Hiroshi Sugimoto laughs.
He laughs a lot.
On a Zoom call from Tokyo, the 73-year-old artist laughed at his first reaction to the avant-garde while living in New York in the 1970s: “It’s art with a very distorted mind, so this kind of twisted mind – It can be applied to myself! I’m that kind of animal!”
Once in a while, he turned from working in commercial photography to shooting “twisted-minded” conceptual photographs that went on to make him famous: dramatic shots of wild animals that stand out. To show stuffed animals in museum mirrors; Photos of Madame Tussauds wax work that look alive – but also seem to depict sculptures or other photographs. “There’s a kind of punchline at the end of my art,” Sugimoto says.
He laughs at a Japanese identity that he had to learn during his years of living in the United States as Americans emigrated to Japan at his core: “I’m trying to be as Japanese as possible. I’m my Japanese. I’m playing.” Laughing he says, “I am a very good actor.”
He laughs at the drama that shapes everything he does. “Like Jekyll and Hyde, I have two sides—even more, three sides, four sides.” More Laughter: “I’m an actor, I’m acting myself in my life: I’m acting like a photographer, I’m acting like an artist, I’m acting like an architect.”
That last role has been generating some laughs over the years.
In 2018, the Hirshhorn Museum, the Smithsonian’s home for international modern and contemporary art, invited Sugimoto to refresh his sculpture garden, a sunken spot on the National Mall that was beginning to crumble. It was opened in 1974 as an additional, brutalist addition to the museum, A Brutalist gem by architect Gordon Bunshaft himself.
After a few Washington summers revealing Banshaft’s concrete dale to a sort of Death Valley, modernist landscape designer Lester Collins softened it up with some lawn and plantings—a place that still couldn’t where people used to come. When Sugimoto was invited to make his contribution, he says, he read the work as an artistic commission; Eventually, in 2006 his artistry was honed by Hirshhorn. A huge and inspiring survey of his pictures.
But then, as the garden project progressed, he found that the official Washington was thinking of him more or less as an inspired artist—at least a hired gun architect who would bow with the winds of expertness and public opinion. .
In 2019, the capital’s fine arts commission asked for more tree cover overhead, to create a sort of “ceiling plane” for its revamped garden. He complied.
Sugimoto planned to take a small pool that had survived from the garden of the bunshaft and re-create it as a large basin that could be drained and used as a setting for the performing arts. Could – a popular medium to complement and update the bronze Rodins and Henry Moores visitors have long seen in the garden, and mostly ignored there. When public backlash insisted on retaining the pool of the bunshaft, Sugimoto once again complied, shrinking his new basin to fit with it.
But then, as the approval process progressed, it became clear that, with Brutalism back in fashion and the modern landscape now regarded as art, there would be pushback against any major changes to Banshaft and Collins designs.
At a second meeting this July, the Commission on Fine Arts had to consider the weight of attacks on Sugimoto’s most notable contribution: the newly divided walls of erect stones modeled on examples from medieval Japan.
Washington’s Committee of 100 on the Federal City, which champions good urbanism, called the stacked stones “totally inconsistent and inappropriate” to the garden’s original brutality, an opinion echoed in submissions from other nonprofits and citizens. Is. Architect James McCreery, one of the commissioners of the fine arts group, told colleagues that the steep-stone walls would be “in contrast to the mighty sweeping architectural vision” that Bunshaft had created for the museum.
Naysayers failed to explain: Five of the seven commissioners voted to let the project go ahead. This cleared the way for Sugimoto to jump through another hoop in the fall, when the National Capital Planning Commission would have its fourth meeting on the design of his garden and would either approve it or demand changes.
Sugimoto is not happy to test his artist’s vision: “Do you ask Picasso, ‘I don’t like this blue. Let’s turn it red’?” He sees the stacked stone as the core of his concept, interpreting it as a pre-modern surface that would reflect the modernity of the sculptures displayed in front of it. They have even threatened that if their new walls are not given the green signal they will be removed. He smiles broadly at the thought of being fired: “I can be kicked; he’s fine.” Why engage an artist at all, he asks, is the goal a garden that remains mostly unchanged?
But there’s another question no one is asking: Is the artist working in Hirschhorn’s garden in 2021 really the same Hiroshi Sugimoto whose magnificent photographs filled the museum only in 2006?
Maria Morris Hamburg, founding curator of the Photograph Department at the Metropolitan Museum of Art and one of Sugimoto’s first admirers, calls him “the most philosophical of photographers”; of artists in general” and refers to their photographs as “meta-cognitive objects” that help us to think about and reconsider “truth”.
They have a complexity that can seem almost unfathomable. His best-known wax paintings are sculptures of historical figures. Based on pictures of people or pictures of what those figures look like. Try to unpack them and you end up in a hall of mirrors.
There is some similar complexity in their series “Theater,” Mostly old pictures shot from behind palaces. After arranging a screening of a feature only for him, he would expose his film for the entire running time of the film. In the final images, the theater’s screen washed to a brilliant white; The light that bounced off it during the running of the film casts a beautiful glow in the lavish decorations of the hall. At first, the picture reveals nothing but peace and order and a glimmer of nostalgia for the long-running movie-watching—until you find that all this calmness is like “Friday the 13th” and “Friday the 13th”. From the tumultuous screen of the film comes out “shining.” These are the contrasts that are the hallmark of Sugimoto’s historical photography.
Its roots extend back to the 1970s, when Sugimoto first explored Marcel Duchamp’s trickster art, which placed mental discomfort ahead of pleasant aesthetics: “That kind of blackness, or the negative side of art – that in my mind echoed, so I became a Duchampian.” He cites the “serious pranks” it contains (think, a urinal presented as art) and the scale of human stupidity in an era of planet-destroying capitalism. sees a joke as “the most appropriate tool” to deal with. (Prior to 1970, when he moved to Los Angeles for commercial photography courses, Sugimoto studied Marx and Engels at Rikko University in Tokyo .)
But if he is known for his radical, puzzled photographs, he has turned his back on such drama in his fairly functional design for Hirshhorn.
“There’s no dark side to my design — a Duchampian-type concept —,” he insists. “I don’t need it. There’s only a Duchampian side to my art. I’m not a Duchampian architect at all.”
in the last 20 years or so he has built a dozen or more buildings and structures, mostly in Japan. (She has a home and studio as well in New York.) Hirschhorn director Melissa Chiu asked her to redesign the museum’s lobby in 2018, and that led to Sugimoto’s garden plan. There has been praise for a new underpass that will lead out of the gardens and into the museum’s plaza, connecting it to the National Mall for the first time in decades. Dressed in a gorgeous swoosh of mirror-finished steel, it looks sure to be selfie-fodder. Her stacked stones have been hailed as “charming” and even “beautiful” by her fans, at least.
Hirschhorn’s former deputy director, Keri Brauger, who co-curated its Sugimoto survey, sees a serious “pentimento effect” in the artist’s garden plans. “I see the banshaft design there, and the Collins design, with a layer of Hiroshi overtop,” he says, and it echoes Sugimoto’s own ideas.
But what no one is claiming is that all this appeal and grace will lead to new ideas in architecture, just as Sugimoto’s theater and wax work 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 is acts first, aiming for user-friendly spaces that rely on light and air and special attention to surfaces – a “friendly” design for at least a century building block. “If my practice was Duchampian, I’d probably try to make a place as unusable as possible,” he says. He sees the concept-heavy works of architects like Rem Koolhaas filled with “bad will” towards their users.
Chiu says that he turned to Sugimoto because of the possibility of expanding his garden to other artists, as a place where he wanted to show his work. The strange result is that, in service to other artists, the garden appears to lower the bar for its artistry. A steep-stone wall, no matter how “good” it is, is unlikely to do much on the cognitive front.
Or maybe it’s not entirely accurate, at least according to theaster gates, a prominent black artist from Chicago who sits on the board of Hirshhorn. He trained in ceramics in Japan and met Sugimoto several years earlier; He has fond memories of his karaoke evenings. (Along with being a prolific cook, it seems Sugimoto is a keen singer.)
Gates sees the conservatism of the new garden plans as so distinctly Japanese that it gives them a special significance in Washington. With museums across the country “trying to find the next, bombastic, ‘colorful’ thing,” Gates says, he’s proud of Hirshhorn for coming behind a project that has a “cultural uniqueness” that’s true: “What to do You ask a Japanese artist to do this? You ask him to make a Japanese garden. You ask him to bring an ethos from his place.”
And for Gates, for Sugimoto, an important element of Japanese culture was the desire to live with the proven (pile-stone walls, for example) rather than the new – seeking “innovation, growth, expansion” in every corner of the culture. Is. . The old stone walls speak of ideals that are new to Hirshhorn.
But could it be that Duchamp, the trickster, still lurks behind the Japanese conservatism that claims to be the Sugimoto champion? Forcing a great modern like Henry Moore to live with the medieval walls of a foreign culture – imagining the latest in performing arts turning against them – might be a little joke Sugimoto is laughing at. Or that we can, at least, have a kick out.