by metal plates onto which he positions large sheets of photographic film, he etches electrical currents emitted from an electrode directly onto a transparency. The sparks create intricate abstractions that give the appearance of meteoric showers, treelike branches, silken tendrils and the delicate vascular tissue of living organisms. Luminous, the images seem to exert a strange magnetic power over observers who are drawn to them as moths to a flame. In other studies, he discharges the electrical current into Himalayan salt water to produce diaphanous, ethereal effects of watercolor. As an experimental composer, he creates other impressions by chance, through tests with insulated instruments that include a fine mesh grill used to roast gingko nuts, a needle inserted through the end of a wooden stick, and kitchen implements such as wire whisks, egg beaters, measuring cups and slotted spoons. “Ordinarily it would be a failure, but it is interesting,” he observes, pointing to an effect of winter static in the corner of one of the works that appears to form a constellation.
In some works, Sugimoto confounds perception, as in his celebrated Diorama series. In these picture-box scenarios, reiterations of representational imagery in art, dead animals are juxtaposed with specimens that appear to be alive, each frozen, taxidermied and confined within the static displays of New York’s Natural History Museum. The series questions relationships between natural and artificial environments, the real and the imaginary, through graphic...