Thursday, December 2, 2010

Hiroshi Sugimoto: The Day After @Pace

JTF (just the facts): A total of 21 black and white photographs, 2 fossils in glass cases, and 1 sculpture, displayed against grey and black walls in a winding series of four connected spaces. The first small room contains 3 gelatin silver prints (from the diorama series), framed in black, and two fossils (one meteorite fragment and one slab of Mississippi sea bottom), displayed in low light against grey walls. 2 of the prints are 20x24 from 1992, in editions of 25, the other is 47x73, in an edition of 5. The larger front and back rooms have black walls and are completely dark, with bright spot lights on the works. In each room, a pair of monumental gelatin silver panoramas are hung side by side, covering an entire long wall. Each unframed panorama is made up of 6 panels, each entire work measuring 59x23 and 1/2 feet, printed in editions of 5. There are a total of 7 single image gelatin silver lightning field prints spread across the two rooms, framed in silver with no mat, each 59x47, also printed in editions of 5. The sculpture is set apart in the front room, a Tesla coil in birdcage on a stand. A narrow room is situated between the front and back rooms, with grey walls and bright natural light from the overhead skylight. This room contains 7 gelatin silver seascapes from 1987-1993, framed in silver with no mat, each 47x59, printed in editions of 5. A catalogue of the exhibition is available from the gallery for $50. (Installation shots at right, via Pace.)

Comments/Context: Hiroshi Sugimoto's first show at Pace (having recently joined the stable from Gagosian) is a potent reminder of the power of presentation. Rather than offer a predictable sampler of new and old work in this cavernous space, the artist has used architecture (dividing walls and rooms) and lighting (both dark and light) to transform the viewer's experience, controlling the narrative flow and recontextualizing the prior work in new and unexpected ways. The gallery has evolved from a formless white space into a rich storytelling environment to be experienced, where the production values of the entertainment have become almost as important as the work itself.
The two largest rooms in the show are broad open spaces, subdued by the blackness that envelops them. The only light in these two rooms is provided by the spot lights on the artworks, highlighting the bright flashes of white energy that emerge from the darkness. These Lightning Fields are Sugimoto's newest works, made by using a spark generator to deliver blasts of energy to the film's surface. The artist has likened these images to the crashing of meteorites into the Earth's original primordial soup, introducing energy and foreign chemical compounds into our environment and sparking the creation of life. His monumental panoramas stretch across two long walls (nearly 50 feet), mixing flashes of brightness with textured glimmers and black spots, like growths emerging from the nothingness. Some of the single images are mostly dark, with just a small cluster of delicate incandescent white, while others have evolved into long, thick tendrils of light, like arteries or serpents or ropes, often with tiny fingers branching out and extending from the sides. A few even look like aerial landscapes of dry river beds, with washes of sizzling whiteness cut into the blackness of the land. While many of these works have an organic, natural violence to them, the less successful ones look more like scientific figures from a scholarly paper in Science or Nature, showing some arcane but beautiful properties of electromagnetism. Sugimoto is walking the fine line between art and science here, with varying degrees of memorable aesthetic success. And just when I thought I had absorbed it all, the gallery experience was punctuated by the buzzing crackle of the Tesla coil sculpture, which explodes into a flash of blue light every few minutes, jolting and attacking the viewer with its raw, dangerous power. All I needed was a shard of meteor to crack me on the head in the dark and the visceral experience would have been complete.
The show also contains a selection of seascapes and dioramas, work we have seen many times before, but which has been reimagined here in the context of Sugimoto's "beginning of the world" narrative. The seascapes have been hung a narrow room with heavenly pure light, all of them day views, including the one at the end of the space which is bathed in glare. What I found fascinating is that they no longer seemed to me to be sublime exercises in timeless meditative contemplation. Instead, these images were transformed by the installation into documents of a specific ancient place and time, when the world was covered by seas in every direction, a kind of alien water planet. The tight installation creates the feeling of being in the middle of it all, surrounded by the flat expanse as far as the eye can see. Similarly, the small room at the entry of the show gathers a few of Sugimoto's natural history dioramas. But there are no familiar polar bears and jackals here, only puzzling biological forms attached to sandy sea bottoms. Juxtaposed with a few fossils (not unlike his spectacular show at the Japan Society a few years ago), and once again, the images have been reimagined. Now instead of a witty inversion of fake and real, the dioramas are documenting yet another period of specific time, as the first organisms started to form and develop. The show thus becomes a continuous historical timeline, from the first sparks of unruly energy to the evolution of life in many forms. While there is still a bit of the "old wine in a new bottle" feel here, I was amazed at how thoroughly the old work could be successfully reconsidered in relation to the new images.
Overall, this show gets high marks for its careful construction, and for creating a whole that ingeniously integrates several disparate bodies of work that were previously unconnected. Given the chance element associated with the creation of the lightning field images, it is not at all surprising that some bolts of light are much more interesting than others. That said, I once again came away genuinely impressed with Sugimoto, both as a risk taking scientifically-minded artist and as a surprisingly talented and original showman.
Collector's POV: The works in this show are priced as follows. The large panoramas are $750000 each, the seascapes are $400000, the single image lightning fields are $80000, and the dioramas are either $120000 or between $20000 and $25000 based on size. Sugimoto's work is readily available at auction, at a variety of price points. His Time Exposed portfolio can generally be had at auction for between $3000 and $11000. Small individual prints (in the range of 20x24) typically range between $10000 and $90000. The largest prints (seascapes, wax portraits and architecture) have recently started at $100000 and continued all the way up to over $1 million.

Rating: *** (three stars) EXCELLENT (rating system described here)

Transit Hub:
  • Artist site (here)
  • Reviews/Features: NY Times (here), New Yorker (here)
Through December 24th

The Pace Gallery
545 West 22nd Street
New York, NY 10011

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