online: 21 january 2004

18 january 2004 art and life

13:13 At the Serpentine Gallery, Kensington Gardens, London. Photographs by Hiroshi Sugimoto and views from the gallery. (Last day of the exhibition.)

Photographs of early morning, and mainly of sea and sky, deliberately underexposed with the shutter slightly open for long periods. Some look like night. The upper half of each photograph is air and the lower half water. Photographed on remote coasts of many countries...

...a painter (or a painterly photographer) whose work re-animates the reality outside his works (that's a test of good art said Eric Mottram* in the 1970s - some art diminishes one's view of life)...

e.g. the view from the gallery, through a wall of windows, to bare trees in sunshine on green grass to the horizon under blue sky and moving clouds, and people and dogs moving like animated parts of a picture (by Uccello?) - this view, seen after looking long at these very still black and grey photographs, seems like a living picture now.

'I could sit here all day looking at this' he thinks. 'It's not the photographs themselves as much as knowing what they are when clues to identity are reduced to nearly nothing ... a profound visual silence ...'

'...if we didn't know these were photographs, photographs of sea and sky and pine trees, we'd probably not look... '

'to look at reality is very difficult' ... 'yes' says someone ...

a constructed perfection of frame, glass, and surface finish ... and of proportion, all these conspire to this effect

'it would be better without reflections of the windows opposite'
'yes' says a stranger nearby ... she says that the effect at 5 o'clock, when it's dark outside, is 'an entirely different impression'

Eventually I look through the catalogue and find that the photographic prints there are nicer to look at - no reflections - and a stronger impression of being photographs (which, unlike paintings, are intended to be seen as prints on paper, not as framed surfaces behind glass)

At the end of the catalogue is a still photograph of an empty stage of the Noh theatre - but with the traditional painted pine tree scenery replaced by Hiroshi Sugimoto's black and grey photographs of pine trees at dawn... and on the next page is a colour photograph of a Noh play in progress - lit by many candles, the sumptuous costumes shining gold and red and yellow.

His is perhaps an art of death, death perceived as positive, as completion of life, as good, not to be feared... a reflection of pre-modern thought and feeling - of ancient Japan, perhaps, or of any ancient culture, most valuable to us...

Here are some of his words from the catalogue:

Photography is a rather young medium and I don't think it has been entirely explored yet. I mean, for like a hundred years people were just amazed and surprised that this machine could capture the way we see the world - even better than painters, ... Now I think it's time for photography to re-surprise with what it can do.
(Hiroshi Sugimoto, Sugimoto, Fundacion "la Caixa", Madrid, 1998.

* Eric Mottram, Professor of English and American Literature at King's College, University of London and a leader of the language-based poets whose innnovative work is still not recognised by the poetry establishment in Britian. He died in 1995.

I knew of him as a fellow student in the 1940s and then, after resigning from a chair of design in the 1970s, I attended his lectures in American poetry as one of several ways to learn about the time-based arts (as they are now called). Other ways were to study the works of independent film-makers and the chance-composed music of John Cage.

See Mottram homepage and Eric Mottram collection.

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