washington times, May 27, 2006
'History's' treasures reveal the Japanese
By Joanna Shaw-Eagle
The Arthur M. Sackler "Hiroshi Sugimoto: History of History" exhibition
keeps you on your toes. If you don't watch where you step, you might
stumble into a floor-mounted trilobite slab from Morocco, the lead
artwork in the exhibit. Could these fossils, which are 200 million to
550 million years old, really be part of a museum art display?
The answer is a resounding "yes" from internationally known
Japanese-American photographer Hiroshi Sugimoto, who here uses his
personal collection as space and time capsules.
Unlike the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden's recent midcareer
retrospective of Mr. Sugimoto's work, the Sackler shows the photographer
juxtaposing his own aesthetic, sacred and geological treasures with his
Organized by New York's Japan Society and the Smithsonian
Institution's Sackler and Freer galleries, this exhibit outshines the
As his own exhibit curator at the Sackler, he begins with the
fossils -- there are 16 in the show -- representing history's
earliest-surviving imprints and the beginning of what he sees as "our
He then takes us through Japan's history, from the prehistoric
Jomon era, to the 8th-century Chinese-art-influenced Nara period,
through Heian and Kamakura times.
Finally, he comes full circle with a seascape -- the Caribbean Sea
in Jamaica, what he calls his image of "eternity."
With Mr. Sugimoto's exploring of "eternity to eternity" --
reminiscent of "from dust to dust" from the Anglican Book of Common
Prayer -- he shows us exquisitely beautiful East Asian and Japanese art
An early Jomon period clay figure (ca. 5,000-4,000 B.C.) reveals
just how expressive Japanese art can be -- and how early. Mr. Sugimoto,
who wrote the exhibit labels, states the figure could have been made for
a shamanistic spirit-possession ritual, as a stand-in for a "kami," or god.
"Offering up the figure," the photographer writes, "the shaman goes
into a trance, delivering a divine pronouncement; then, at the very
climax, the shaman breaks the figure and it falls to the ground,
signaling that the kami has departed."
"Nevertheless," Mr. Sugimoto continues, "we have no material
evidence to prove that this was the case with this figure, save for its
The exhibit's first gallery, dimly lit to preserve its delicate
early objects, drew me in with the rare textile fragments from the
Horyuji Temple (Nara period, A.D. 710-794) and Shosoin Imperial
Repository, also from Nara times.
Again, Mr. Sugimoto writes perceptively, "These small swatches of
textiles from the Shosoin afford us a glimpse of the aesthetics of that
time. The ancient temple Horyuji, near Nara, preserves textiles from an
even earlier period, dating as far back as the Hakuho era (A.D. 645-710).
"Some pieces, evidencing Persian design motifs from the Sasanian
dynasty (A.D. 224-642), apparently traversed the Silk Road all the way
How did the photographer collect such rare pieces? Born in 1948, he
came by this art by working as an antiquities dealer in New York in the
late 1970s and 1980s, according to the Japan Society. He did this to
support his own art and, quite unexpectedly, became interested in his
own country's art.
He continues to collect and says he likes to show off his new
The second gallery's carving of a female Shinto deity from the
later, 12th-century Heian period shows the marrying of Buddhist and
indigenous Shinto religious forms at the time. Shinto images had never
before been represented in figural form and this marks one of the first
Nearby, Mr. Sugimoto's enormous black-and-white 1977 "Kegon
Waterfall," a gelatin silver print, couldn't be more appropriate. Rarely
has a contemporary artwork capturing the Japanese Shinto-kami-gods-based
pantheistic feelings been created elsewhere.
Two Shinto-oriented vertical hanging scrolls, the "Kasuga Wakamiya
Mandala" (13th-century Kamakura period) and "Shinsen'en" -- "literally,
garden of the sacred spring," as the brochure describes it -- also from
Kamakura times, show even more the photographer's love of Shinto art.
Although somewhat damaged, the "Mandala" shows a number of monks
carrying what Mr. Sugimoto describes as "the sacred object of the
shrine" away from the shrine, all under a beautiful moonlit night.
In the final room, the artist effectively juxtaposes what he calls
the "natural histories" of one of his "seascapes" with the human ones of
the six masks that constitute "Confessions of a Mask" (13th to 15th
Contrasting the masks (the human histories) with the artist's great
Jamaican seascape (part of the natural histories), this room is a
fitting end to the artist's preoccupation with eternity. The show begins
and ends with this beautiful symbol of never-ending time.
The exhibit is perfect, except when the artist goes into conceptual
pieces like "Sterilized Life," in which he displays curved stone beads
from Japan's early Kofun period in a 1950s medical sterilizer; and
"Testament of a Penis," in which a Jomon period fertility piece sits
atop a 1950s hospital gurney.
Despite these issues, this final stop of the exhibit's tour
shouldn't be missed.
through July 30
with kind regards,
Matthias Arnold (Art-Eastasia list)
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