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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.