The Art Historian - reprinted from the exhibition catalogue
"I often think of the artists of Renaissance, a time in which a harmonious combination of religion, science and art existed. […] Renaissance artists were stirred by a profound religious faith, while also engaging in serious scholarship. After the astronomical telescope had been perfected by Galileo on the one hand, and the microscope had been invented by Van Leeuwenhoek on the other, human beings achieved an objective view of the world. From then on, the human race was caught between the infinitely large and the infinitely small.
So begins Hiroshi Sugimoto's introduction to "Lost Human Genetic Archive" currently on show at the Tokyo Photographic Museum.
More an installation than a photography exhibit, it resembles a kind of intellectual archive -- a collection of documents, historical records, works of art and artifacts, collected by Sugimoto, who once worked as an antique dealer, but devoted most of his life to photography and architecture.
The plethora of artifacts from his personal collection -- both infinitely small and largel, but foremost impressively diverse-- have been interspersed with ordinary objects, say vials of viagra "FBI incubators." They are juxtaposed with Sugimoto's own work -- large format images from four of his seminal series: Seascapes, Dioramas, and Lightning Fields.
But photography is used very sparingly. Sugimoto, who often uses the word monogokoro (the spirit of objects) explains, he tried to build his narration listening to objects, whom he finds more truthful than words:
Humankind has a history of making all sorts of things. Indeed, making things is characteristic of our species. Art too is the act of making things. And these days I find myself paying far more attention to the hints I can glean from things or objects, and far less to the information contained in words. Why? Because objects never lie. From the polished stone tools of the Stone Age to modern-age computer chips, objects always tell us something. This is why I wanted to reinterpret human history based on listening to what objects "say" to us. It is not dissimilar to historical materialism which sees history in terms of the means of production and the social relations of production.
Carefully arranging his objects in small cubicles constructed from rusting, corrugated metal, Sugimoto presents 33 stories or perspectives -- "the worst scenarios regarding the future of human kind."
Giving voice to the artist's imagination are the idealist and the beekeeper, the paleobiologist and the computer repair company CEO, the car dealer, the meteorite collector, the negative-growth activist, the journalist, Ms. Barbie... As they share thoughts on the current state of global affairs, each of them remembers the opening lines from Albert Camu's novel The Stranger: "Today the world died. Or maybe yesterday."
I found the art historian particularly dramatic:
"In the course of evolution, humans are thought to have attained consciousness hundred thousand years ago and soon thereafter began to depict the world around them. Cave paintings show remarkable powers of rendering. Eventually they came to sculpt images of their gods. Here in Japan, a 13th century statue of Raijin, the Thunder God, even visually expressed supernatural forces. Yet by now we have nothing to express. Awe-inspiring nature, transcendent gods, even beauty itself — all are decayed. All art has become parody. […] Humanity without art — that’s like a god without believers!
Sugimoto chose to place that impotent god next to what he ironically refers to as "Faraday Cage." Such metal screen normally shields objects placed inside from electrical interferences; but not in Sugimoto's laboratory: here, every now and then, white flash of light flares up. Who is in control? We are not sure, but there is no doubt these lightnings are not produced by Raijin.
Deprived of believers, he was placed against the backdrop of Sugimoto's Lightning Fields. At his feet, rests an ancient piece of wood, once regarded as sacred: fragment of a post from the 8th century Taima Dera temple.
Notes from an Exhibition: Hiroshi Sugimoto: Lost Human Genetic Archive, Tokyo Photographic Museum, September 3-November 19, 2016.