The first time I saw a photograph by Hiroshi Sugimoto, it was mounted on a cliff above the Seto Inland Sea on Naoshima, the peaceful Japanese island known for its museums and art installations. The abstract composition – a black-and-white portrait of the horizon, which looked like a pale Rothko breaking out of prison – was striking enough, high above a strip of sand and lapping water. But what gave it extra vitality was that the artist, in creating this tribute to the natural world, was clearly happy to allow the natural world to remake the tribute; wind, sea-spray and the shifting light would turn it into something different every hour. Over 13 years of returning to the site, I’ve never seen it look the same.
Just one day later, I was confronted by 14 more of Sugimoto’s impassive horizons (you can also see one on the cover of U2’s 2009 album No Line on the Horizon) hanging on the exterior concrete walls of Naoshima’s modernist Benesse House Museum, just above that cliff. His portraits of the ways in which sky and sea converge were gazing out at the very place where sky and sea were converging in real life. It was fitting that the photographs seemed a small part of a far larger work; Sugimoto appeared to be including everything around their frames – like the incorporation of “borrowed scenery” in classic Japanese garden design. He might have been suggesting that what nature does with us is at least as important as what we do with nature. His hauntingly uncluttered Seascapes dissolved all sense of time and place, so as to take me somewhere universal.
Perhaps I should not have been surprised, when I returned to Naoshima last year, to find my hotel, and even the lawns outside, converted into a festival of Sugimotos. His ghostly photographs of barely seen pine trees and deserted chapels adorned the hotel walls; a room looking out to sea was graced with works from his rainbowed Opticks series, which uses Polaroid film to capture the colours of light as seen through a prism; just outside, a transparent glass cube shimmered above a shallow pond – Sugimoto’s modern version of a tea house. A traditional tea house is a largely enclosed space designed to deepen attention; in Sugimoto’s stylish update, the tatami-floored space is not just a place to drink tea, but somewhere to take in the whole grand expanse all around, of water and beach (and, yes, pine trees).
Inside and out, the human environment and the natural world become one. It doesn’t matter whether he’s making buildings or photographs; the 75-year-old artist is always reflecting on stillness, history and change. It’s no surprise that his grand retrospective at London’s Hayward Gallery, opening later this month, is called Time Machine.
Sugimoto was born in 1948 in Tokyo to parents working in the pharmaceutical industry. In 1970, he left Japan for Los Angeles to study for a degree in Fine Arts at the ArtCenter College of Design (he needed a visa, he once quipped, and being a student was the easiest excuse). His earliest photographs, shot in New York’s American Museum of Natural History after he had begun working as an art dealer in the city, are of the museum’s dioramas – stuffed polar bears and apes placed in front of painted backdrops. When he captured these fake scenes in black-and-white, using a large-format camera, suddenly they looked real, he noticed – as if the photographs were restoring another dimension to the creatures and bringing them back to life. Later, he toured Madame Tussauds in London and started producing images of waxworks of Princess Diana and Yasser Arafat, as if they were polar bears.
Early on, he also began visiting classic American cinemas, some dating back to the 1920s, taking two-hour exposures of their ageing, beautiful interiors even as a film was being screened. The results, his Theaters series – the screen turned into a gleaming white panel, like an afterimage imprinted on the retina – were his way, he said, of condensing a whole feature film into a single frame. The light created by the overexposure would be “the embodiment or manifestation of something awe-inspiring and divine”. The old screens began to look like vessels of light, projecting nothing so much as mystery. “The image was something that neither existed in the world nor was it anything I had seen,” he explained. “So who had seen it then? My answer is: it is what the camera saw.”
By then it was becoming clear that Sugimoto was a time-traveller, trying to see how the oldest things around us might be models for our future. Or at least blurring every distinction between old and new, just as he upends every division between East and West (those look-alike horizons in his Seascapes series come from Jamaica, the Arctic, the English Channel, though you’d never be able to tell one from the other). His empty cinemas might be abandoned temples, sacred relics to a visitor from the future. In our age of noise and distraction, these works envelop us in a silence and spaciousness that never seem to change.
Over the 36 years I’ve lived in Japan, Sugimoto has developed into the ultimate Renaissance man. In part because he designs buildings, creates rock gardens and stages modern versions of 18th-century bunraku puppet-dramas that include music in the style of Jimi Hendrix guitar solos, but played on a traditional three-stringed shamisen. But also because so much of what he does, as with his tea-house, plays off classic Japanese forms that have been around since the time of Michelangelo, and before. His abstract seascape photographs are as suggestive as traditional pen-and-ink drawings, which the viewer implicitly completes in their mind’s eye. In a country that values specialised focus – celebrating the national living treasures who consecrate their lives to making nothing but blue pots or washi paper or tiny slabs of raw fish – he trains his sense of concentration across myriad fields.
Sugimoto is also a philosopher of sorts, and in a culture that has less interest in the conceptual than anywhere I know – my Japanese neighbours seem much happier thinking in terms of images than ideas – he again goes against the grain with his provocative manifestoes and aphorisms. Not for him any of the mishmashed global forms that make up Japan’s streets today (or the global mania for anime); his statements reveal ancient intent – “To me photography functions as a fossilisation of time”.
I sometimes think that his almost 50 years in New York have made him bilingual in a deeper sense than mere language, a little like the half-Japanese artist Isamu Noguchi. He has a keen sense of what the West covets from Japan and how to make it cool and arresting, even as his readiness to go anywhere and his bold innovations are surely designed to offer his compatriots a sense of wider possibility. Though still largely based in Manhattan, he maintains his office in Tokyo and somehow convinces people on both sides of the world that he is an innovative Japanese traditionalist.
Exactly a year ago, I took my Japanese wife on a pilgrimage to the Enoura Observatory, an outdoor museum that Sugimoto opened in 2017, in front of the sea, 50 miles south of Tokyo. You’ll find a full-scale recreation of a Roman amphitheatre, with a stage crafted from technical optical glass, which catches sunlight on its edges. There’s a 14th-century stone lantern from Korea and a “listen to the rain” tea house (with a resonant iron roof); there are ancient temple gates collected from across Japan, a fossil cave and a bench made from 65-million-year-old petrified wood.
The heart of the vision at Enoura, however, is Sugimoto’s hope of staging traditional Noh theatre to coincide with the spring and autumn equinox – figures disappearing back into the underworld just as the sun rises – and a 230ft tunnel through which the sun will light up an imposing stone on the winter solstice. Taken as a whole, the project is an ambitious piece of land art that speaks to our most ancestral understanding of nature, and how to live in harmony with – and with keenest awareness of – its unending cycles.
Sugimoto has built a tea house above his studio in New York’s Chelsea district (which he’s named “Heavenly Hell” after its view towards Wall Street); living moss creeps along the studio walls. Few would be surprised to learn that he collects dinosaur eggs and tells visitors that his hobby is playing with old clocks.
In the 17th-century village of Honmura, tucked into Naoshima’s eastern side, he’s created a glass staircase that runs from an underground rock chamber up to an ancient shrine, as if to join the place’s roots to the air of right now. An all-over-the-place wanderer from an island-nation that likes to keep to itself, a risk-taker from a culture that prefers to follow a norm, Sugimoto sticks out as a polymath pushing centuries together.
Sceptics might say that Sugimoto is also an artful borrower of forms and ideas – that his fascination with light draws from that other master of illumination, the American light artist James Turrell (whose works are also well represented on Naoshima), or that his hours-long exposures can look like a cousin of the spooky and spiritual long-exposure black-and-whites of the British photographer Michael Kenna, who started out at around the same time, and has brought a similar elegance and minimalism to his photographs of Japan.
Spend time with Sugimoto’s work at the Hayward, however, and you’ll likely see that, for all his wandering and experiments, it ultimately goes back to a single desire: to show us the heart of our fast-moving world. Whether illuminating how an empty cinema might look as alien as Stonehenge, or finding new life in a waxwork of Fidel Castro, Sugimoto sees something inside of us that exists beyond time and place. It’s the hidden treasure he’s working to awaken.
Hiroshi Sugimoto: Time Machine is at the Hayward Gallery, London SE1 (southbankcentre.co.uk), from Oct 11 to Jan 7; Pico Iyer’s latest book is The Half Known Life: Finding Paradise in a Divided World (Bloomsbury, £16.99)