Watch in Wonder: Hiroshi Sugimoto at the deYoung

Watch in Wonder: Hiroshi Sugimoto at the deYoung

Jul 6, 2007

Tomorrow marks the opening of the Hiroshi Sugimoto exhibit at the deYoung, a retrospective of the artist's work that originated at D.C.'s Hirshhorn Museum and Tokyo's Mori Art Museum. We attended a tour of the exhibition this morning that was led by none other than Sugimoto himself, where we were amused to hear the world-class fine art photographer describe his design for the dark gallery spaces as "spooky."

OK, spooky maybe--but in the best sense of the word.

Sugimoto treats on heady subjects like memory in history, and the nature of vision, reality and representation, but his work is hardly all intellect. His large-format prints are so technically sophisticated and so beautifully executed that their emotive qualities shine through. And while the images are lovely to just drink in, they become even more intriguing when you understand how and why they were created.

For instance, Portraits is a series of amazingly life-like B&W portraits of King VIII and his six wives that was created using 20-minute exposures of wax figures at Madame Tussaud's in London. Sugimoto strived to emulate the lighting setups used in Vermeer's potraits of these same figures -- the very same portraits on which the wax figures were originally based.

There's a pickle of an art history circle for you.

As AT bloggers we were struck by the way the design of the exhibition supported the emotional power of the images, and tried to glean a few tips for AT readers who are thinking about hanging and lighting art at home.

For one, much was made out of the downstairs gallery's darkness. Sugimoto's ghostly seascape series (top and second images), conceived in his quest to capture an impression of the world as an early human would have seen it, consists of views of the sea/sky horizon. The large-scale images are mounted in one very long row on a long, curved wall in a wide, dark hallway and lit from behind like projections. The film strip-like effect this creates feels like a close look at a single moment in time even though these images were captured all around the world over the course of Sugimoto's travels. The soft curve of the wall echoes the blurring of the horizon between sea and sky. Dramatic, contemplative and soothing, this is a space we could spend a lot of time in.

We were also intrigued to read in the exhibition's monograph that one of Sugimoto's earliest influences was a chair designer:

"In those days my best buddy was named Nakazawa. Not a kid like me, he was a carpenter my father called upon for one home-improvement scheme after another. I watched in wonder as Nakazawa sawed boards, chiseled out grooves, and planed chamfers. I revered his skill and tagged along whenever I could to admire his handiwork. After each day's work he tidied up, then honed his chisels. Once a week he honed the blade of his plane -- I can still hear the wonderful rasping noise of the steel passing on the moistened whetstone. From time to time he stopped to examine the edge, which looked plenty sharp to my eyes, only to return it to the whetstone. I believe I learned my love and resepct for tools from Nakazawa. When I reached third grade, I worked up enough courage to ask Nakazawa to let me make a chair on my own, without any help. Nakazawa simply smiled and gave me a heap of wood scraps. I pictured in my mind what I wanted to make, and even dreamed up how I was going to put it all together. One Saturday I concentrated on the project all afternoon. I could hardly drive a straight nail. Finally I had my finishd trophy, but when I tried to sit down, the chair rocked terribly. Nakazawa made a show of sitting on it, without putting his weight on it. These less-than-perfect results nonetheless left me with a great sense of acheivement and satisfaction."

The exhibit opens tomorrow ( July 7th) at the deYoung and runs through September 23rd.

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