Hiroshi Sugimoto: Time Machine at Hayward Gallery

Hiroshi Sugimoto. Photo credit: Sugimoto Studio.

Hiroshi Sugimoto: Time Machine

Hayward Gallery

By DELIA CABRAL September 29, 2023 

The Hayward Gallery is hosting a fascinating and thought provoking survey exhibition covering over 50 years of Hiroshi Sugimoto’s expansive oeuvre. Sugimoto is a hugely influential Japanese photographer, architect, conceptual artist and thinker. This exhibition will feature key works from the artist’s major photographic series including some lesser known works, as well as two of his sculptures. The exhibition, titled Time Machine, is focused on his inquiry into time and the paradoxes of our perceptions of reality.  Sugimoto sees the camera as a time machine, in his words: 

“Photography freezes time and when we look at a photograph, 

we can be transported through space and time”.

Sugimoto was born and raised in Tokyo in 1948, and currently splits his time between New York and Tokyo. His international life and education makes him a particularly adept explorer of humanness through his fascination in photography. Since the beginning of his artistic journey, Hiroshi Sugimoto has been occupied with exploring and expressing the fundamental questions of what it is to be human, as well as the very nature of existence. His works lead us to ponder the big questions, such as What is time? How do we perceive time? And is what we perceive real? Sugimoto, best known for working with black and white photography to depict existential concepts, but not content with being confined by two dimensional space, has expanded his practice to include installations and architecture. Mounting such a monumental retrospective across the fifty plus year career of such an important artist, is a very ambitious curatorial feat. In order to gain a better framework from which to understand and impart what can be seen in this exhibition I interviewed Assistant Curator, Thomas Sutton to help us gain a little context: 

Hiroshi Sugimoto, Mathematical Model 002 Dini's Surface, 2005. © Hiroshi Sugimoto, courtesy of the artist.

Delia Cabral: When the viewer first walks in, what first impression would you like to achieve?

Thomas Sutton: Entering the gallery, visitors will be struck by the combination of Sugimoto's large-scale, exquisitely crafted monochrome photographs and The Hayward‘s unique concrete interior. It's going to be really dramatic! 

DC:How big is this exhibition? 

TS: The exhibition includes more than 100 photographs and 2 sculptures across the entire gallery. 

DC: How is the exhibition arranged? Is it linear? Subject oriented ? How are the themes/topics organised?

TS:Sugimoto works in very distinct series and the exhibition is structured accordingly. The different series, dating back to the 1970s, have been arranged to create an exciting dialogue with the Hayward's architecture. There are some surprises, including photographs positioned in areas of the gallery which have never been used for displaying art before!

DC: How closely did your team work with Sugimoto?

TS: We have worked very closely with the artist and his studio on every aspect of the planning. Including working together on the exhibition layout with the aid of a 1:25 scale model and miniature versions of each photograph.  

DC: How long did this exhibition take to come together ?

TS: Detailed exhibition planning has been underway for the last two years.  But conversations with the artist have been happening for much longer than that. 

DC: I see that this exhibition will travel after the Hayward gallery, where will it go next? What cities will be hosting it?

TS: We are delighted that the exhibition will travel to two international venues after the Hayward. Details of the tour are soon to be announced. 

DC: Since Sugimoto is fascinated with time and reality - I’d also be curious to know if that comes into play at all with how you have curated the exhibition and if you are playing around with those concepts at all? 

TS: The concept of time is at the core of many of Sugimoto’s photographs. Whether that’s the nearly instantaneous flash of an electrical spark, or the millenia that separate us from our distant ancestors. These ideas have certainly influenced the exhibition concept and presentation at the Hayward, as visitors will soon discover!

Hiroshi Sugimoto, Manatee, 1994. © Hiroshi Sugimoto, courtesy of the artist.

Sugimoto’s photographic explorations are developed as series, however it is important to understand that they remain open ended: regardless of when he started a series, Sugimoto will return to further develop his concepts and ideas. Below are some of the Seminal photography series that will be featured at the Hayward Gallery : 

Dioramas:(1976-) Sugimoto's earliest and perhaps most iconic works dating back to1976. As an avid museum goer, Sugimoto much admired the Natural History Museum in New York and their use of dioramas to depict and capture the drama of nature. He embarked on shooting on an 8x10 large scale camera. This allowed him to capture incredible detail transforming these unreal settings into hyper reality..  He was fascinated with how the viewer observes the photographic image as a document of reality. His images often include animals and “look real”. In this series he reveals the paradox of our perceptions of reality. Sugimoto invites us to witness the drama of nature and question our perceptions of story vs. fact and whether this matters.  

Theatres: (1976 - ) In this series Sugimoto asks us to look at our perception of time and reality. These photographs are of beautiful and often ornately framed old picturehouse screens and drive-ins with bright white ghostly screens. Sugimoto would take extremely long exposure shots, leaving the camera shutter open and exposing the film for the duration of the entire feature-length movie, challenging the viewer and his/her perception. Can you see/feel what is being shown? 

Architecture: (started 1997 - ) In this series Sugimoto invites the viewer to look at the geometric monumental majesty of our architecture and the sublime beauty of mathematics.  His subjects range from the readily identifiable iconic structures to buildings distilled to geometric abstraction.  

Lightning Fields: (2006 - ) Not just content with photographing what we see, Sugimoto also employs the science and technology of photography to create images that continue to challenge our perceptions. Lighting Fields is a series created by exposing sensitised paper to electrical impulses produced by a Van der Graaf generator producing awe inspiring images of electricity at play, often reminiscent of lighting bolts.   

Sculptures: (1990s - ) Mathematical Models; with his characteristic meticulous and precision focused photography and his fascination with 18th and 19th century mathematical models, Sugimoto brings together art and science in an aesthetic unity. The Hayward Gallery has curated this series next to two of his polished aluminium sculptures allowing the viewer to experience the sublime beauty of mathematics in a physical space, bringing to the flesh mathematical equations and abstract forms.

Hiroshi Sugimoto, Lightning Fields 225, 2009. © Hiroshi Sugimoto, courtesy of the artist.

Time Machine culminates with Sugimoto’s newest series and the only one that incorporates colour. Opticks: (2018 -) These are intensely coloured large format photographs of prism-refracted light. Sugimoto has developed much of the technology that has made these images possible. In a sense he uses science to paint. The photographs are luminescent and reminiscent of Rothko’s colour field paintings. They also possess a geometric rhythm and evokes Josef Albers’ Homage To The Square series. Sugimoto uses science to bring to light the timeless quest of artists to capture and hold light and colour. 

From earliest cave paintings, humans have sought to capture and document time to record our history. Sugimoto believes that consciousness is closely tied with our awareness of time. Humans are by essence time travellers. The artist helps us to visualise what we ponder, to transmit existential ideas visually and make them manifest; this is art; To make, to seek, and to appreciate art is truly human. Time Machine is a well curated look at Hiroshi Sugimoto's work, a playful and scientific look at our existence through the lens of Sugimotis’s time machine. 

On view October 11, 2023 through January 7, 2024. WM


Delia Cabral

Delia Cabral is a curator and an international art dealer, as well as an art critic and writer. As an innovative leader in the art world for 20 years, Cabral cultivated her access to an international network of arts professionals and institutions. Having built a reputation in Los Angeles, CA as a gallery owner (Founder, DCA Fine Art), Cabral consistently gained attention for mounting dynamic and critically acclaimed exhibitions. Now based in London Cabral’s experience as an international entrepreneur informs a unique skill set which enables her to access art from global cutting edge to privately held sought after historical works. As a passionate writer and member of the British National Union of Journalists, Cabral is always looking for what’s next in art. 




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