Hiroshi Sugimoto is a conceptual artist who uses photography as a means of expression. A word of warning: these works may be more interesting as ideas than to look at. Sugimoto explores the gulf between representation and reality through metaphors that erase the passage of time, as exemplified by his seascapes: the first human saw the same sea that the last one will. On dry land it’s different. His use of flawless black and white is at once physical and supernatural. To make his images of cinemas, he opens the shutter as the film begins and closes it when it’s over. The result is a shining screen that contains – and eliminates – the film’s temporal sequence. A black hole of meanings surrounded by theatre seats and ornamental proscenium arches.
Not a single living human figure appears in the photographs. The portraits of historical figures – such as Lenin or Henry VIII – are of waxworks at Madame Tussaud’s. Here we encounter the concept of the uncanny, developed by Sigmund Freud at the beginning of the 20th century to describe the unsettling feeling caused by something that is both familiar and strange. The waxwork of Henry VIII was based on a portrait by Hans Holbein that was destroyed in a fire.
Among Sugimoto’s earliest subjects were dioramas. In this exhibition he includes a series of pictures taken at the American Museum of Natural History in New York, scenes of animals and prehistoric humans. The uncanny again, or the more technological uncanny valley: art as the suspicion that what we are seeing is not, in fact, what we are seeing.
They say the Japanese prefer to avoid physical contact. Perhaps. But these immense photographs avoid touching our hearts, a strange exercise in aesthetic autism.