Art In Conversation
HIROSHI SUGIMOTO with Phong Bui
A few days after the opening reception of his recent exhibit Sea of Buddha at Pace Gallery (February 5 – March 5, 2016) Hiroshi Sugimoto took time out of his constant travel to remote locations around the world for his “Seascape” series—a routine that results in near-perpetual jet lag that he has learned to accept and love—to welcome Rail publisher Phong Bui at the gallery. They were led to a quiet room for a lengthy discussion of Sugimoto’s thirty-six-photograph installation of 1,000 Buddha statues in Kyoto’s Sanjūsangen-dō (the Hall of Thirty-Three Bays, a temple which was competed under the order of Emperor Go-Shirakawa in 1164, the main hall was rebuilt in 1266); five seascape pictures; his first video, Accelerated Buddha (1997), and more.
Phong Bui (Rail): I still remember how pleased and surprised Bob Ryman was that his work was appreciated in Japan the week after he was given the imperial prize (the prestigious Praemium Imperiale, created by the Imperial family of Japan with awards for painting, sculpture, architecture, music, and theater/film) in 2005.
Hiroshi Sugimoto: I met him at the reception for the award ceremony.
Rail: It must have been even more of a surprise for you when you won in 2009. For one thing, it must have felt like the return of the prodigal son, and might have inspired you to move back later. For another, you were given the prize for the “painting” category. Do you recall your response to the committee’s decision, and what the criteria was for such a judgment?
Sugimoto: I have no idea, except that I was told I was nominated several times before I finally got it. As you may know, it starts with recommendations by a group of international advisors before the voting of a selection committee, and a few of the members were aware of my work, but I never thought I would get it for the “painting” category. It was a nice surprise!
Rail: You painted in high school but went to Saint Paul’s University in Tokyo to study sociology and politics. Why?
Sugimoto: I was uncertain of what I was doing at the time. After graduating from Saint Paul’s University in 1970, I left for California. I realized at some point that I didn’t have any proper artistic education, so I spent two years at the ArtCenter College of Design to learn some technical skills. I’m totally self-taught otherwise. I’d also credit my father, who bought an expensive professional Mamiya 6 camera. He couldn’t figure out how to use it, so it became a possession of mine when I was probably around twelve.
Rail: So painting was never a serious proposition.
Sugimoto: It was just a hobby in high school. But later, when I was making my first body of work, the “Diorama” series in 1976, I did feel like a cave painter living alongside the animals. I think some of that feeling was communicated to the viewers, who mistook the animals for living ones.
Rail: I did too, in my first encounter. Anyway, why did you decide to go to the ArtCenter College of Design in Pasadena, a school known for training G.I.s to work in commercial art fields, like industrial design, instead of other art schools like CalArts, Yale, or RISD?
Sugimoto: I went there to study commercial photography.
Rail: That was your intention?
Sugimoto: No, not at all. I was just one of those flower children traveling the world with a very small budget, and came to California partly because it seemed interesting. I wanted to stay there for a while. Also, I wanted to stay in the U.S., so I decided to apply for the student visa through the ArtCenter. I knew I was good at photography, so I submitted my portfolio and they accepted me, allowing me to skip two years and start as a third-year student. When I graduated in 1974, I didn’t seriously plan on becoming a fine art photographer because I never thought it could pay my rent. I planned on becoming a commercial photographer. We should remember that, at the time, photographers were the second-class citizens of art.
Rail: That’s true!
Sugimoto: Photographs were something you took to give away free to your friends. Commercial photography and fashion photography paid well. I still remember when Ansel Adams’s prints were selling for five or six hundred dollars. By the late ’70s, when they were selling for more than ten thousand dollars, it was big news.
Rail: I remember Charles Traub telling me the same thing about his mentor Aaron Siskind’s work. Meanwhile, you know I can only think of two well-known alumni of the ArtCenter. One is Doug Aitken and the other Thomas Kinkade, “the painter of light.” Were you a good student?
Sugimoto: Not at all, mostly because I was too busy with other pursuits–like studying Zen Buddhism! I had friends at U.C. Berkeley who I would catch up on Eastern philosophy with. When I was in Japan I studied Western philosophies, political and social studies, Marxist theories, and so on.
Rail: So you did the reverse: when you were in the East you studied the West, when you were in the West you studied the East.
Rail: I can relate.
Sugimoto: It was also a good coincidence that, when I came to California in the mid ’70s, Zen Buddhism was in vogue among students and young people. I remember telling myself that it was a shame that as a Japanese person I didn’t know anything about my background and culture, so it was time to study it properly.
Rail: Do you recall any particular texts that were important to you at the time?
Sugimoto: Any books by Daisetsu (Teitaro) Suzuki on Japanese culture were the essential source. His Introduction to Buddhism, Zen and Japanese Culture, for example, really helped me to fully understand what I neglected in my youth.
Rail: Then you decided to come to New York in 1974?
Sugimoto: Actually, after my two years in California I went back to Japan for a year. I moved to New York partly because I thought it was a city that would have jobs in commercial photography. I thought I was technically good enough, so I tried knocking on doors and became an assistant for a few commercial photographers but I instantly disliked the situation. I always criticized my bosses. They didn’t like me and I didn’t like them, so I was eventually fired.
Rail: So it was mutual!
Rail: Then what? What did you do next?
Sugimoto: I saw a lot of interesting shows in Soho, like those with Donald Judd’s box sculptures at Castelli Gallery (1976, 1978). I met him later on and we became friends because he was a regular client at the antique store I opened in 1979.
Rail: Where was it exactly?
Sugimoto: In Soho, just across the street from Walter De Maria’s The Broken Kilometer (1979). My first customer was Isamu Noguchi, who my former wife used to work for. He came to the opening reception of the store and bought many beautiful things. Donald Judd came a year or two later. He decided to collect Japanese lacquerware from the 15th and 16th centuries. Dan Flavin would sometimes come in with Judd to buy some ceramic vessels or Oribe ware from the 16th century. Soho was very exciting at the time so it was easy to give up commercial photography. Also, I could really relate to Minimalism. I thought of it as a framework for my photography and it allowed me to envision my work very clearly.
Rail: Were there any other artists you were in dialogue with, besides Judd and Flavin?
Sugimoto: I met On Kawara, and several Japanese artists from the Gutai group and the Neo-Dada movement who were living in New York, most of whom were here on Rockefeller fellowships. We would sit around talking and drinking cheap sake late into the night. Most of them went to the Tokyo National University of Fine Arts or Tokyo University of the Arts, which was then a top art school in Japan. We mostly discussed existential issues about art and philosophy.
Rail: Which makes sense, since the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki at the end of World War II catalyzed new art and cultural movements in Japan.
Sugimoto: True, but on some occasions I would criticize them because it was in the late ’70s, early ’80s in New York City, and there were other things going on, like Minimalism and Neo-Expressionism.
At some point, I had to find a path that would reconnect me to my childhood, when I saw the world in certain dreamlike ways. It was a very slow process. For example, when I was in California I didn’t know that there was such a thing as contemporary art.
Rail: Not even with the Light and Space movement, which came out of Southern California in the 1960s with Larry Bell, Robert Irwin, Mary Corse, and Doug Wheeler, among others?
Sugimoto: Not at all! Not until I came to New York in 1974. I learned about the art world very slowly, mostly because I had a full-time job as an antique dealer. I had a small darkroom in the back of the shop where I would go to make prints. I should add that I became very good friends with Tomio Miki, one of the great Neo-Dada artists, (known only for his sculptures of the ear), just before he died in 1978 at the age of forty-one. Tomio’s work will be better known in the near future, partly because he was a very important member of the movement. He was quite influential to me.
Rail: Were you friends with any of the Fluxus artists at the time?
Sugimoto: Yoko Ono, Shigeko Kubota, Nam June Paik, and a few others who I came to know later in the ’80s.
Rail: Meanwhile, you kept working and making prints in the back of the antique store, which you kept in business for how long?
Sugimoto: Ten years, from 1979 to 1989. I even worked there when I had my first show at Sonnabend Gallery, to whom I was introduced by a Japanese critic friend Homei Tohno. My first show did well, but it wasn’t enough to support my work as an artist then.
Rail: What was the reception of the show like?
Sugimoto: It got a few reviews, including one in Artforum by John Yau, which was thoughtful and interesting.
Rail: When was your first breakthrough in terms of wider public reception, and the kinds of financial rewards that would enable you to undertake more ambitious projects?
Sugimoto: I’d say the show at the Met in 1995 when I was forty-seven years old.
Rail: Let’s get back to the recent works in the show. Accelerated Buddha is your first video work.
Sugimoto: Yes, it is.
Rail: I thought going through the Sea of Buddha installation, absorbing the powerful repetition and riveting images, in a sense prepared me to confront the three-channel projections. The projections cover screens that run from the floor to ceiling, but they’re not too big, not too small. They’re just the right scale to provide a sense of intimacy, but an immersive and overwhelming viewing experience.
Sugimoto: It’s a loop of five minutes and thirty-five seconds.
Rail: Right! At first the sense of intimacy and repetition reminded me of my childhood—how I loved chanting in the Buddhist temple with my grandmother on the weekends, which lasted entire mornings. Did you go to Zen temple when you were a kid?
Sugimoto: Yes, I did, even though my mother was a Christian, though not a serious one because many people mix religions in Japan. My family only went to the temple for the ceremony every New Year.
Rail: There are various subtle differences in how meditation is practiced in different cultures in Asia. In China, one can contemplate nature high in the mountains in complete isolation, partly because China has an enormous landmass. In Japan, one reaches a mountaintop only to find a bunch of folks picnicking. Japan is a small country, so contemplating nature has to be mediated internally.
Sugimoto: I agree!
Rail: As I watch the video, I notice the slight differences in each Buddha, which automatically create asymmetry. As frames of the image accelerate, the asymmetries in each Buddha are amplified, until the only thing that’s visible is the abstract geometry of the rays from their halos.
Sugimoto: Radiating outward and connecting to each other, then melting from one to another, which eventually became one mass of light pattern before it disappears.
Rail: It’s hypnotic and frightening at the same time. What I saw near the end was nothing but the pattern of the halos, as you have just mentioned, intensified and wonderfully synchronized by Ken Ikeda’s music. It begins with a low and constant sound, then slowly builds up to a high-pitched noise as the buzzing speed accelerates to the climactic moment when the gong-like sound strikes in the end, which stops the piece at once. It’s pretty cool!
Sugimoto: Thank you!
Rail: I know you went to great lengths to get permission from the monks to take those pictures.
Sugimoto: It took seven years to get that permission. Those monks were tough businessmen. They even turned down a request letter from Philippe de Montebello, who was the director of the Met at the time of my show there. But I didn’t give up. I worked other channels with the government’s cultural department. I knew that they received $200,000 annually for maintenance and restoration, and I knew the person who wrote the check, so I asked him to write a nice letter. Finally they said, “Wow this is Mr. Watanabe from the cultural department. If he requests it, we won’t say no.”
Rail: What about the concept behind the project?
Sugimoto: First of all, I thought about how people must have envisioned the one thousand Buddha sculptures back in the 12th century. The emperor was aware that the people totally believed that the end of the world was forthcoming. They were chanting for guidance to paradise in the afterlife. The emperor was probably also scared of the end of the world, so he must have told himself: “I must see the paradise while I’m still here.” That’s the basic concept. The building is facing east at the bottom of the valley, surrounded by mountains, so when the sun rises it shines on the sculptures. When the light hits the screen it gives a beautiful diffused natural light and that’s the moment to be seen, within a one-hour window, where the sculptures and the architecture come together in a moment of climax. But now nobody knows about it, not even the monks. They don’t seem to care to pay attention to this phenomenon. It’s the reason I wanted to photograph and recreate that specific moment. I even asked those bureaucratic monks to remove every single item that was made after the 13th century, like offering flowers and sake bottles among other things in front of the Buddhas.
Rail: How long were you able to stay, and how did you set up the shooting routine?
Sugimoto: I was given two weeks, and fortunately every day was a clear summer day. First I constructed a railing structure on the floor, then I set up my huge tripod about three meters high. I had to use a ladder to climb up and down, but once I focused the camera, I didn’t have to refocus. There are thirty-three bays (sections within the temple) and pillars in between each bay. Every shot took about ten minutes, then I would slide my tripod along the rail to the next bay. But even with the one-hour window I was able to shoot six or seven every day. I just repeated the same routine daily. The Accelerated Buddha video is composed from the still images shot in the temple, except for the exterior shot of my exhibition at the Hara Museum in the beginning of the video. Within five minutes and thrity-five seconds, the viewer encounters exactly one million Buddhas.
Rail: One million?
Sugimoto: One million. I made a loop of the forty-eight still shots I took of the one thousand Buddhas. The frames slowly move from one image to another, like the museum viewers moving from work to work, that’s the loop. And I just sped it up until there was a total of one million. One thousand Buddhas multiplied by one thousand times makes one million.
Rail: I feel as though Accelerated Buddha is a piece that functions like a neck, connecting the head, (which represents the West) to the body (the East). I mean, through your work you’ve found a way to reconcile the differences between the two worlds.
Sugimoto: I’m always trying to refresh my memory to get closer to prehistoric times at the formative moments of human consciousness. I’m interested in capturing that moment. It’s the beginning of religion and the beginning of art. It’s statically related to the creation of the mind. In this instance, people believed in the Buddhist paradise, a belief called “Pure Land Buddhism.” The moment of death is not an instant moment, but a transitional period where the mind slowly moves into its afterlife state. It takes thirty-three days before you pass into remarkable and stable death. Thirty-three is the number commemorating passage and forty-eight is another significant number. So within this video, I feel like I’m lying inside the coffin, my body is cold, and I’m not breathing so people think I’m dead, but actually my consciousness is slowly moving into the soul, and I’m being welcomed by these one-thousand Buddhas to the afterlife state. This was the vision of how people experienced the slow transition from consciousness to unconsciousness in Pure Land Buddhism at the time of their deaths.
Rail: Time is perceived very differently in the West and East. You’ve often cited how in Junichiro Tanizaki’s In Praise of Shadows he elaborates on the difference between the East and West through comparisons of light and dark. Whereas the West emphasizes the eternal search for light, for clarity and progress, as proposed in Plato’s “Allegory of the Cave,” the East embraces and appreciates the subtleties and nuance within the shadow. This brings me to my next question about the experience you had looking at the sea when you were how old?
Sugimoto: Four or five.
Rail: How did that experience affect the ways you relate to time: time that stands still and time that moves or flows through images?
Sugimoto: Susan Sontag was very good in exploring the nature of photography and how it relates to time, how time becomes a collection of memories. Before photography, it was the painter’s job to capture memories, but they could never be as real or representative. When photography was invented, painters were amazed. Many became photographers, or they turned to painting states of the mind instead of representing reality. It’s also why abstraction would never have emerged without the influence of photography.
Rail: On the technical front, you have often expressed that your ultimate goal is getting viewers to prolong their looking experience. You eliminate every trace of grain but still manage to create tight, detailed surfaces, which is a necessary feature when an image is viewed up close. Your images also encourage viewers to move far enough away to value formal attributes like scale and composition. How do you achieve the two viewing conditions simultaneously?
Sugimoto: It’s technical mastery of the large-format 8-by-10 view camera and black-and-white printing. I still use 8-by-10-inch negatives, which give me superior resolution, and print the images on traditional black-and-white gelatin silver paper. The most important aspect of mastering the craft is mixing my own chemicals to make the best black and white images I can. I have a medieval mentality; I’ve trained myself to achieve the highest level of craftsmanship in my work. I’m also very competitive, so I want to be sure that no one can do what I do. [Laughter.] For example, I spent my first year at the ArtCenter carefully reading through Ansel Adams’s three volumes on photography (The Camera; The Negative; The Print), especially where he discusses how to mix all the chemical components. I always liked the quality of his prints, not so much his subject matter: how he was able to print so beautifully with such rich blacks without losing any details or tonal lines.
Rail: What about the process of selecting the sites for your calming seascapes?
Sugimoto: The series started with beginner’s luck, but I have learned to look for preferably temperate climates where there are few cloud formations and not too much moisture. When I first started the series about thirty years ago, there was no Google Maps or anything, so I used paper maps to find locations on various seacoasts like the Ligurian Sea and the Baltic Sea in Rügen, Germany’s largest island, among other remote locales, and most recently, in Tasmania.
Rail: Once you decide on the site, how do you set up? I’m always curious about the various vantage points that you are shooting from.
Sugimoto: Usually I pick a high point, a very sharp cliff, where the land jumps right into the water. Sometimes I’m up on a 200-meter cliff, other times just twenty meters. As I go up high, the image appears clearer because I’m looking at a horizon maybe 200 miles from where I’m shooting. When I shoot from a lower vantage point, the horizon is maybe just twenty miles away and less clear. My relationship to the site is very primitive. The first thing I do is stick my finger out to feel the direction of the wind, then I look at the cloud formations each day. I also research the time when the sun rises and sets, along with the dates of the lunar cycle before I plan my trip. The goal is to look for sites on the coast that are as far removed as possible from civilization, far from traffic, boats, yachts, even air traffic. It’s the moment of absolute tranquility that I search for.
Rail: Like your first encounter of the sea when you were a boy.
Sugimoto: Exactly. I remember having this strong feeling that many hundreds of generations ago, possibly back to Neolithic times, my ancestors must have seen a similar image of a calm sea. This strong feeling became my lifelong obsession.
Rail: Is there any particular reason why you only make black-and-white pictures?
Sugimoto: Black-and-white presents a more full range of colors to me. Also, abstraction tends to gain more body in black-and-white, as in the first stage of photography. Black-and-white also references Abstract Expressionists like Franz Kline, De Kooning, Pollock, and late Rothko. In fact, eight of my seascapes were hung alongside eight of Rothko’s late dark paintings.
Rail: At the occasion of Pace London’s inaugural show (Rothko/Sugimoto: Dark Paintings and Seascapes) in 2012.
Sugimoto: Exactly! I share Rothko’s affinity for the early, primal evolutionary sense of humanness. I sometimes see the same dark horizon in his paintings that are in my photographs. Another point about working in black-and-white is that the gelatin silver emulsions are more precious, at least to me, than chemical dyes. I also identify black and white as the colors of life and death, going back and forth. A similar concept is imparted in the Sea of Buddha installation and the Accelerated Buddha video. One thousand Buddhas become a million. They rotate from life to death and from death to life. Endlessly.