Outside of Time: Hiroshi Sugimoto at Japan Society

Installation view “Hiroshi Sugimoto: Gates of Paradise” at Japan Society

In 1582, four recent converts to Christianity were sent from their home in Japan to Europe and the papal court by the Jesuit mission in Japan, as evidence of its success. Called the Tenshō embassy, the four boys met the Pope and saw the great sites of Renaissance Europe before returning home eight years later. Contemporary Tokyo-born, New York-based artist Hiroshi Sugimoto came across the story of the Tenshō embassy while he himself was photographing in Italy. Struck by the parallel paths that he and the boys had taken, despite being divided by some 450 years, Sugimoto began the work that is on view at Japan Society through January 7, 2018. “Hiroshi Sugimoto: Gates of Paradise” reimagines this early modern moment of cultural exchange between Japan and Europe in an exhibition of large-format silver gelatin prints, augmented by historical works made in Japan in the 16th century.

Installation view “Hiroshi Sugimoto: Gates of Paradise” at Japan Society

One enters the first darkened room of the exhibition with the prospect of a disorienting journey: on facing walls is an image of the ocean, with the horizon a graduated smudge rather than a clear line, and blurred photograph of the leaning tower of Pisa, that familiar tourist icon perpetually off-kilter. The conceit is that the envoys of 1582 could have shared just such a view as Sugimoto, and now the viewer of the exhibition, has.

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That conceit continues in the next room, a large gallery of some-dozen meticulously photographed images of the splendors of Europe that the boys likely saw in exactly such a state, rendered here in large-format silver gelatin. Although some of the images were originally taken to be part of Sugimoto’s ongoing project of photographing theaters, the artist also retraced the steps of the envoys and found ways to create views seemingly out of time. Seemingly any of us might encounter such sights by moonlight, whether 500 years ago or tomorrow, so great is their realism. Although not necessarily solemn, they feel heavy, as if the weight of history and the span of time were somehow compressed in them. Sugimoto describes hearing the voice of the four boys come to him from across time, but to me the ghosts seem to be the buildings themselves. Conspicuously unpeopled and seemingly melting into the night, these buildings and rooms are not quite of this world and make pretense to the eternal.

Installation view “Hiroshi Sugimoto: Gates of Paradise” at Japan Society

In addition to Sugimoto’s work, the exhibition also includes Japanese folding screens of the period, a common trope of which was the depiction of the arrival of European ships. The popular Japanese luxury commodity shed light on cultural context of Japan at time of Tenshō embassy. Jesuit missionaries in Japan commissioned liturgical objects from craftsman, who inevitably adapted the Christian forms to the local materials. Later a European artist arrived to train the local craftsman. The presence of the artist in this dawn of early Modern age and global trade is continued in the work of Sugimoto, who today participates in global circles of trade and intercultural exchange.

Hiroshi Sugimoto, Red and White Plum Blossoms Under Moonlight, 2014, installation view “Hiroshi Sugimoto: Gates of Paradise” at Japan Society

Continuing from the historical screens, the work that follows is Sugimoto’s pièce de résistance: Red and White Plum Blossoms Under Moonlight is a photographic print of a famed Japanese screen of the same name from the Edo period done in paint and gold leaf. Muted silver gelatin is pasted on a support to mimic the original screen is form and size. This utterly gorgeous reproduction transforms the original screen into another, replicant art object. Rather than a photograph that tries to capture documentary reality, it evinces a being of its own. If the former is of a specific place and time with a role in the world, Sugimoto’s screen is seemingly unmoored from that, a ghost with a referent to reality but no clear place of its own in this world.

Installation view “Hiroshi Sugimoto: Gates of Paradise” at Japan Society

The final room of the exhibition contains photographs of Ghiberti’s bronze panels in the doors of the baptisty in Florence, a treasure of Renaissance art that portrays scenes from the Old Testament. Rendered in the greyscale of silver gelatin, Sugimoto’s prints darken the gleaming panels. The art object in itself makes pretense to the eternal; it presents itself as a truth that will be self-evident in perpetuity. Ghiberti made his original bronze panels to be beautiful and enduring works of art. Sugimoti’s photographs seem to study that condition even while they inhabit it. On one hand, yes, they are beautifuly made prints so large and convincing that they also seem to be etchings or masterful drawings in graphite. In such a way the clear reproduciblility and documentary nature of the photograph is smudged a bit. On the other hand, this moody artistic portrayal that still manipulates the original bronze into something to be seen afresh is like an attempt to distill the imagery, to translate it into a new genre.

Interestingly, rather than presenting it as documentary photograph, with a display structure of cases with clear bright lighting, the galleries of the Japan Society are darkened, with careful spotlights on each of the works. The room is silent and dark, isolating his photographs in a way that the bronze panels on the doors of the Baptistry in crowded Florence would never have been. Sugimoto’s photographs ensconce themselves in the aura of the art object, and in doing so raise questions about the value and transcendence of art as much as much as the prevailing theme of time that runs through so much of his work.

Indirect and Unsettling: “False Narratives” at Pierogi Gallery

Nadja Bournonville, A Collection of Small Grey Stones 2012, Analog C-Print, Edition #3/3 + 2 A.P., 29 x 23.25 inches

Nadja Bournonville, A Collection of Small Grey Stones, 2012. Analog C-Print, Edition #3/3 + 2 A.P., 29 x 23.25 inches.

A lady in a dress the color of a Madonnas, its rich folds of blue against the crumbling texture of a pale wall. Her hands clasped in a lady-like manner in her lap. Her tissue thin grey medical mask awkwardly covers the front of the face, where there should be sight. This photograph by Nadja Bournonville and its blinded subject opens the excellently strange group show “False Narratives” at Pierogi‘s new Lower East Side location, appropriately enough as it thematizes the potential for brokenness, puncture, and error beneath a deceptively smooth surface. Bournonville’s body of work takes the invention of hysteria as its subject matter, asserting that Dr. Jean-Martin Charcot largely created the disease with the technological aid of photography in the Pitié-Salpêtrière Hospital in Paris at the end of the 19th century. Bournonville represents the spectacle of this endeavor in poetic images of the anonymous female restrained by science and studies of playful pseudo-medical machines that recall the work of Eva Kotatkova.

Tavares Strachan, Dislocated remnants from simultaneous events, Providence, RI, (Broken windows diptych), 2010, Plexi-glass, glass, plastic, wood, metal, 34.5 x 39 x 6 inches each panel

Tavares Strachan, Dislocated remnants from simultaneous events, Providence, RI, (Broken windows diptych), 2010. Plexi-glass, glass, plastic, wood, metal, 34.5 x 39 x 6 inches each panel.

The detailed backstory, rooted in the imagined violence of another time and place, that underlies Bournonville’s photographs resembles the approach taken by Tavares Strachen in his pair of matching windows set into the gallery wall. Strachen’s duplicate white-framed windows were created with precise breaks and the gallery floor is littered with broken glass below. He modeled them on a specific window in a disused industrial building in Rhode Island. There, the artist actually replaced existing windows with matching broken ones. This discreet gesture for noone becomes immediately visible in the gallery space. Paradoxically, while the work becomes more clear, it also becomes less pertinent to the viewer, far removed from the original context. Yet the work takes on new meaning in the gallery space, accentuated by the title that refers to it as a diptych. Painting has long been credited with providing a view onto an imagined vista; here, the cracked glass presents only the gallery wall and the dim reflection of the peering viewer’s face.

Brian Conley, Decipherment of Linear X (X-Ca-Bc-006), 2004, Archival digital print, Edition 2 of 5, 20 x 13.5 inches

Brian Conley, Decipherment of Linear X (X-Ca-Bc-006), 2004. Archival digital print, Edition 2 of 5, 20 x 13.5 inches.

One can more easily draw a formal similarity between Bournanville’s photographs and the “Linear X” body of work by Brian Conley. Both present strong photographs in delicate palettes emphasizing texture and nuance. Both track down obscure paths with rigour: Bournanville, a historic medical and cultural phenomenon, while Conley applies his investigation of Linear X markings as if he were a scientist studying remnants of an ancient language rather than the stray markings of a beetle that he found on a stick in the woods. Conley’s work expands across the room with a glass vitrine featuring loose pages and a display of the artist’s book on the subject (which mimics a scientific volume), a corner of huddled sticks, and photographs and plaster molds along the walls. Conley’s premise, rooted in a known lie, is on one hand futile as a way of knowing the world and on the other creates an intriguing parallel universe.

Installation view of Brian Conley's work

Installation view of Brian Conley’s work

Roxy Paine, Meeting, 2016. Birch, maple, epoxy, apoxie, LED lights, acrylic light diffusers, enamel, lacquer, oil paint, damar varnish, paper, steel, aluminium, stainless steel; 130.25 x 97.5 x 58.5 inches

Roxy Paine, Meeting, 2016. Birch, maple, epoxy, apoxie, LED lights, acrylic light diffusers, enamel, lacquer, oil paint, damar varnish, paper, steel, aluminium, stainless steel; 130.25 x 97.5 x 58.5 inches.

Unlike these other works, rich in backstory, Roxy Paine’s diorama offers you no such guidance. Instead this fabulously constructed miniature beckons you from the far wall as you walk in, brightly lit as if by fluorescent light and featuring a prototypical American conference room. It brightness and skewed perspective to create the convincing illusion of scale hurt my eyes up close as I tried to mine its details to learn more. The scene is resolutely banal and rejects any narrative. Empty spaces maintain a psychological resonance when presented to a viewer looking in, or at least an air of expectancy. It highlights the dourness of industrial grade carpet, overpowering fluorescent lighting, stained ceiling tiles, the cold metal of folding chairs, and middling hot Folgers coffee, but to unclear purpose. By similarly indirect means as the other artists in the show, Paine tells a story, only his is seemingly without a plot or characters.

Nadja Bournonville, Medical Machines #5, 2012, Analog C-print, Ed. of 3, A.P. #1/2, 8.75 x 11 inches

Nadja Bournonville, Medical Machines #5, 2012. Analog C-print, Ed. of 3, A.P. #1/2, 8.75 x 11 inches.

Enigmas and ruptures smoothed over by a cool perfection make for a surprisingly cohesive summer show from the disparate group of artists. Catch it while you can. Pierogi has regular gallery hours through the end of July and then by appointment through August 12.

Warped Histories: Goshka Macuga at the New Museum


Detail, Of what is, that it is; of what is not, that it is not

What do a snake, curators of an international art biennial in Germany, and a destroyed Afgan palace have in common? Historically, very little. Goshka Macuga is known for weaving such disparate motifs together into photo-realistic tapestries that present semi-fictitious, complex narratives. “Goshka Macuga: Time as Fabric” at the New Museum presents several tapestry works, as well as the stage set from a video work, that highlight the performative and archival threads that undergird Macuga’s body of work.

Installation view

Installation view of theatrical environment of Preparatory Notes

The first thing the viewer sees stepping off the elevator at the New Museum is a quirky stage set featuring over-sized elements of pastiche, riffing on art history and politics (not unlike Jim Shaw’s Labyrinth... installed on the 5th Floor of the New Museum not so long ago). Like the tapestries, these backgrounds and props are largely black and white. Retaining this somber grey-scale palette from its photographic source makes an implicit claim to verisimilitude yet the objects and characters are blown up to absurd life-size proportions. Branches carefully prop up faces from a cast of characters ranging from Angela Merkela to the artist. Macuga has reinstalled this theatrical environment from a performance at the 8th Berlin Biennial for Contemporary Art, Preparatory Notes (2014). Video documentation of it is screened in the basement theater every Wednesday.


Tapestry based on Tadeuz Kantor’s The Letter (1967)

Around the rest of the space, tapestries line the walls. They bring together intensely complicated visual–and thereby historical–manipulations onto a large scale. The tapestries, made in Brussels from large composite digital files manipulated in Photoshop, invoke a rich history. For example, Macuga, who was born in Warsaw, recreated Polish artist Tadeusz Kantor’s 1967 performance in Warsaw, then documented it, and made it into an enormous tapestry. As a medium, tapestries are outmoded wall coverings that once acted as important symbols of prestige and power, often used by rulers to tell stories about themselves. Here, Macuga uses the antiquated form to her own ends, shaping a story from the documentation of the recreation of a performance. This implicates her, and us of the contemporary moment, in the original performance. For the viewer, there is the additional pull of the fine weave and how artfully the collage registers as verisimilitude, almost seeming to be a large print rather than a woven textile until seen up-close.


Detail, Of what is, that it is; of what is not, that it is not

Macuga’s Of what is, that it is; of what is not, that it is not is one of two tapestries that the artist created in 2012 for dOCUMENTA. She showed one in Kassel, Germany and one in Kabul, Afganistan for the duration of the exhibition. The composition reflects these two strange dueling contexts. The destroyed Darul Aman palace in the background resembles a building in Kassel. Standing people in Western clothes (the dOCUMENTA curators) look at the sitting or reclining Afgan people in front of them. The Afgans seem to look toward the center, where an enormous snake, out-of-scale but convincing, raises its head and looks out a the viewer. If tapestry has a history of filling an political function, here the series of gazes points accusingly at the viewer. This vast panorama and impossible history laid out for the viewer suggests the warping of time and historical currents created through art to bring Afganistan and Germany, past and present, art and conflict into uneasy, unsustainable relation. Only through art can you attain that suspension of disbelief, or collapse of distinction, and I would say that the tapestry argues to questionable end.

Detail, The Lost Forty

Detail, The Lost Forty

Macuga creates thoughtfully warped views of history. For more information, a great article about the making of The Lost Forty on the Walker Art Center blog details the complex production of the composite image used as the basis for the tapestry. The Walker invited the artist to spent time in their archives, which led her to the position figures from throughout its history from its founder to herself in 40 acres of pristine forest nearby, the lost forty acres of the work’s title. The article gives a sense of how carefully Macuga creates these fictional scenes with such verisimilitude and historical perversity.

“Goska Macuga: Time as Fabric” is on view through June 26, 2016.