Hiroshi Sugimoto laughs.
He laughs a lot.
On a Zoom call from Tokyo, the 73-year-old artist mocks his first reaction to the avant-garde while living in New York City in the 1970s: “It’s a very twisted art, so that kind of twisted mind – it can apply to myself! I am the same kind of animal!
In no time at all, he went from commercial photography to taking the âtwisted mindâ concept photos that made him famous: dramatic shots of animals in the wild that reveal themselves. show stuffed animals in museum windows; Madame Tussauds wax photos that look alive – but also seem to represent sculptures or other photographs. âMy art has a kind of punchline at the end,â says Sugimoto.
He laughs at a Japanese identity that he says he had to learn for years in the United States because Americans kept dwelling on his Japanese origins: “I try to be as Japanese as possible. . I play my nipponitÃ©. Laughing, he adds: “I am a very good actor.”
He laughs at the comedy that shapes everything he does. “Like a Jekyll and Hyde, I have two sides – even more, three sides, four sides.” More laughter: “I am an actor, I play myself in my life: I act like a photographer, I act like an artist, I act like an architect.
The latter role has produced a few laughs over the past few years.
In 2018, the Hirshhorn Museum, home to the Smithsonian for International Modern and Contemporary Art, invited Sugimoto to refresh its sculpture garden, a space below the National Mall that was beginning to crumble. It had opened in 1974 as an aftermarket Brutalist addition to the museum, itself a Brutalist gem of architect Gordon Bunshaft.
After a few summers in Washington revealed that the concrete Bunshaft Valley was something of a Death Valley, modernist landscape designer Lester Collins softened it with lawns and plantations – which still didn’t make it a place. where people flocked. When Sugimoto was asked to make his own contribution, he says, he read the work as an artistic commission; after all, in 2006 the Hirshhorn had honored his artistry in a vast and inspiring survey of his photographs.
But then, as the garden project progressed, he found that the official Washington regarded him less as an inspired artist than as a mercenary architect who would bend to the will of experts and public opinion.
In 2019, the capital’s fine arts commission asked for more tree cover above the head, to create a sort of “ceiling plan” for its redeveloped garden. He complied.
Sugimoto planned to take a small pool that had survived from the Bunshaft Garden and turn it into a larger pool that could be drained and used as a framework for performance art – a popular way meant to complement and update. the bronze Rodins and Henry Moores who visitors have long seen in the garden, and mostly ignored there. When public comment prompted to keep Bunshaft’s pool, Sugimoto complied again, narrowing his new pool to fit him.
But then, as the approval process continued, it became clear that with the return of vogue brutalism and modern landscapes now treated as art, there would be a setback against everything. larger change in Bunshaft and Collins designs.
At a second meeting in July, the Fine Arts Committee had to consider a series of attacks against Sugimoto’s most notable contribution: new dividing walls of stacked stones, based on examples from medieval Japan. .
The Washington Committee of 100 on the Federal City, which advocates good town planning, called the stacked stones “totally incompatible and inappropriate” with the garden’s original brutalism, an opinion echoed in submissions from other nonprofits. and citizens. Architect James McCrery, one of the group’s curators of the fine arts, told his colleagues that the stacked stone walls would be “antithetical to the powerful overall architectural vision” that Bunshaft had created for the museum.
Opponents failed to convince: five of the seven commissioners voted to let the project go ahead. This gave Sugimoto another hurdle in the fall, when the National Capital Planning Commission will hold its fourth meeting on its garden design and approve it or demand changes.
Sugimoto isn’t happy to see his vision as an artist put to the test: âDo you ask Picasso, ‘I don’t like that color blue. Let’s make it red ‘? “He sees the stacked stone as fundamental to his concept, explaining it as a pre-modern surface that will show the modernity of the sculptures on display in front of it. He has even threatened to retreat if his new walls don’t. didn’t get the green light. He grinned broadly at the thought of being fired: “I can be kicked out; that’s fine.” Why hire an artist, he asks, if the goal is to have a garden that remains virtually unchanged?
But there’s another question no one seems to be asking: Is the artist working on Hirshhorn Garden in 2021 really the same Hiroshi Sugimoto whose brilliant photos filled the museum himself in 2006?
Maria Morris Hamburg, founding curator of the photography department of the Metropolitan Museum of Art and one of Sugimoto’s early fans, calls him âthe most philosopher of photographers; artists in general âand qualifies his photos asâ meta-cognitive objects âthat help us reflect on knowledge and reconsiderâ truth â.
They have a complexity that can seem almost bottomless. His best wax photographs are images of sculptures of historical figures based on photos of people posing to look like paintings or photos of these characters. Try to unpack them and you find yourself in a gallery of mirrors.
There is some of that same complexity in his series “Theaters”, mainly shot from the back of old picture palaces. After arranging for a feature film to be screened just for him, he exhibited his film for the duration of the film. In the final images, the theater screen turns bright white; the light that bounced off it as the film unfolded spreads an elegant glow across the opulent backdrop of the room. At first, the photo only seems to reveal serenity and order and a glimmer of nostalgia for the long gone cinema – until you find out all that peace comes from a screen filled with the hustle and bustle of the movies. such as “Friday the 13th” and “The Shining.” These are the contradictions that characterize Sugimoto’s landmark photography.
Its roots go back to the 1970s, when Sugimoto first discovered Marcel Duchamp’s trickster art, which put mental discomfort ahead of pleasant aesthetics: Duchampien. He quotes the “serious funny” that this implies (think, a urinal presented as art) and sees a joke as “the most reasonable tool” to deal with the scale of human madness in an era of. capitalism destroying the planet. (Prior to 1970, when he moved to Los Angeles to take commercial photography classes, Sugimoto studied Marx and Engels at Rikkyo University in Tokyo.)
But while he’s famous for his sweeping and enigmatic photos, he’s turned his back on such a game in its fairly functional design for the Hirshhorn.
âThere is no dark side – the concept of the Duchampian type – in my conception,â he insists. ” I do not need it. Only my art has a Duchampian side. I am not at all a Duchampian architect.
Over the past 20 years, he has constructed a dozen or more buildings and structures, mostly in Japan. (He has a house and a studio there as well as in New York.) Melissa Chiu, director of the Hirshhorn, asked him to redesign the museum lobby in 2018, which led to Sugimoto’s garden plan. There has been praise for a new underpass that will lead from the garden to the museum square, connecting it to the National Mall for the first time in decades. Dressed in a tall shot of mirror-finished steel, it looks sure to become a selfie bait. His stacked stones have been greeted, at least by their fans, as âattractiveâ and even âbeautifulâ.
Kerry Brougher, former deputy director of the Hirshhorn who co-organized his Sugimoto investigation, spots a gracious “repentance effect” in the artist’s garden plans. âI see the Bunshaft design in there and the Collins design, with a Hiroshi overlay,â he says, and it echoes Sugimoto’s own ideas.
But what no one seems to be claiming is that all of this appeal and grace will spawn new ideas in architecture, in the same way that Sugimoto’s theaters and wax works revealed new options for photography. Even the artist mostly uses the word “nice” to describe his project.
Sugimoto explains that unlike his art, his architecture puts function at the forefront, aiming for convivial spaces that depend on careful attention to light, air and surfaces – the building blocks of a “friendly” design. for at least a century. âIf my practice was Duchampian, I would probably try to make a space as little usable as possible,â he says. He considers the heavy works of concepts of architects like Rem Koolhaas as full of “ill will” towards their users.
Chiu says she turned to Sugimoto for the goodwill that her garden was likely to extend to other artists, such as a space where they would like their work to appear. The particular result is that, in its service to other artists, the garden seems to lower the bar for its own art. A stacked stone wall, no matter how “pretty” it is, seems unlikely to do much cognitively.
Or maybe it’s not quite right, at least according to Theater doors, a prominent black artist from Chicago who sits on the Hirshhorn board of directors. He trained in ceramics in Japan and met Sugimoto there several years ago; he has fond memories of their karaoke nights. (Besides being a superb cook, it seems that Sugimoto is an avid singer.)
Gates sees the conservatism of the new garden plans as so uniquely Japanese that he gives them special significance in Washington. With museums across the country “trying to find the next bombastic ‘colored’ thing,” says Gates, he’s proud of the Hirshhorn for supporting a project that has a “cultural specificity” that rings true: “What- what do you ask a japanese artist to do? You ask him to make a Japanese garden. You ask him to bring an ethos from home.
And for Gates, as for Sugimoto, a crucial part of Japanese culture is his willingness to stick to the tried and true (stacked stone walls, for example) rather than demanding the new – “innovation, growth, expansion “- in every corner of the culture. . The old stone walls evoke new ideals for the Hirshhorn.
But could it be that Duchamp, the trickster, is still hiding behind the Japanese conservatism that Sugimoto claims to defend? Forcing a modern great like Henry Moore to live with the medieval walls of an alien culture – imagining the latest performing arts unfolding against them – might be a little joke that makes Sugimoto laugh inside. Or that we, at least, can have fun.