Over the past 50 years, Hiroshi Sugimoto has created some of the most alluringly enigmatic photographs of our time: pictures that are precisely crafted and deeply thought-provoking, familiar yet tantalisingly ambiguous. Featuring key works from all of the artist’s major photographic series, this retrospective will highlight the artist’s philosophical yet playful inquiry into our understanding of time and memory and the ambiguous character of photography as a medium suited to both documentation and invention.
The camera is a time machine capable of representing the sense of time… The camera can capture more than a single moment, it can capture history, geological time, the concept of eternity, the essence of time itself… The more I think about that sense of time, the more I think this is probably one of the key factors of how humans became humans.Hiroshi Sugimoto
The exhibition will also include lesser-known works that illuminate the artist’s interest in the history of photography as well as in mathematics and optical sciences. Often employing a large-format wooden camera, mixing his own darkroom chemicals and developing his black-and-white prints by hand, Sugimoto has repeatedly re-explored ideas and practices from 19th-century photography, including subjects such as dioramas, wax figures and architecture. In the process, his work has stretched and rearranged concepts of time, space and light that are integral to the medium.
Hiroshi Sugimoto is a brilliant visual poet of paradox, a polymath postmodern who embraces meticulous old school craftsmanship to produce exquisite, uncanny pictures that reference science and maths as well as abstract art and Renaissance portraits. Juggling different conceptions of time, and evoking visions ranging from primordial prehistory to the end of civilisation, his photographs ingeniously recalibrate our basic assumptions about the medium, and alter our sense of history, time and existence itself. Amidst all his peers, his work stands apart for its depth and striking originality of thought.Ralph Rugoff, Director of the Hayward Gallery
Time Machine will commence with a selection of Sugimoto’s black-and-white photographs of natural history dioramas, a series he began in the mid-1970s. The Diorama photos draw attention less to the natural world than to its theatrical representation in museums, whilst at the same time conjuring what the artist has called the ‘fragility of existence’.
The subject of time is also explored in two subsequent bodies of work featured in the exhibition: shot in movie palaces as well as drive-ins, Sugimoto’s Theaters (1976 – ) capture entire films with a single long exposure, thus compressing all the dramatic action that appeared on screen into a single image of radiant whiteness. His renowned Seascapes (1980 -), which depict evenly divided expanses of sea and sky unmarked by any trace of human existence, are equally beguiling in their temporal reference, evoking the immediacy of abstract painting even as they speak to Sugimoto’s interest in focusing on vistas that, as he remarks, “are before human beings and after human beings.”
For Architecture (1997 – ), a series of deliberately out-of-focus studies of iconic modernist buildings – ranging from the Eiffel Tower to the Twin Towers – Sugimoto displays the expansive ambiguity that informs his art, at the same time conveying a sense of the visual germ of an idea in an architect’s imagination, as well as fashioning ghostly images of what he has described as “architecture after the end of the world.”
For his subsequent Portraits (1999) series, meanwhile, the artist focused his camera on wax models of famous historical figures from Madame Tussauds; rendered more life-like in black-and-white, figures ranging from Queen Elizabeth to Oscar Wilde and Salvador Dali take on a disarmingly lively appearance, underscoring the camera’s potential for altering our perception. As the artist has noted, “However fake the subject, once photographed, it’s as good as real.”
A final section of Hiroshi Sugimoto: Time Machine will focus on photographs that evoke different notions of timelessness, including his Sea of Buddha (1995) series, which portrays an installation in a 12th-century Kyoto temple featuring 1000 gilded wooden statues of Buddha; and Lightning Fields (2006 – ), spectacular camera-less photographs created by exposing sensitised paper to electrical impulses produced by a Van der Graaf generator.
The exhibition will come to a stunning conclusion with a gallery dedicated to Sugimoto’s Opticks (2018 – ), intensely coloured photographs of prism-refracted light. Taking inspiration from Newton’s research into the properties of light whilst calling to mind colour field painting and artists like Mark Rothko, Opticks presents deeply immersive fields of subtly varying hues.
Alongside his photographs, two of Sugimoto’s elegantly contoured and polished aluminium sculptures will be presented, alluding to both mathematical equations and the abstract forms favoured by modernists such as Constantin Brâncu?i.
Hiroshi Sugimoto: Time Machine is curated by Hayward Gallery Director Ralph Rugoff with Assistant Curators Thomas Sutton and Gilly Fox, and Curatorial Assistant Suzanna Petot.
Hiroshi Sugimoto: Time Machine, 11th October 2023 — 7th January 2024, Hayward Gallery
The exhibition will be accompanied by a fully-illustrated, 216pp catalogue with newly commissioned essays and an illustrated chronology, co-published with Hatje Cantz. Texts by Ralph Rugoff (on Dioramas), James Attlee (on Theaters), Mami Kataoka (on Seascapes), Lara Strongman (on Portraits), Geoffrey Batchen (on Lightning Fields), Edmund de Waal (on Sea of Buddha), Margaret Wertheim (on Conceptual Forms), Allie Biswas (on Opticks) and David Chipperfield (in conversation, on Architecture). PDF review copies will be available now. The show is set to tour internationally in 2024.
About the artist
Born and raised in Tokyo, Japan, Hiroshi Sugitmoto divides his time between Tokyo and New York City. Studying economics and Western philosophy, he received a B.A. from St. Paul’s University in Tokyo in 1970, and in 1974 obtained a B.F.A. in photography from Art Center College of Design in Los Angeles. Over the past five decades, his photographs have received international acclaim and have been presented in major institutions across the globe. His work is also represented in major public collections, including the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York; Centre Georges Pompidou, Paris; Museum of Modern Art, New York; National Gallery, London; Smithsonian Institution, Washington, D.C.; and Tate Gallery, London. The artist has received many notable awards, including Japan’s prestigious Praemium Imperiale Award (2009), the Royal Photographic Society’s Centenary Medal (2017) and the National Arts Club Medal of Honor in Photography (2018). Whilst best known as a photographer, Sugimoto has more recently added architecture and sculpture to his multidisciplinary practice and has been the artistic director and producer of a number of theatre/dance performances.