Text : Keita Fukazawa
A contemporary artist globally active in a wide variety of genres, Sugimoto Hiroshi was scheduled to hold four different exhibitions in Japan in 2020. Unfortunately, the worldwide pandemic has forced some of these events to be postponed. We had the opportunity to sit down and speak to him about the exhibitions and what he thinks the future holds.
Signs of divine presence behind Japanese Artistry
— You’ve been very active, scheduling four exhibitions in 2020 alone. The first one was held at the newly constructed Higashiyama Cube gallery, in part to commemorate the incarnation of the Kyoto City KYOCERA Museum. The exhibition was titled HIROSHI SUGIMOTO – POST VITAM.
Sugimoto: The site of the Kyoto City KYOCERA Museum is actually where Hosshoji Temple, one of the Rokusho-ji temples (collective name of six Superior Temples), once stood. It was endowed by Emperor Shirakawa in this Okazaki area where he started his Insei (cloistered rule) in 11th century. In the years that followed, Taira no Kiyomori founded the Sanjusangen-do, formally known as the Rengeo-in Hondo (Rengeo-in Hall), to appease the vengeful spirit of the late Emperor Sutoku and to ensure a place in the jodo (pure land after death) of Buddhism for Emperor Go- Shirakawa. The area has historically been entwined in political and spiritual values. With such history in mind, I wanted to attribute the venue as a temple and design a virtual jodo (pure land) to think about the ultimate destiny of death.
Jodo is the center piece of the Japanese people’s understanding of death in Buddhism. It is my belief that humans became humans when they were able to embrace the concept of death. Upon the awareness of death, man was able to understand the perception of time. I think this ultimately led to the start of civilization, shaping understandings like planting crops in the spring to harvest in the fall. However, in modern day Japan, the concept of death has lost its original significance. Through my photographic work, I have been exploring the origins of concepts and understandings. This exhibition was my attempt to explore and replicate the jodo (pure land), the world after death.
— The exhibition included your photo titled Sea of Buddha, as well as the first official showing of the photographs from your OPTICKS series. Antique ruri glass (lapis lazuli) items were also on display adjacent to your photographs. In the garden, you had displayed the Glass Tea House - Mondrian.
Sugimoto: Taking a photograph means to capture a moment in time. Glass is a substance that has a significant effect in photography and light. When I took the picture of the central image in the temple to create the Sea of Buddha, I removed from the surrounding area every item that was placed after the Kamakura period (1185-1333). I wanted to capture the Buddha when the temple was originally founded in the Kamakura period. I had all the lights turned off and took the photograph utilizing the natural rays of light that beamed through the shoji (traditional Japanese partitions made from paper). With OPTICKS, I used sunlight polarized through a prism and took the photos with a polaroid camera...but looking back, I amaze myself for not staying focused on just taking pictures but expanding into spatial design and even getting into things like Noh (traditional Japanese theater) and architecture. Sometimes, I’m not sure what my profession is.
Hyogu Art – The Art of Mounting Art, Sugimoto style
— You had another exhibition occurring at around the same time titled Frame of Japan. It was held at the Hosomi Museum where you have been featured twice before.
Sugimoto: Yes, the first exhibition I did was Art and Leisure – Misenkyo, which explored food and tokokazar i (art object s for display in traditional Japanese alcove). The second exhibition, Mappo (Apocalypse) featured antique Buddhist art from the Heian period (794-1185), in which I attempted to replicate the sense of beauty possessed by the mysterious collector who went by the pseudonym “Musekian.” The most recent exhibition was themed around hyogu (art mounting). It has been about twenty years since I started to do my own hyogu, but I have only recently been able to establish something that I can call my own, a Sugimoto Style so to speak, such as the ratio of space at the top and bottom of the hyogu. I prefer the hashira (pillar or space on both sides of the main subject of display) to be as narrow as possible, and I often omit the use of futai (a ribbon-like ornament that hangs from the top).
— You have mounted pieces by many famous contemporary artists like Andy Warhol and Kazuo Shiraga. Sugimoto: Yes, but this piece by Kazuo Shiraga has an interesting story. I found it at an antique flea market in bad condition, with tack marks and folds on the side. It was priced so cheap; I don’t think anyone realized its true value. The artist is known for his avant-garde paintings, his use of red paint and drawing with his feet. This piece is his earlier work, but I took the red color image of his later works in selecting the kogire (antique cloth) and also colored the jikusaki (end of the wooden pole placed at top and bottom) with vermillion lacquer. The exhibition was in part a proposition that hyogu (art mounting) itself can be art, as well as introducing the collections of the Hosomi Museum.
Resurrecting the Journey of the Kasugano
— In the winter of 2021, you have a plan to hold an exhibition at the Kanagawa Prefectural Kanazawa-Bunko Museum titled The Journey of the Divine Spirit of Kasuga – From Hitachi to Yamato by Hiroshi Sugimoto. We understand that this exhibition was to be held in conjunction with the permission granted to the Odawara Art Foundation Enoura Observatory to become a branch shrine of the K a sug at a i sha (Kasugataisha Shrine).
Sugimoto: When we were constructing the Enoura Observatory, we were blessed to obtain historically significant materials like the cornerstones of the Wakakusagaran excavated from Horyuji (Horyu Temple) and the restored Meigetsu Gate originating from Meigetsu-In (Meigetsu Temple) in Kamakura that was relocated to Nezu Museum. These are items that could not be purchased. The Enoura Observatory, where these precious architectural artifacts were relocated, is like a jodo-styled garden overlooking the Sagami Bay as its “garden pond,” but I always felt that it was missing something. Then, in my dreams, I realized it was missing a place to worship the spirit of the land, a Chinjyu-no-Mori (a forest to worship the Shinto deities).
As to why we had approached Kasugataisha, there is a deep connection there, as if it was something we were destined to follow. The first antique art that I had purchased was the Kasuga shika mandala. After that, items like the Kishimojubosatsu statue and Kasugawakamiya Mandala, which have very strong associations with Kasugataisha, were added to our collection. Therefore, this was something that made us feel that there was a deep connection with Kasuga Shinko (Faith of Kasuga).
— Kasugataisha i s famous for being the guardian god of the Fujiwara family, but we were surprised to find out that it had a historical association with Kashima Jingu intensified our studies on Kasuga Shinko and discovered a new theory in understanding the identity of the Buddhist monk who appears in the Kasugawakamiya Mandala. We have created a graphic diagram about our discovery which was displayed at the exhibition. Japanese antique art that stands out in the world — Sugimoto’s activities have always explored the roots of Japanese culture and it seems to lead to the question of what defines Japanese as a race. Sugimoto: Even today, I believe, the Japanese people have a state of mind inherited from the Jomon period (10,000 BCE – 300 BCE). For example, when we placed a stone statue inside a glass shrine located within the Kaseki-kutsu (Kashima Jingu shrine) of then Hitachi-no-kuni (current region of Ibaraki prefecture).
Sugimoto: Yes, it’s known as the Kashimadachi (Kashima coming). Legend has it , Takemikazuchi no Mikoto (the God of Thunder) descended to Kasuga from Kashima Jingu riding on the back of a white deer. The significance of this story is thought to be that Yamato Chotei (Imperial courts of Yamato) had allowed a regional god to be worshipped after the land had been conquered. Without much thought, we connected Kashima Jingu and Kasugataisha with a straight line on a map, and lo and behold, the location of the Enoura Observatory sat right on the line. Thinking that this was no coincidence, we immediately approached Kasugataisha for its blessing to be enacted as a branch shrine. We have recently intensified our studies on Kasuga Shinko and discovered a new theory in understanding the identity of the Buddhist monk who appears in the Kasugawakamiya Mandala. We have created a graphic diagram about our discovery which was displayed at the exhibition.
Japanese antique art that stands out in the world
— Sugimoto’s activities have always explored the roots of Japanese culture and it seems to lead to the question of what defines Japanese as a race.
Sugimoto: Even today, I believe, the Japanese people have a state of mind inherited from the Jomon period (10,000 BCE – 300 BCE). For example, when we placed a stone statue inside a glass shrine located within the Kaseki-kutsu (fossil cave), visitors left offerings of money, an ideological display of honoring the spiritual nature of the monument and be blessed from nature in return. In contrast, Western civilization was developed by conquering nature, but during the 10,000 years of the Jomon period, the Japanese focused their efforts in communicating and increasing their understanding of nature. The remnants of this belief can be seen from the number of words that defines different color s and the surrounding natural environment. There is no other language that equals the number of words like the Japanese language. Through those beliefs and the acquired ability, the Japanese have always felt the presence of divine powers in nature.
— So do you believe that such exceptional sensitivity had generated the uniqueness of Japanese art?
Sugimoto: Yes, and I think it is unique even within the history of Eastern civilization. I believe that the height of Japanese art occurred around the Fujiwara period (897-1185). Mikkyohogu (esoteric Buddhism teaching tools), which originated in China, had developed to the level of being works of art. Unfortunately, in China, Buddhism art had peaked and was declining, but the adaptation of the ar t developed and blossomed here, surpassing the artistry of its origin. During and beyond the Muromachi period (1136-1573), the level of craftsmanship, the pursuit of artistry had proliferated even to the common level. The quality of product s such as dyed fabrics produced around that time are just unbelievable.
Recently, I’ve been collecting noh-men (masks used in traditional Japanese theatre). Actually, I have a good number of opportunities to collect them now. At first glance, many of them look similar, but if you look carefully, masks from the Azuchi-Momoyama period (1568- 1603) and those from around the end of the Edo period (1603-1867) have a slight deviation. Such subtle difference is what’s appealing about Japanese art, but at the same time, it increases the risk of counterfeiting. The only way to learn is to purchase things for yourself. I was an antique art dealer for about 10 years, but when I started to buy art for myself, the seriousness intensified by quite a margin.
Odawara Art Foundation / Enoura Observatory
Located on the southside of Odawara City, the Observatory was constructed on a hilltop with a panoramic view of Sagami Bay. The art space offers a gallery space, an outdoor noh stage, a revived Tensho-an tea ceremony room, a restored Muromachi Period (1338-1573) Meigetsu Gate and a strolling garden. Envisioned by Sugimoto Hiroshi, it took over 10 years since its conception to complete the project. Open to the public, it was designed as a forum to appreciate art together with the changing four seasons of nature.
A contemporary artist expressing his talents in photography, architectural design, sculpture, landscape design, theater, culinary and antique art collection. He moved to the United States in 1970 and has continued his creative activities both in Japan and abroad. He founded the Odawara Art Foundation, and in 2017, opened the Odawara Art Foundation Enoura Observatory. In 2019, he produced the performance as well as spatial design of the theater piece “At the Hawk’s Well” at the l’Opera de Paris. He was designated a Person of Cultural Merit (Japan) in 2017.