Hiroshi Sugimoto, Sea of Buddha @Pace

JTF (just the facts): A total of 36 black and white photographs, generally mounted and unframed, and hung against grey/white walls in central area of the gallery space. All of the works are gelatin silver prints grouped into sets of 3 (from 1995), each panel sized roughly 47×59, and available in editions of 5. 33 of the prints are on display in the central installation; the other 3 are shown framed in a side gallery.

The show also includes 1 video and 5 other black and white photographs (seascapes). The video work is a three channel video made in 1997, on view in a darkened side room and available in an edition of 5. The seascapes are shown in two separate areas of the gallery, each print framed in silver and unmatted. These prints are sized roughly 47×59 each, and are available in editions of 5.

(Installation and detail shots below.)

Comments/Context: At first glance, Hiroshi Sugimoto’s newest show at Pace might appear to be a straightforward rehanging of photographs we have seen before. And of course, in the most literal sense, it is exactly that – these pictures were first made in 1995 and have been widely displayed since that time. Were it not for a bit of fortuitous context (to be explained in a moment), I would have most likely assumed that there was nothing new to discover here. Not so.

The lucky coincidence I’m referring to is a visit I made with my family to Kyoto last summer, and a particular stop we made at the temple of Sanjūsangen-dō, the subject of Sugimoto’s images. Sanjūsangen-dō is a very long and narrow wooden building, with rows and rows of bronze bodhisattva statues standing on risers like fans in a stadium, each one with dozens of individual arms and halo-like metal protrusions. Visitors enter and walk down one long aisle of these statues, the lighting moving back and forth between gloomy darkness and buzzing fluorescence (the windows are largely shuttered), and the statues themselves have an air of creaking dustiness, their gleams sparkling in and out of the shadows like untold mysteries. Between the crowds of pilgrims and tourists, the offering boxes, and the railing to keep people from climbing into the display, it’s honestly a bit hard to get immersed in the quiet religious reverence of the moment, even though the sheer scale of the statues is undeniably impressive.

With this effectively “documentary” memory lingering in the back of my mind, I found myself much more intrigued by what Sugimoto has done in his photographs, and in the gallery at Pace. While a cursory glance might lead to the conclusion that all of the photographs on view are exactly the same, a discerning look reveals that they are each unique views of the statues. Even though his large format camera could only take in a small part of the expansive installation, Sugimoto’s meticulous framing recreates the sense of duration and repetition that brims from the actual place. In each picture, he has painstakingly centered the statues, with two heads along the bottom of the frame and two bisected halos in the corners, so that when the photographs are hung edge to edge, there is a rough approximation of sweeping visual continuity. Sugimoto also made the images in natural light, so that the unevenness of the actual artificial lighting is removed, the angle of the light creating consistent glints off of the faces and decorations and the effective disappearance of the back wall into blackness. In the best sense, and just as he has done with museum dioramas, wax figures, views of the sea, and architectural monuments, he has abstracted the experience, removing the distractions of the real location and paring the display down to its elemental core. Having recently seen the original, I can attest to the clarity and innovation of Sugimoto’s bold photographic re-interpretation – his vision is indeed meaningfully different than the temple itself, with a meditative air of streamlined refinement that enhances the questions the bodhisattvas were intended to raise.

What’s fascinating about Sugimoto’s installation in the galleries at Pace is that even twenty years on, he has continued to adapt the overall impression that the Sea of Buddha images are making. When Sugimoto first displayed these images in the mid 1990s, he didn’t print them particularly large, but in recent years, he has been revisiting some of his earlier bodies of work and exploring how they behave in bigger print sizes. For this show, the bays of statues are each nearly 5 feet wide, and are hung edge to edge only a few inches apart, creating a glorious spanning visual flow. Special architectural walls have been built specifically for this installation, and they gently curve the length of cavernous gallery space, with two small openings where the two arcs meet. I was lucky enough to visit the space when no one else was there, and so had an entirely uninterrupted experience of the works in situ – for those who have seen Monet’s water lilies in the circular room at L’Orangerie, the immersive effect is quite similar. Perhaps someday Sugimoto will enlarge the images to the point that they are one-to-one with the statues themselves and find a space big enough to show all 48 pictures in the series at once (there are 33 on view in this installation), but until that time, this show gives us a taste of his complete vision for the project.

In a side gallery, a related video project introduces a more overt exploration of time into the bodhisattva images. Accelerated Buddha telescopes in, starting outside and moving into an exhibition of the photographs, and ultimately right up close to three of the images on surrounding walls. The images then start to shift and transform, the still frames dissolving into each other like stop motion animation, at first slowly and then with increasing speed. As the pace quickens, the video becomes a frenzy of jittering and stuttering, with an abstract musical accompaniment that unsettlingly jangles the nerves. Sugimoto is compressing time into smaller and smaller slices, and at the end, we experience the entire impression of 1000 statues in the flash of seconds. The hypnotic video offers an alternate experience from the expansive room of pictures nearby, no less meditative in its own way, and perhaps even more pointed in its unpacking of the mysteries of time.

The only missteps in this carefully orchestrated show are the bolted-on seascapes in various adjacent galleries. Sugimoto’s seascapes remain deservedly iconic, but their relevance here is questionable. While there is of course some internal logic that can be expressed to conceptually connect them to the bodhisattvas, they generally felt like an obligatory bow to commercialism, as they are well loved and will be easier to sell than the huge installation. Their awkward attachment dilutes the essential purity of the overall Sea of Buddha experience that Sugimoto has worked so hard to create.

But putting these minor distractions aside, the main exhibit reinforces Sugimoto’s place as one of the premier showmen and experience-creators working in contemporary photography today. The new Sea of Buddha installation is impressively sublime both in conception and execution, starting with a formal photographic vision and expanding it to encompass something more viscerally personal and subtly interactive. This installation is a kind of temple in its own right, where the awe inspiring nature of the original has been reprocessed, transforming it into something crisply modern without sacrificing its timeless presence.

Collector’s POV: The works in this show are priced as follows. The Sea of Buddha prints are sold in sets of 3 for $250000. The video (Accelerated Buddha) is priced at $250000, while the various seascapes are priced at $400000 each. Sugimoto’s work is readily available at auction, at a variety of price points. His Time Exposed portfolio can generally be had at auction for between $3000 and $11000. Smaller individual prints (in the range of 20×24) typically range between $10000 and $90000. And his largest prints (seascapes, wax portraits, and architecture) have recently started at roughly $100000 and continued up to over $1 million.

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