Hiroshi Sugimoto: Sea of Buddha

[From The Gallery Insider Series]

"Sea of Buddha" is an exhibition of photographs and video by the Japanese artist Hiroshi Sugimoto (born 1948, Tokyo) on view at the Pace Gallery from February 5 - March 5, 2016. There are several branches of Pace Gallery in New York City; this particular exhibition takes place at 510 West 25th Street. Scroll down for more ...


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an installation view of Hiroshi Sugimoto's exhibition Sea of Buddha

The first thing that is striking about this exhibition is the fact that the main body of work is set within an oval-shaped space within the main exhibition space of the gallery. This free-standing space takes up the majority of the room and can be entered from either end, as you can see from my vantage point at the north end of the oval shape looking towards the opposite end. There is a thin opaque fabric covering the "roof" of the this space, allowing light in but not including any spot lights or direct gallery lighting on the artworks. It's a bit hard from this one photograph to get a sense of how this space is inserted within the gallery, so we have some additional exterior views below.

oval shaped structure holding the Hiroshi Sugimoto exhibition

When one enters the gallery, the exterior of the architectural space is the first exposure to the exhibition, so before one can even view Sugimoto's art, one is confronted by this free-standing space that encloses the work.

Essential Question #1: What might be the purpose of this architectural space within the gallery space for the presentation of these photographs? (you can find our answers and explanations to the Essential Questions at the very bottom of the page).

We need to get in and see the art work, though ... in some ways, the setting and the architectural space can distract away from the experience of looking at the images, which is somewhat complicated by the fact that all 33 photographs in this space look almost identical. One has to look very closely to see that there are indeed differences. In each image, Sugimoto has centered the statues, with two heads along the bottom of the frame and two bisected halos in the corners, so that when the photographs are hung edge to edge, one can gain a general feeling of a sweeping visual continuity.

a view of 3 panels from Sea of Buddha, an exhibition of photographs by Hiroshi Sugimoto

The Sea of Buddha series, conceived in 1988 and realized in 1995, explores Sugimoto's interest in light, history and time. The collection of photographs features images of the one thousand statues installed in Kyoto's Sanjusangen-do, or "Hall of Thirty-Three Bays," a temple dating to 1266 AD. We thought it might be helpful to gain some perspective here of what Sugimoto is presenting visually in his photographs by showing you a view inside of the temple - you can see two views of the Buddha sculptures there below.

Essential Question #2: What is the significance of 1,000 Buddhas? (we don't expect you to know this answer, but it's pretty interesting nevertheless - scroll down for answers at the bottom of the page).

a view of Sanjusangendo, a Buddhist temple in Kyoto, Japan

Near the back of the exhibition, one turns a corner to find a separate room for a video piece, titled "Accelerated Buddha," from 1997. The gallery press release notes that this was Sugimoto's first foray into video art. The view below left is from my approach to the room, and the view below right shows a closer view as I make my way into the room.

a view of the entrance to Hiroshi Sugimoto's video room for Accelerated Buddha

Okay, let's enter the room and see what we've got here ... watch a brief video excerpt from the video installation below, and then scroll down to learn Sugimoto's explanation for the video.

Hiroshi Sugimoto: "My concept was, within the five-minute video, for people to see one million Buddhas. So I made a group of the images and it keeps accelerating to reach this one million point."

Essential Question #3: What do you think of Sugimoto's approach of representing the collection of Buddhas in two distinct ways? The photographs are obviously still images, calm and quiet, allowing for peaceful reflection. This video, however, has both movement and an accelerating frenetic pace, which seems to destroy any sense of peace. Why do you think Sugimoto pairs these two ideas together?



Explanations and Answers to the Essential Questions:

Essential Question #1: What might be the purpose of this architectural space within the gallery space for the presentation of these photographs? I'm not finding a specific answer to this question, but a few ideas certainly come to mind:

  1. Sugimoto's photographs for this exhibition measure approximately 4 x 5 feet in size, which, while being quite large for a photograph, are quite small in comparison to the expansive space of Pace Gallery's main gallery room, with its high ceilings and open floor plan. In this sense, the oval-shaped room allows the viewers to be surrounded by the images of the buddha in an enclosed space, which brings a tighter focus on the images that the big gallery space might distract away from.
  2. Sugimoto is quoted as simply referring to the oval-shaped space as "an architecturally ambitious setting," but there is some significance to the the opaque white scrim overhead which creates "one big sheet of light - filtered beautifully, soft, diffuse" (Sugimoto's words). Sugimoto explained that at the real Sanjusangen-do temple, "the natural light only happens for a very short period in the morning," so he is capturing that rare moment and extending it.
  3. This installation represents a temple in its own right, with a frozen-in-time representation of the original. It's been transformed into something modern without sacrificing its timeless presence.

Essential Question #2: What is the significance of 1,000 Buddhas?

In an interview, Sugimoto states: "Many people believe that at the time of your death, 1,000 Buddhas show up and welcome you into the paradise state. This is a vision of the point of death; it's the process of dying. The Buddhist concept is that it takes 48 days to get near this state. So it's a slow process, moving into, not a permanent death, but the world of the dead."

Essential Question #3: What do you think of Sugimoto's approach of representing the collection of Buddhas in two distinct ways? The photographs are obviously still images, calm and quiet, allowing for peaceful reflection. This video, however, has both movement and an accelerating frenetic pace, which seems to destroy any sense of peace. Why do you think Sugimoto pairs these two ideas together?

With the photographs, it's up to the viewer how long they want to stand in front of the work, how much time they want to give to absorb the visual presence of the Buddhas. But with the video, the artist dictates the viewing experience. In Sugimoto's mind, both visual experiences represent how a believer of Buddhist ideas will experience death.

Also, taking the answer above, regarding the idea of the process of reaching "paradise" taking 48 days, Sugimoto is creating a video environment which vastly accelerates - and multiplies - this process. Instead of a thousand Buddhas taking one on a 48 day journey, one is visually blasted by one million Buddhas in 5 minutes.



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