Hiroshi Sugimoto: Time Machine

Hayward Gallery (London), Oct/23-Jan/24

Shadows are important elements of Japanese culture. Japanese novelist Junichiro Tanizaki  wrote his well-known essay In the Praise of Shadows (1933) during the Shōwa period, reflecting on the deep relationship between shadows, the rise of artificial light, and the modernisation of Japan in the twentieth century. Before electricity, natural shadows offered a mysterious, almost secretive aspect to interior spaces such as theatres, homes, and temples, and many Japanese objects were designed considering the forms and shapes of shadows.


In Hiroshi Sugimoto: Time Machine, a large retrospective of the great Japanese artist at the Hayward Gallery, the visitor is introduced to a rich and vast landscape of photographs that spans his 50-year practice. Through Sugimoto’s lenses, diverse subject matters such as animals, celebrities, and movie theatres take on new and unexpected meanings.

Installation view of Hiroshi Sugimoto, Theatre series. Gelatin silver prints. Image credit: Mark Blower. Courtesy the artist and the Hayward Gallery

Opening the exhibition space is Sugimoto’s early dioramas series, inspired by his visits to New York’s American Museum of National History in the 1970s. Stuffed animals pose for the camera and look very lifelike, but upon closer inspection, their fakeness becomes apparent, and their eerie quality is revealed. Abandoned and empty movie theatres take centre stage in another iconic series that began in 1976. Sugimoto tests the limits of perception by capturing an abnormal brightness that seems to come from beyond the confines of the picture frames. These images depict the decay of cinemas, creating a fascinating yet disturbing sense of unease among viewers.

Sugimoto is renowned for his photographs of inanimate subjects, and this pattern is evident in the artist’s portrayal of historic and famous figures. His visits to various wax museums worldwide have given rise to ambiguous images that oscillate between past and present, fiction and reality. His subject matters are photographed with meticulous precision, showing an artist potentially unwilling to relinquish control over his muses.

Image: Installation view of Hiroshi Sugimoto, Conceptual Forms and Mathematical Model 006. Gelatin silver prints, aluminium and steel. Photo: Mark Blower. Courtesy the artist.

Other pieces continue to emanate this strangeness, where the sea and the sky transcend their tangible forms and transform into abstraction. The viewer is immersed in a contemplative and meditative environment, and silence naturally takes over the exhibition space. The last few rooms show photographs that depict the colours of light observed through a prism, exploring the rainbow spectrum and the mathematical nature of colour. Reminiscent of Rothko’s seminal colour field paintings, these works interact with the sublime, producing a collective sensation that closely resembles a spiritual experience.

Born in postwar Tokyo, shaped by the reconstruction of Japan and technological progress, Sugimoto has employed the camera as a tool to honour the shadows of the past while also mastering the numerous possibilities of the shades of light and darkness. Time, in Sugimoto’s photographs, acts as a key protagonist and plays with the destiny of each frame. Though his work sometimes delves into a more obscure territory, as if the world and its beings have stopped in time, existing only as fossils and lost, forgotten monuments, this exhibition highlights Sugimoto’s vital approach to the multiple journeys between life, death, and everything in between.

Caroline Fucci for London Art Walk
January 2024