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>> Il Ritorno dei Giganti
>> Lyonel Feininger: Strollers – The Passing Scene
>> Sugimoto - Imitation of Life

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>> Man in the Middle
>> Chillida Tapies
>> A Century of Landscapes


Imitation of Life

A work commissioned by the Deutsche Guggenheim in Berlin on world tour: following the exhibitions in New York, Bilbao, and Auckland, Hiroshi Sugimoto's Hiroshi Sugimoto’s Portraits can now be seen at the Singapore Art Museum. The larger-than-life photographs of the wax figures of historical personalities that the artist removed from their setting at Madame Tussaud’s and staged before a dramatically lit black background seem eerily alive. With an almost hallucinatory precision, Sugimoto’s portrait gallery shows the wax identities of Henry VIII, William Shakespeare, or Fidel Castro in a new light. Oliver Koerner von Gustorf on the authenticity of the artificial, ”the first photographer of the 16th century,” and the awkward question of how to paint a supper that allegedly occurred two thousand years ago.

Henry VIII
© Deutsche Guggenheim Berlin

Anne Boleyn
© Deutsche Guggenheim Berlin

For years already, Sugimoto (picture), a Japanese artist who lives in New York, has had the idea of combining his black and white photo series of dioramas in natural history museums with his photographs of figures in wax museums around the world in a single volume – as a pictorial narrative that could also serve as a travel guide for extraterrestrials. As is already implied in the title of the work – ”A First Visitor’s Guide,” the handbook’s aim, according to Sugimoto, would be to explain to the newly arrived ”what there is to see on Earth, what kind of people live here, and to show how life came about on Earth.” The artist even wrote a foreword for the book, which spans millions of years. His project has gone unrealized to this day, yet the catalogue published in 2000 on the occasion of the Berlin exhibition of his ”Portraits” in the Deutsche Guggenheim (order here) gives an impression of how this fictive travel guide might look: along with the likenesses of world-famous personalities from several centuries, a selection of earlier works by Sugimoto can be found in the catalogue’s introduction, representing scenes of very different kinds: a brilliantly illuminated canvas before the empty seats of a movie theater, prehistoric deep sea spheres, executions by guillotine or the electric chair, or the hazy horizon of the Pacific Ocean. As is the case with the more recent historical ”Portraits” of famous personalities, an unfathomable aura of quietude adheres to all of these images, which is founded in the absence of any human life. If a human figure appears at all, then it is merely in the form of a wax reproduction.

In Sugimoto’s photographs, the world appears to be uninhabited, almost without a body, hovering between life and death. Thus, his sea pieces from the nineties that borrow from the paintings of Caspar David Friedrich or Claude Monet not only call their famous models to the viewer’s mind, but also the beginning of Biblical Creation, the opening sentence of the Old Testament Book of Genesis: ”And the Earth was…” Indeed, Sugimoto’s photographs of natural historical evolution and human civilization capture nothing more than the traces of life on Earth – uninhabited building structures, arrangements in museums, stuffed or imitated specimens of flora and fauna, artificially created doubles and representatives illustrating past history.

William Shakespeare
© Deutsche Guggenheim Berlin

Diana, Princess of Wales
© Deutsche Guggenheim Berlin

The historical relationship between truth and photography and the belief in the camera as a recording instrument that never lies are elements Sugimoto implements with virtuosity in order to call attention to the fundamental discrepancy between the world as it is seen and the world as it is represented (on this subject, see the interview with the London art critic Martin Herbert).

Thus, in a manner more obvious than ever before, his photographic work commissioned by the Deutsche Guggenheim reflects the relationship to representation in painting, referring to the works of Holbein, Vermeer, and Van Dyck: with his ”Portraits,” the Hasselblad award winner Sugimoto for the first time departed from the format he’s been using since the seventies, 20 x 24 inches, and is now showing large-scale works and tableaus comprised of several parts. Larger than in real life, William Shakespeare, Anna Boleyn, Princess Diana, or Rembrandt gaze back at us. In contrast to Sugimoto’s earlier shots of dioramas or wax museums, the figures depicted here appear before a black background in a lighting rich in effect, complete with gestures borrowed from the repertoire of Dutch oil painting and photographically simulated down to the last detail, creating a bizarre dialogue between painting technique, wax figure, and the camera.

When the visitor to Madame Tussaud’s in Amsterdam stands before the reconstruction of Vermeer’s famous painting ”The Music Lesson,” he is struck by the feeling of actually being inside the Dutch master’s painting and so within the ambience of the 17th century; this subjective impression becomes intensified in a paradoxical way in Sugimoto’s version. In his photograph ”The Music Lesson,” which came about together with the ”Portraits,” the wax scene doesn’t look like a reconstructed copy at first glance, but rather like the apparently authentic photographic model Vermeer might have painted from. While in Vermeer’s painting the reflection of the painter’s easel can be seen in the mirror hanging above the piano, the camera tripod occupies its place in Sugimoto’s work, as though the photographer himself had been a witness to the actual scene centuries ago.

The Music Lesson
© Deutsche Guggenheim Berlin

The conceptual refinement with which Sugimoto transforms his image subjects of a variety of times and media into the present tense become especially clear in the case of his version of ”The Last Supper”: The holy scene painted by Leonardo da Vinci was imitated so many times that the imitations are better known than the original painting. No one knows how this scene might have actually appeared, yet da Vinci’s fresco is the prevailing representation the ”exactitude” of later copies is measured against. In Sugimoto’s case, who has admitted that he’s puzzled by the popularity of the Christian religion, these icons of Western art and history take on an alien meaning. By using an ensemble of figures he discovered in Japan to photographically resurrect the scene with the painstaking exactitude of a wax sculptor and as ”true to life” as possible, as though it were a historical moment that had actually taken place, he not only liberates the motif from its religious context, but also the viewer’s linear understanding of time. (on this subject, see Sugimoto's interview with Robert C. Morgan)

The Last Supper
© Deutsche Guggenheim Berlin

Against the backdrop of the room’s darkness, the strangely deformed participants of ”The Last Supper” meet to form a group ensemble: their artificial limbs are raised in frozen poses as though they were filled with a sense of duty and wanted to eternalize a canon which they no longer remember. Refraining from imposing any values and limiting itself to the representation of a wax existence, Sugimoto’s photograph embodies a reality that began in the 15th century with a fresco and that has survived to the present day through a chain of innumerable reproductions. As works of art, Sugimoto’s works not only testify to the illusions of the past, but also the fiction of a distant future – a time in which human fate can only be interpreted through man’s attempts at immortalizing himself. In his proposed travel guide for extraterrestrials, Sugimoto’s ”Portraits” are presented in the chapter ”Extinction”: ”Widespread deaths can be observed from time to time among the forms of life on Earth. Please do not plan a trip to Planet Earth for the duration of these rare catastrophes.”

Translation: Andrea Scrima