June 28, 2022

Hiroshi Sugimoto laughs.

He laughs a lot.

On a Zoom call from Tokyo, the 73-year-old artist laughs at his first reaction to the avant-garde while living in New York in the 1970s: “It’s a very twisted art, so this kind of twisted mind – it can open up applied to me! I am the same kind of animal! “

In no time he switched from working in commercial photography to the “twisted mind” concept photos that made him famous: dramatic shots of animals in the wild that turn out to be stuffed beasts in museum showcases; Photos of Madame Tussauds wax figures that look alive – but also seem to show sculptures or other photographs. “In the end, my art has a kind of punch line,” says Sugimoto.

He laughs at a Japanese identity that he had to learn during his long stay in the USA because the Americans stuck to his origins in Japan: “I try to be as Japanese as possible. I play my Japanese. “With a smile he adds:” I’m a very good actor. “

He laughs at the drama that shapes everything he does. “Like a Jekyll and Hyde, I have two sides – even more, three sides, four sides.” More laughter: “I’m an actor, I play in my life: I play like a photographer, I play like an artist, I play like an architect. “

This last role has caused quite a few laughs in recent years.

In 2018, the Hirshhorn Museum, home of the Smithsonian’s international modern and contemporary art, invited Sugimoto to renovate its sculpture garden, a sunken space on the National Mall that was beginning to crumble. It was opened in 1974 as a simple, brutalist addition to the museum, itself a brutalist jewel by the architect Gordon Bunshaft.

After several summers in Washington revealed Bunshaft’s concrete basin as a kind of Death Valley, modernist landscape architect Lester Collins tempered it with some lawns and plantings – which still didn’t make it a place for people to flock to. When Sugimoto was invited to make his own contribution, he says he read the job as an artistic assignment; after all, Hirshhorn had already honored his art in 2006 in an extensive and inspiring overview of his photographs.

But then, as the gardening project progressed, he found that Official Washington viewed him less as an inspired artist and more as a hired architect who would bow to the wind of experts and public opinion.

In 2019, the capital’s Commission of Fine Arts requested more tree coverings to create a kind of “ceiling level” for his newly designed garden. He came after.

Sugimoto planned to remodel a small pool that had survived from Bunshaft’s garden into a larger basin that could be drained and used as a backdrop for performance art – a popular medium that would complement and update the bronzes of Rodins and Henry Moore’s Visitors seen in the garden for a long time and mostly ignored there. When public feedback urged Bunshaft’s pelvis to be kept, Sugimoto came back and shrunk his new pelvis to make it fit next to it.

But in the course of the approval process it became clear that with the return of brutalism in fashion and the modern landscape now treated as art, there would be resistance to major changes to the designs of Bunshaft and Collins.

At a second meeting in July this year, the Fine Arts Commission had to contemplate a ton of attacks on Sugimoto’s most notable contribution: new partitions made of stacked stones, based on examples from medieval Japan.

Washington’s Committee of the 100 for the Federal City, which advocates good urbanism, called the stacked stones “utterly inconsistent and inadequate” with the garden’s original brutalism, an opinion that echoed in the contributions of other nonprofits and citizens. Architect James McCrery, one of the fine arts group’s commissioners, told colleagues that the stacked stone walls would “go against the mighty overarching architectural vision” Bunshaft had created for the museum.

The naysayers couldn’t convince: five out of seven commissioners voted to move the project forward. This paved the way for Sugimoto to take another leap in the fall, when the National Capital Planning Commission will hold its fourth meeting on his garden design and either approve it or request changes.

Sugimoto doesn’t like to be put to the test by his artistic vision: “You ask Picasso: ‘I don’t like this blue color. Let’s make it red? ”He sees the stacked stone as fundamental to his concept and explains it as a premodern surface that brings out the modernity of the sculptures on display in front of it. He’s even threatened to withdraw if his new walls don’t get the green light. At the thought of being fired, he smiles broadly: “I can be kicked out; that’s fine. “Why hire an artist at all, he asks, when it comes to having a garden that remains largely unchanged?

But nobody seems to be asking themselves another question: Is the artist who will be working on the Hirshhorn Garden in 2021 really the same Hiroshi Sugimoto, whose brilliant photos filled the museum itself in 2006?

Maria Morris Hambourg, founding curator of the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s photography department and one of Sugimoto’s first fans, calls him “the most philosophical photographer; by artists in general ”and describes his photos as“ meta-cognitive objects ”that help us to think about and rethink the“ truth ”.

They have a complexity that can seem almost bottomless. His best wax figure photographs are images of sculptures of historical figures based on photos of people that look like paintings or photos of these figures. Try to unpack it and you will end up in a hall of mirrors.

Something of this complexity can also be found in his “Theater” series, which was mostly shot from the back of old picture palaces. After arranging for a feature to be shown just for him, he put his film on display for the life of the film. In the last few pictures the canvas of the theater is washed out to a brilliant white; the light that was reflected from it during the film spreads an elegant glow over the lavish interior of the room. At first, the photo only seems to reveal serenity and order and a glimmer of longing for long-gone visits to the cinema – until you discover that all of this calm comes from a screen that comes from the turbulence of films like “Friday the 13th” and “The Shine . “These are the contradictions that characterize Sugimoto’s pioneering photography.

Its roots go back to the 1970s, when Sugimoto first discovered the trickster art of Marcel Duchamp, which put mental discomfort before pleasant aesthetics: “This kind of blackness or negative side of art – it echoed in my head, so I became a Duchampian. ”He cites the“ serious comedy ”involved (think, a urinal presented as art) and sees a joke as“ the most sensible tool ”to come to terms with the extent of human folly to deal with in an era of planet-wrecking capitalism. (Before 1970, when he moved to Los Angeles for courses in commercial photography, Sugimoto studied Marx and Engels at Rikkyo University in Tokyo.)

But when he is celebrated for his radical, enigmatic photos, he has turned his back on this game in his thoroughly functional design for the Hirshhorn.

“There is no dark side to my design – the Duchampian-type concept,” he emphasizes. “I do not need it. Only my art has a Duchampian side. I’m not a Duchampian architect at all. “

In the past 20 years he has built a dozen or more buildings and structures, mostly in Japan. (He has a home and studio there and in New York.) Melissa Chiu, director of the Hirshhorn, asked him in 2018 to redesign the museum’s lobby, and that led to Sugimoto’s garden plan. There was praise for a new underpass that leads from the garden to Museum Square and connects it with the National Mall for the first time in decades. Wrapped in a large sweep of highly polished steel, it is sure to turn out to be selfie bait. His stacked stones were at least greeted by their fans as “appealing” and even “beautiful”.

Kerry Brougher, a former deputy director of Hirshhorn who co-curated the Sugimoto survey, discovers a graceful “pentimento effect” in the artist’s garden plans. “I see the bunshaft design in it and the Collins design with a layer of Hiroshi on top,” he says, and that reflects Sugimoto’s own ideas.

But what no one seems to be claiming is that all of this attraction and grace will spawn new thoughts in architecture, just as Sugimoto’s theater and wax figures opened up new possibilities for photography. The artist also mostly uses the word “nice” to describe his project.

Sugimoto explains that, unlike his art, his architecture puts function first and aims at user-friendly spaces that depend on special attention to light, air and surfaces – the building blocks of “friendly” design for at least a century. “If my practice was Duchampian, I would probably try to make a room as unusable as possible,” he says. He sees the concept-heavy work of architects like Rem Koolhaas as full of “bad will” towards their users.

Chiu says she reached out to Sugimoto because his garden would likely be expanded to include other artists, as a place where her work would appear. The peculiar result is that in its service to other artists, the garden seems to lower the bar for its own art. A stacked stone wall, no matter how “beautiful” it may be, seems incredibly powerful on the cognitive front.

Or maybe that’s not entirely true, at least according to Theaster Gates, a prominent black artist from Chicago who sits on the Hirshhorn board. He studied ceramics in Japan, where he met Sugimoto a few years ago; he has fond memories of her karaoke evenings. (In addition to being an excellent cook, Sugimoto is also an avid singer.)

Gates sees the conservatism of the new garden plans as so distinctly Japanese that he gives them a special meaning in Washington. Since museums all over the country are “looking for the next, bombastic, colorful thing”, says Gates, he is proud that the Hirshhorn are behind a project that has a “cultural peculiarity” that sounds true: “What make? Are you asking a Japanese artist to do this? They ask him to create a Japanese garden. You ask him to bring an ethos from his own place. “

And for Gates as for Sugimoto, a decisive element of Japanese culture is their willingness to stick with the tried and tested (e.g. old stone walls speak of ideals that are new to the Hirshhorn.

But could it be that Duchamp, the trickster, is still lurking behind the Japanese conservatism that Sugimoto claims to be defending? Forcing a great modernist like Henry Moore to live with the medieval walls of a foreign culture – and imagining the latest performance art against them – could be a little joke that makes Sugimoto laugh inside. Or that we can at least get a kick.