"Ever since the age of cave painting," Sugimoto writes, "humans have wanted a unified vision with which to see the chaos of this world of ours. Largely, it has been artists who have filled such a role -- and they still hold this function today. No matter how brilliantly religion and science might explain and persuade, there will always remain shadowy areas. Scooping up shimmering particles, these persons of vision fashion decoding devices that afford us a look around in the gloom; we call their handiwork art."
Hiroshi Sugimoto: History of History diverges from the Asian Art Museum's usual fare. Curated by Sugimoto himself, History of History opens with a room filled with artfully displayed fossils -- ammonites and other fossilized sea creatures hang on the wall, while three metal cases sit on black plinths. In each case, someone has carefully carved away the surrounding matrix, releasing the creature from its stone prison. Theatrically lit from above, the fossils seem to float, unsupported, in the gallery's dark space.
The sea lily fossils on the wall are incomparably lovely, their fragile structures embedded in rich red Moroccan sandstone. Almost too perfect and stylized to be organic, the fossils create a complex pattern that rivals any Art Nouveau design.
This is not what one expects to find at a Sugimoto exhibition. Sugimoto, better known for his meticulously composed black-and-white photographs, headlines a double-bill at the Asian Art Museum -- The History of History and Stylized Sculpture: Contemporary Japanese Fashion from the Kyoto Costume Institute. Both exhibitions detail Sugimoto's obsession with form. The two exhibitions are markedly different in subject and scope, but together they take us deep into Sugimoto's practice.
Stylized Sculpture showcases designs by five contemporary Japanese designers (Issey Miyake, Rei Kawakubo, Yohji Yamamoto, Junya Watanabe, and Tao Kurihara) who embody, for Sugimoto, a particularly "Japanese" aesthetic.
History of History showcases a wide range of objects, from Nara-era scroll paintings to twentieth-century silver compacts. The exhibition also features a number of objects either created or modified by Sugimoto. These objects -- two large photographs, a 13th-century iron pagoda, a Buddhist reliquary -- are integral to Sugimoto's thesis, that history might be everchanging, but History, as the form that we use to contain and crystallize this changing world, is always aesthetic. So, it is possible to intervene in the past by pasting a small photograph ("a calm seascape" that is, according to Sugimoto, 'somehow reminiscent of the newborn earth') into a Kamakura-era Buddhist reliquary. Time may shift, but the drive (human or otherwise) towards form -- and by extension, towards beauty -- remains constant.
The design of both exhibitons reflects Sugimoto's desire to foreground the objects' formal qualities -- line, volume, color -- over context. Both exhibitions are housed in completely black galleries. The objects, lit by dramatic overhead lighting, seem completely weightless and unmoored. Displayed in such a setting, the Jomon ritual figure, the Kofun wheelstone, the 8th-century textile fragments from the temple of Horyuji, and the Deco Tiffany & Co. compact are all rendered equivalent, transformed into beautiful fetish objects. Each object seems to emerge out of total darkness, forcing the viewer to contemplate the object as the world drops away. We enter into an almost trancelike focus, akin prayer or meditation.
Aesthetics, not religion, holds the key to history. In his introduction to the exhibition, Sugimoto suggests that religion (and by extension, history) fulfills the human desire to find order, and beauty, in the world. Aestheticism, then, is not just a modern stand-in for spirituality and religion. Aestheticism is the modern equivalent of the religious experience.
Hiroshi Sugimoto: History of History and Stylized Sculpture: Contemporary Japanese Fashion from the Kyoto Costume Institute are at the Asian Art Museum through January 6, 2008.