Monday Musing: Sugimoto


There has long been a battle between time and history. Simply put, time likes to obliterate and history likes to stick around. In the long run, time always wins. But in the short run, history has been known to score a few points, though often by being so brutal and absurd that some have wondered whether time’s efficient destruction wouldn’t have been the better option. Such is life. Caught between our own human dumbness and the empty monotony of a mute cosmos we tinker away, bags of mostly water.

In this great, if pointless, battle, the art of photography has always been an ambivalent weapon. Does photography work in history’s camp, laboring away to freeze time, capture moments, and preserve something in memory, which is history’s greatest ally? Or is photography the killer of meaning, a cudgel in the arsenal of time, a momento mori that reminds us of the ruin eating away at the core of history.

This ambivalence goes back to the dawn of the medium. Some of the earliest photographic portraits feel like tiny triumphs of history. Not only have they preserved a moment of personhood, showing us individual human subjects, they’ve also managed to capture a small portion of the context and environment in which that person achieved whatever personhood they did. They preserve a little chunk of world, and world is meaning. But then there is the work of photographers like Atget and Marville. In these photographs, the world is just barely a world, the empty streets of Paris have been reduced to landscapes under the order of nature. They can’t last. They’re already ruins. They already betray the signs of decay, which is the fate of all things.

Hiroshi Sugimoto has long thought of himself as a photographer. These days he’s branched out into making all number of things and an impressive array of them can currently be viewed at the Japan Society. There are dioramas and ‘fossils’ and sculptures and copies of masks, textiles, household objects, religious icons and various other testimonials to human civilization. They are all rendered with the smoothness, precision, and calm detachment that has characterized Sugimoto’s photographic work. But they are photographic in a much deeper way than that. He’s still working on the knife’s edge where history and time come together.

The show is called, aptly, The History of History. And it is difficult to figure out which side Sugimoto is on. His concern for history sometimes feels like a tribute to its struggle against time. But, then again, the mood of Sugimoto’s inquiry suggests that he is an observer from outside, peering at history from the vantage point of eternity. How else could he dare contend that he is producing a history of history. Such is the stuff of gods or extraterrestrials or brains in a vat. Indeed, a person could be forgiven for thinking that Sugimoto is one of Epicurus’ gods, surveying the course of history from the intermundus, the space between worlds, with a sublime indifference.

In an interview with art critic Martin Herbert, Sugimoto said:

The first portfolio of seascapes I published was entitled ‘Time Exposed’ because time is revealed in the sea. When I began thinking about the seascapes I was thinking, what would be the most unchanged scene on the surface of the earth? Ever since the first men and cultures appeared, they have been facing seas and scenes of nature. The landscape has changed over thousands, millions of years, man has cultivated the ground, built cultures and cities, skyscrapers. The seascapes, I thought, must be the least changed scene, the oldest vision that we can share with ancient peoples. The sea may be polluted, but it looks approximately the same. So that’s a very heavy time concept. People have a lot of strange ideas about my seascapes – they think these photographs were done using very long exposures, but they are in fact very fast because I wanted to stop the motion of the waves, which are constantly moving.

And it is these same seascapes that dominate the installations in the History of History exhibit. By dominate I mean that they are the subtext for everything else. They loom. Never more so than in the tiny sculpture Time’s Arrow. A reliquary that could fit in the palm of your hand, Time’s Arrow looks like the kind of thing that might frame an old snapshot of your grandmother. Instead it is a seascape. That damn seascape. Nothing has been more ominous since the obelisk of 2001: A Space Odyssey. But the obelisk and the seascape are completely different in at least one important way. The obelisk seemed to purport some unknown design, a determinate, if hidden, purpose at the horizon of the cosmos. The seascape is purposeless, plain and simple. Time’s Arrow indeed. What a cruel joke, Mr. Sugimoto. There’s no arrow in that arrow, no direction. All that time promises is simply more of itself. More time. More horizons looking infinitely forward and infinitely backward. You may, Sugimoto seems to suggest, choose to fill up that empty expanse with history, probably there’s nothing better to do, but time will always have an answer. The seascape cannot be erased.

It reminds me of the old Soviet joke:

On the occasion of an anniversary of the October Revolution, Furmanov gives a political lecture to the rank and file: “…And now we are on our glorious way to the shining horizons of Communism!” / “How did it go?”, Chapayev asks Petka afterwards. “Exalting!… But unclear. What the hell is a horizon?” / “See Petka, it is a line you may see far away in the steppe when the weather is good. And it’s a tricky one — no matter how long you ride towards it, you’ll never reach it, you’ll only wear down your horse.”

In Sugimoto’s vision, the struggle of history against time is a ridiculous one. The pathetic labors of civilization are a bemusing spectacle. Behind it all, always, the horizon, the empty expanse of the sea, the changeless obliterations of time.

And yet … there is something tender about Sugimoto’s reproductions of history and the spectacle of culture. He’s doing work on history, almost fetishizing its objects. At the same time, the limitless horizon of the seascape. The two don’t resolve themselves in Sugimoto’s work. They’re just what is.