Sometimes, big, clever art is there to make you feel small and stupid. Or at least insignificant. That’s what the best work of Japanese photographer Hiroshi Sugimoto does. His retrospective at the Hayward finds him toying with light and dark, reality and fiction, life and death, all to make you go slack jawed in awe at your pitiful place in the universe.
It starts with vultures and deer; all perfectly posed, perfectly lit, classic nature photography. But they’re too perfect: stare long enough and you realise the landscapes are painted backdrops, the foliage is plastic, the animals are stuffed. They’re dioramas from the American Museum of Natural History, shot to look real, with dramatic long exposures, shifting light, a world of details and idealised compositions that could never happen in the wild.
These are some of the earliest works here, but he pulls the same trick years later at Madame Tussaud’s, using the techniques and tactics of portrait photography to capture images of the wax works; Napoleon all vulnerable and forlorn, Fidel Castro aged and weak, Princess Diana meek and soft. Down in the basement, he shows images of waxworks of serial killers and psychopaths. He’s forcing you to balance on the cusp of reality and fiction, life and death. But it’s smarter than that, because he’s also trying to make you ask why: why do we preserve these animals in dioramas, these historical figures in a museum? What are we scared of losing? What have we done?
Quiet pictures of the inevitability of time’s passing and your utter powerlessness in the face of it
Sugimoto loves big questions, and his two best series ask the biggest of all. ‘Theatres’ is endless images of abandoned cinemas, their screens glowing a spectral white, their walls crumbling. Sugimoto shot each with an exposure long enough to capture a whole film. A whole work of art, summed up and gone in an instant, reduced to nothing but the light it emitted. No people, no story, no culture, just time disappearing. They’re ghostly, haunting images that shine almost too brightly in the dark gallery, quiet pictures of the inevitability of time’s passing and your utter powerlessness in the face of it.
‘Seascapes’ is nothing but bodies of water, shot with that same long exposure, their waves smoothed out into soft flat blurs, their horizons now a sharp split of sky and water, creating miserable, monochrome Rothkos. They’re beautiful, meditative images that would have looked the same taken a million years ago as today, just blank, endless grey; all there’s ever been, all there’ll ever be.
There’s lots to not like here. The images of lighting-like electrical phenomena feel horribly studenty, and the photos of Buddhist statues and mathematical models just look like they’re built for some coked-up banker’s living room.
But at his best, Sugimato makes you feel small, like time is passing and always will, like the universe is huge and you’re insignificant. When I was at the show, Sugimoto was walking around the empty galleries playing ‘Let It Be’ out of his phone and singing along. And that’s the point: the universe is big and you aren’t, time is endless but yours isn't, but don’t worry about it, just let it be.