Interview: Hiroshi Sugimoto

Interview and photography: Andrey Bold

Conversation with Hiroshi Sugimoto is both, extremely rewarding and utterly exhausting. The artist is supercharged, and it hardly has anything to do with his famed Lightning Fields series, it's just the way he operates—going in all directions simultaneously, more often than not ahead of himself. Despite that he remains perfectly conscious of his output, its impact, value and the place on the market. Both feet firmly on the ground.

We meet early at Hara Museum where his latest exhibition, From naked to clothed, is taking place. Sugimoto is in the good spirits and already finished shooting his exposition there.
—You're fast.
—Have to be, I don't make any money on it. [Laugh]

A quick photo session and a glass of water later we move to an airy, white wall museum office. Sugimoto sits facing his early work on the wall, one of the very few artworks decorating the office.

Hiroshi Sugimoto and his Mathematical Model

Hiroshi Sugimoto and his Mathematical Model

  • ABDuchamp was instrumental to how you approach art, is there anyone who influenced you visually?
  • HSVisually? Umm, Duchamp. Both, conceptually and visually, but visually... maybe it's just my own crooked vision.
  • ABAre you more interested in a process, or the final result?
  • HSThe final result is very important. Work has to be sellable as merchandise. Art became merchandise these days in the late capitalist world. Process... once I conceive images in my noodle the realization is very important, the technical process.
  • ABYou seem to like being in control.
  • HSYes, I already have my vision, all I do is make it happen, bring it into existence.
  • ABSo basically your job is to make your visions come true.
  • HSTo make my DREAMS come true. It's often very difficult to make them happen. I only announce accomplished ones, no one knows about the failed ones except me.
  • ABDo you go through a gradual process of deduction and subtraction?
  • HSI usually have a set vision already and don’t deduct or subtract anything. I may put the idea on hold if all tests fail and come back to it later, until some day it works, either due to technology or my own advancement. A sort of self-discipline to keep my standards high technically and conceptually.
  • ABDo ideas pop up all the time?
  • HSIdeas keep hitting me constantly. I’m 64 now and kind of learned how to keep them flowing. The technique I recently employ is maintaining a jetlag for long as I can. I try to stay sharp from midnight to early morning, a time when everyone is asleep but me. That’s the best moment to hatch many ideas.
  • ABThe moment of clarity.
  • HSYes, clarity of the mind. So I sleep in the daytime and stay awake in the night. It usually lasts for two weeks, then—it's time to fly to get jetlagged again. I used to hate jetlags, but now I love them.
  • ABYou shoot in black and white.
  • HSUnlike digital, traditional black and white is much harder to control. Almost nobody practices it anymore... National living treasure, that’s the status I'm looking for! [Big laugh]
  • ABDo you only use analogue?
  • HSI photographed the exhibition today, that was digital. I use it occasionally, but not for my art. For that I stick to 8x10 film.
  • ABIt's beautiful.
  • HSBut Kodak went bankrupt and I may not be able to buy film anymore.
  • ABThen the value of your work will only get higher.
  • HSYeah, I guess. Or I can make my own film. It's getting more and more difficult to pass through the airport security with the large format film. Once exposed to x-rays, that's the end of it. This made me think of what I can do without traveling, in my darkroom.
  • ABIt's interesting how you work your way around problems. “Lightening Fields” for example (Sugimoto famously started the series unable to battle static electricity in his studio by investigating the cause and eventually taking control over it), you take things most would consider obstacles, look into them and try to make them work to your advantage. I think it's a rare quality.
  • HSIdeas stimulate one another. Inspiration came to me after visiting Fox Talbot's castle. I didn’t know that besides pioneering in photography he was also a high-grade scientist who studied static electricity, but stopped his research after he became too busy with photography. I thought what if Talbot would continue, eventually combining photography and electricity? I may as well volunteer, you know, raise my hand and continue his study. That’s how it worked.
  • ABIt's an amazing story. A new stage.
  • HSYes a new stage.
  • ABEdison or Tesla?
  • HSTesla. Edison was a businessman who stole many of Tesla's ideas. I use Tesla's coil.

Rina at “From naked to clothed” exhibition

  • ABThe concept of zero, nothingness is essential to your work.
  • HSI only use this concept to describe my Mathematical Models but many people think it applies to everything I do.
  • ABLet's take your “Theaters” series...
  • HSThat’s not zero, that’s over information.
  • ABOver information that ends in white void... This moment of stillness reappearing in your work, where do you think it comes from?
  • HSStillness? Umm, I think that’s critic’s job. It's not intentional, but it ends up with this notion all the time.
  • ABUsually works reflect the character of their maker, in your case however...
  • HSI am not still. [Laugh]
  • ABI'm curious about this paradox.
  • HSIt's like Mozart he was a fascinating composer but...
  • ABWell, his music reflects his lively personality.
  • HSHave you read his letters to the sister? They are awful, scatology was his only concern. I am not that bad.
  • ABWhat is your biggest vice?
  • HSIt used to be women, but not anymore. My body is dying from the bottom up. [Big laugh]
  • ABDo you find your commercial success liberating?
  • HSYeah, I have to eat!
  • AB...liberating in a sense you have the freedom to do what you want.
  • HSOf course. It's my job to raise cash for my study and collections. Sometimes I trade. Like in U2’s case—Bono just came to me and asked if they can use one of my Seascapes for the cover. I agreed. Then all these businessmen came. What's the value of my artwork? U2’s? What's the profit? I didn’t want to deal with all that so I told Bono—lets do a “Stone Age” deal, I give you the right to use my photograph in exchange for the right to use your music. That’s the deal.
  • ABWow, really? You got the right to use U2's music? Did you specify which period?
  • HSNo.
  • ABDo you actually use it?
  • HSWell, I CAN, that’s enough. I just wanted to kick all those businessmen out.
  • ABDo you reflect on your position in art world, and the value of your works?
  • Yes of course, I have to pay attention to that. Everything that shows up on the market with my name attached is automatically reported to my studio. Sometimes it's a lithograph or even a torn page from a book, framed and sold as genuine Sugimoto print. My Mori Museum poster may sell for two—three thousand dollars, it used to be only twenty! If the book page is sold as genuine Sugimoto print I send a note to the auction house.
  • ABWhat is the role of an artist now, with art, despite the economic downturn, still going strong on the market and artists enjoying full benefits of it like never before?
  • HSRole of an artist? Make lousy art and sell it high! [Laugh] I think it’s the last joke of the late capitalist world. The end is near, that’s my feeling!
  • ABWhy do you think Japanese never fully let go of Japan, even after many years of living abroad?
  • HSWell, I think I became more Japanese after moving to America... began to study Zen. There were so many questions I had to answer. What's enlightenment? Naturally, I had to study my own culture more.
  • ABBut what do you think keeps Japanese attached to the homeland? Is it the air... food?
  • HSHere is my theory—there is no other country spread across several small islands with such generous nature, providing people with relatively easy life. There is plenty of fish in the ocean. Nuts and whatnot in the mountains. Compared to the other cultures like Egyptian or Mesopotamian, Japanese have never reached cultivation during the Stone Age Jomon period. Instead, they tried to coexist with nature. Western culture is all about cutting the tree, planting what you need and catching an animal in order to domesticate it. Destroying the nature is creating culture. But in Japan it's completely opposite—we have to respect the nature and in return nature gives us back what we need. That’s the root of Shintoism and still remains very strong within Japanese mind. This is a very different mentality and makes it very hard to become a non-Japanese once you were born a Japanese.
  • ABDo you feel there is any change after Fukushima disaster? People seem to be concerned, but hardly act out.
  • HSYes, no riots. People behave very very well even after this disaster. That’s very Japanese.
Visitors of the exhibition

Visitors of the exhibition

  • ABTell us about your Art Foundation.
  • HSIt's non-profit, unlike in the US it's very difficult to obtain this status in Japan. I don’t have much time left so this is my long-term vision. It's about one and a half hours drive from Tokyo in Odawara, facing the ocean. I'll have my land art there and some architectural projects. Also, I can keep shooting Seascapes without worrying about the airport security, which will guarantee steady income even after I'm disabled. [Big laugh]
  • ABI don’t think you need to be concerned about that. Will it be open to the public?
  • HSYes, it will. I'm really into performing arts now and produce a lot. I did a play last year, for the Bunraku puppet theatre. It may be traveling to Paris next year. It's on the national level with formal invitation from the French government. I don’t make any money on it, I spend my own to make it happen.
  • ABHow much are you involved in the production of your sculptural and architectural works?
  • HSWell, the Mathematical Models are just that—models. I’m not a sculptor, even though they do look like sculptures. I find them very similar to Brancusi's works.
  • ABYou still have to visualize them, pick appropriate materials.
  • HSOf course, I choose the materials and oversee the process of computer generating. I employ top mathematicians for that as I can't do it by myself. It's a fun thing to do. I call them models but expect to be selling at Brancusi's price. [Laugh]
  • ABWhat about architecture?
  • HSI have an architectural firm in Tokyo. We're working on three or four projects now. One is in Aoyama, Hanae Mori Building. I'm commissioned to design the corridor and the Japanese restaurant behind it. It’s a huge scale, 40x10m with my mathematical forms hanging from the ceiling. Opening next year.
  • ABAny Japanese artist whose work you're fond of?
  • HSMaybe... 10th—11th century Buddhist sculptors I admire the most. No names left, but their works are extremely high quality with lots of attention to detail. Very original and totally different from their Chinese prototypes. Japan imported Buddhism along with the figure making technique from China around 6th—7th century but we created unique, distinctively Japanese style. Better than the original. Starting from 13th century making Buddhist sculptures became more of a craft. You no longer had to be a mentality mature practicing Buddhist monk. You could be a carpenter or a sculptor. Just a commercial job. Before, it was a manifestation of the awareness level a monk was able to reach through his practice and it's apparent in the details. That’s the best period in Japanese culture and craftsmanship. After that samurai class invaded the court and the culture has changed.
  • ABSuch a short period.
  • HSYes, two hundred fifty years...
  • ABDid you ever consider movie making?
  • HSI may make a movie based on my Bunraku puppet theatre. Mixing play with some additional footage would make a beautiful movie. Theatre is very expensive, I can provide the best seats for an affordable price. [Grin]
  • ABYou are very much into tea ceremony.
  • HSYes, I finally built my own tea room in New York. I have collected antique ceramics and tea ceremony utensils for years, now I use them to educate Americans how to face art. How to see art. Many rich collectors invite me to their houses facing Central Park, walls covered with Picassos, worth hundreds of millions. They try to hang everything they have! That’s very bad taste by the Japanese standards. With Japanese tea ceremony you only choose one, a very important art piece for the particular guest and try not to show the same thing to the others. That’s the tea ceremony principle. Americans just don’t want to pay the storage fee. So their culture is not mature enough compared to Japanese! [Big laugh]
  • ABThe way you merge traditional Japanese art with modern is very unique.
  • HSI'm living in the modern times, or post-modern times, or post-post-modern times. Traditional values, modernist values and contemporary art values are all part of who I am. I work as an architect, artist, traditional theatre producer and antique collector. I try to fit all this together.
  • ABWhat inspires you?
  • HSMe! My mind. It tells me what to do. [Big laugh]

* * *

Interview transcript: Chisako Izuhara

Special thanks to Atsuko Koyanagi, Director of Gallery Koyanagi and Junko Watanabe, Director of International Program, Hara Museum of Contemporary Art.