Q+A: Hiroshi Sugimoto

Congratulations on your show. In preparing a retrospective, have you gained any insights into your artistic life?

I feel like my life is almost over! I tried to make the show’s title simple: “A Retrospective.” How-ever, at the Mori, we’re also using the subtitle “End of Time.” It sounds negative, but I’m saying, “Let’s think about the beginning of time.” One cycle is ending, and I’m ready to start a second life.

What will you do with it?

I may try a new medium because the gelatin silver photography I use now is almost obsolete. No one is making the paper or film anymore.

You are known for photographic series devoted to wildly different themes: museum dioramas, movie theater interiors, seascapes, and (since 1997) masterpieces of modernist architecture, which you shoot out of focus. What connects these bodies of work?

The concept of time plays a role in many of them, as does focus. When the image is out of focus, the concept is in focus. When the image is in focus, the concept is out of focus, or as I prefer to say, it’s focused at twice the infinity point. I try to make the concept sharp in my perception, but on film it just comes out blurry.

What qualities attract you to a particular building?

The subject has to be an icon of modernist architecture so that I can trace the history of modernism itself. I once shot an Egyptian temple at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and it came out quite well. But before modernism, architecture and design served religious purposes or political powers. Only in the 20th century did design become oriented to the individual and serve nothing other than the building’s inhabitants.

How do you research your subjects?

I find as many pictures of the building taken by other photographers as I can, to get a clear idea of the most common perception of it. Then I just re-create that established, idealized view. I’m looking at the buildings as historical phenomena; I’m curious about why they became famous. I’m not trying to show my own taste.

Which buildings would you still be interested in photographing?

Many architects offer theirs, but I can shoot only the work of dead architects. The building itself has to have a conceptual core—weak buildings that are only about what’s on the surface cannot survive my out-of-focus approach; they just melt. Since I’m taking fewer photographs now, I’m moving toward making real things in real space. I built a shrine on Naoshima Island in Japan after extensive study of the Ise shrine style. The space we’re in now is another of my experimental architecture projects. I’m photographing it as a part of the retrospective and making public editions. When I design a space, I start with an abstract composition in my mind. Then I construct it.

In designing this studio, how did you adapt it to your needs? What is important for you in a work environment?

This is not my work environment, not a photo studio, but a space designed for watching shadows. I can be myself and relax here. The walls are white, but nothing is painted. It’s all shikkui, Japanese stucco, which gives a particular quality to a shadow when the sun is setting. The stucco has three layers: two in different shades of gray, and then the finish. Similarly, my new work is titled Colors of Shadow, and I’m trying to make it as monochromatic as possible, even though I use color photography. I’m also using this space for architectural experiments. I designed all the hanging rails, which are not for commercial production. I invented the air conditioner, and it should be better than Donald Judd’s—it’s functional. For the floor, I bought more than 40 tree trunks of kusunoki (camphor wood), had them sliced 1.5 inches thick, then piled the planks to dry out for a year and a half before installing them. The floor does not touch the stucco wall. I wanted to leave a narrow space between them so that the shadow cast on the wall by the edge of the floor would be a sharp line.

One policy is that everything has to be solid; nothing is just a surface. This table I made, with a 4-inch top, is heavy wood. I work with a team of very good craftsmen who have skills that are no longer popular since they’re so time-consuming. Building a house used to take two to three years, but now people want it in six months. It took me four years to get to this point, and I keep paying the craftsmen by the hour. They like working with me because they can prove themselves in an authentic way.

And when the space is finally done?

I’m in the process of acquiring land in Manazuru facing the Bay of Sagami, not far from Tokyo on the Pacific side. It’s at the tip of a peninsula, and there’s a steep cliff that rises 100 meters above sea level. Right now, two acres are covered by an abandoned tangerine field that I’ll probably develop into a kind of land art, though definitely not in the style of Arakawa. This project will take another 10 to 15 years, assuming I can survive that long. More immediately, I’m going to have a show next year at the Pompidou Center’s Brancusi Studio, for which I’m planning to show Brancusi-like pieces of mine.

Among your architectural photos is a striking image of the World Trade Towers. Were you in New York on 9/11?

I was in my studio in Chelsea watching the buildings collapse half a mile away. The sky was so blue it was kind of surreal, like a slow-motion film. I found some irony in the incident. The media kept calling it a kamikaze attack, yet the architect was Minoru Yamasaki, a Japanese American. People always criticized the Twin Towers, but to me they were much better than the Sears Tower in Chicago, which is why I photographed them two years before 9/11. I took the pictures from the Millennium Hilton, a 50-story building, facing the towers’ midpoint. I wanted to go up to the roof of the Hilton, but the insurance company wouldn’t let me, so I shot through the window of a top-floor suite. Several months after 9/11, my World Trade Center photo was sold for $65,000 at auction.

What effect did the tragedy have on your work, and on your attitude toward the U.S.?

I have mixed feelings. Everything has changed since 9/11—it’s no longer the America I used to know. Americans have become very aggressive and nationalistic. As far as my work is concerned, when I first settled in the U.S., there was a feeling of freedom as an artist. But now, I can’t travel with my work without having X-ray problems, especially when it comes to big sheet-film, which is so seldom used. At the airport I’m always ordered to open the box to show what’s inside. So I’m retiring from photography. Digital photography? I don’t use it because it’s too easy. [Chuckles]

Why do you divide your time between New York and Tokyo? What does each city offer you that the other lacks?

I definitely don’t want to die in New York City. I’ve seen so many lonely old people there. I’m slowly moving back to Japan, but my business will still be based in New York. I usually don’t stay in one place for more than two months. Yesterday, I took a suburban train to visit a factory, and I hadn’t taken a train for more than a year. I felt like someone just getting out of jail. The Tokyo I am nostalgic for is gone. The down-town commercial area I grew up in, Okachimachi, has no stand-alone houses anymore.

Your recent Conceptual Forms series includes photographs of gears and other mechanical devices. Does this represent an interest in industrial design as well as architecture?

Yes. The devices were made in the late 19th and early 20th centuries by Germans using the best technology of the time. When someone in Tokyo ordered tools for determining the performance of trigonometric functions, they built plaster models of those functions’ shapes. The models represent forms that follow beautiful mathematical equations. Equations are purely abstract, and if the theory is beautiful, then the form should be beautiful as well. I wasn’t good at mathematics in school, but now it’s very interesting to me.

What cultural media inspire you? Literature? Music? Dance?

History. It may not be a medium, but it’s really my interest. The end of time and the history of time. I published a book called History of History relating to my collection of old Japanese art and artifacts, and I even started collecting fossils. On September 22, I have another exhibit opening, at the Japan Society in New York, and in the first room I will show my fossil collection. I call fossils “pre-photography time recording devices”—they function in exactly the same way as photography. This cockroach-like trilobite sat on a seabed 350 million years ago, and suddenly an underground volcano erupted. …In that sense, history is not completely of the past; you can apply history to the future. So, in fact, there is no “end of time.” I’m too busy to see it.

Kazue Kobata is a professor of art at Tokyo National University of Fine Arts and Music and an adjunct curator at P.S. 1 Contemporary Art Center in New York.

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