One of the more disconcerting aspects of Tokyo is the emptiness at its centre. The spaces that the western visitor expects to be full are not. The city’s political and symbolic centre is the Imperial Palace, which is not so much a building as a great park, mostly off limits to visitors—in other words, a void. Meanwhile, the Tokyo National Museum, the world’s largest museum of Japanese art, is by western standards devoid not only of objects, but of people.
On a Saturday afternoon, the silence inside is absolute, broken only by the snores of the handful of sleeping visitors. In the west, the empty centre signifies desolation and failure. In Tokyo, by contrast, emptiness is a positive value to be cultivated.
Hiroshi Sugimoto’s retrospective at the Mori Art Museum is a career-long investigation of this phenomenon. The installation, which Sugimoto designed, presents an atmosphere of serene calm. The largest room shows 26 of the artist’s large-scale seascapes, made between 1980 and 2005. Made, like the rest of the photographic work, with an antiquated, large-format bellows camera, they are the result of long exposures and extremely careful processing.
The attention to detail here and the fineness of the grain are remarkable—and perverse, given that the results are apparently so similar to each other. The images are legible in two ways, it seems. On the one hand, their precision invites a Zen-like search for meaning in the apparently simple and banal (indeed Sugimoto did study Zen, although not until he got to the US). On the other hand, the immense effort involved, the repetition, and the time taken to produce near-identical images recalls US conceptual art, in which Sugimoto is also well grounded.
To the western viewer, these images also invoke romantic clichés: the sea is after all an over-used image of yearning, although Sugimoto writes simply of a humanistic search for an eternally unchanged image. The room is lined on one side by a stage on which Noh plays are periodically performed, but this remains empty, for the most part.
In the next room are further images of empty centres—in this case movie theatres—in which Sugimoto has left his shutter open for the duration of the film. This is, as he puts it, a conceptual tactic, a way of shooting the whole film. The photographic result is a finely grained shot of the interior architecture framing a luminous but completely blank centre.
This method also has the effect of obliterating a human presence. In all but a few cases, the audience evaporates, or assumes a ghostly presence. The few observers who remain are presumably those tough-minded enough to resist the pleasures of popcorn and bathrooms, and stay put.
More recently, Sugimoto has been photographing (in colour) the corners of his studio, and carved and gilded Buddhas, the latter repeated 1000 times in a centreless array, which makes an accumulation of artistic riches a spectacle of emptiness. Even his more figurative pieces are about the emptying-out of content or meaning. The photographs of the waxworks of great historical figures, recently shown at White Cube, are startling at first (could Sugimoto really have snapped Hitler?)—but once you understand their nature, representation dissolves into an empty abstraction. However close they are on the surface to traditional forms of representation, in tone they closely relate to the photography of voids. What holds your attention is no more, it turns out, than an empty shell.
It’s a great show: luxurious, well-made and beautifully curated. It has to be said that these qualities are also perfect for the Mori. The museum’s existence is underwritten by Mori himself, a property developer who has targeted blue-chip international companies. His buildings, like the KPF-designed tower housing the museum, are designed to appeal to an international clientele. Sugimoto provides the ideal public face for all this. His sleek representations of voids mean everything and nothing; they sit in western and Japanese contexts equally well; they are supremely elegant.
The exhibition’s only unsettling note is provided by Ryoji Ikeda’s sound piece, commissioned by Sugimoto as part of the installation. It begins in the largest room as a high-pitched tone at the limits of human hearing, which insinuates itself into your consciousness; it later becomes a low-pitched rumble, shaking and vibrating through the entire exhibition, then stopping. It’s immensely irritating, but intentionally so: even this jarring note, like everything else, has been thought out.
Richard Williams is an art historian at the University of Edinburgh