Sugimoto first visited the American Museum of Natural History in the mid-70s shortly after moving to New York. He writes- ‘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. The only thing absent is life itself. Time comes to a halt and never-ending stillness reigns.’
These dioramas have haunted the artist’s work ever since. Pace’s latest exhibition features 13 large format photographs taken from the series between 1976 and 2012, and on which Sugimoto continues to work.
At first glance the photos seem like actual landscapes, but on closer inspection the near distance breaks into brushstrokes and the illusion reveals itself. The scenes are elaborate sets, the animals stuffed. Sugimoto is fascinated by the artificiality of these carefully constructed assemblages.
The photographs are full of tension between stillness and drama and are executed with the artist’s typical restraint. They are reminiscent of his series of photographs of movie theatres and drive-in screens. Started in 1978 these odd, silent portraits exhibit the same extraordinary stillness. There is something profoundly beautiful about the empty, impassive screens usually so agitated and dynamic.
‘Still’ is an interesting word to consider. It is both an adjective that denotes an unmoving, static state and it is also a verb ‘to still’– the movement towards stillness- strange and oxymoronic. A still is also a photograph- a fragment, a moment in time captured. Sugimoto seems to be questioning the artist’s ability to create ‘stillness’. The diorama is a human construction, an artificial scene, and then Sugimoto’s photograph itself is a whole other level of stillness. It is a still of a still. The artist thus creates layers of artificiality. We are compelled to question the authenticity of a photograph, and in turn, of all imagery.
The use of immaculate black and white photographs and extended exposures (sometimes lasting as long as 20 minutes) makes this artificiality all the more obvious- after all this is not how the real, coloured dioramas even look.
Sugimoto has lived and worked in New York since 1974 having previously studied in Tokyo and California. He has exhibited all over the world and is shortly to open another exhibition of his work at The Phillips Collection in Washington DC.
This is the second time he has exhibited at Pace London, his first show having been chosen as the inaugural exhibition of the gallery in London in 2012 where his work was juxtaposed against Rothko’s paintings. In total Pace has dedicated 6 solo shows to Sugimoto since he joined the gallery in 2010, clear evidence of the gallery’s faith in the artist’s lasting cultural (and monetary) value. Sugimoto is now one of the best performing contemporary photographers at auction and regularly appears in significant contemporary art sales at the top auction houses.
Catch this show while you can. The internet is no substitute for the seeing these enormous and beautiful works in person.
21 November 2014- 24 January 2015
6 Burlington Gardens, London