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Hiroshi Sugimoto created a stage for a Noh performance at Dia; unfortunately, it was in October 2001, not a real hot time for cultural diversions in downtown New York City. Missed it.

The Noh stage was reinstalled at the Mori Museum at Roppongi Hills, which we also missed.

Now, tonight at the Hirshhorn, two musicians are premiering a piece created for the artist's exhibition. Then after that, Sugimoto himself will perform as benshi, or stageside storyteller/narrator, for Kenzo Mizoguchi's 1933 silent masterpiece, The Water Magician. Japanese silents are rarely, shown anywhere these days.

6 and 7 pm: Specification Fifteen, a live world premiere of a new musical work created especially for the Hiroshi Sugimoto exhibition, Lerner Room. For more information about Richard Chartier and Taylor Deupree, visit their websites at http://www.3particles.com and http://www.12k.com.
6:30 pm: Curator's tour with Kerry Brougher, second level
8 pm: The Water Magician, 1933, Ring Auditorium. Film courtesy of the collection of the National Museum of Modern Art, Tokyo.

Please be advised that seating in the Ring Auditorium is limited, and we anticipate a high turn-out for this event. Ticket distribution for the film, The Water Magician, begins at 7:15 pm. Please form a line just outside the Emergency Exit doors to the right of the Information Desk. Guests may enter the auditorium beginning at 7:45pm. Entry to the auditorium will not be permitted after 8pm. Please plan your visit accordingly.

I'm sure the lines are already out the door. It'd be great if the Hirshhorn had some ticketed events open only to big-time donors. Giving money for exclusive access to taxpayer-funded institutions is a Washington tradition...

Hirshhorn After Hours [hirshhorn.si.edu, non-permanent link]
Hiroshi Sugimoto programmed a Japanese cinema series at The Japan Society last fall [via twi-ny.com]
Midnight Eye has an awesome overview of Japanese silent film and an interview with a leading benshi, Midori Sawato [midnighteye.com]

I've been a big fan and collector of Hiroshi Sugimoto's work for over 13 years now [wow. Typing that just now makes me hyperaware of the passage of time, which is par for the course for Sugimoto.] So when I had a chance to meet the artist at a preview of his retrospective show at the Hirshhorn yesterday, I jumped.

It's really quite a gorgeous show; stunning, even, which I think is atypical of Sugimoto's work. For all his conceptually driven series, he's always produced extremely beautiful photographs, don't get me wrong. And in the last few years, I've seen references to the importance of the old-school technical aspects of photography as well. I'm wary of reading it too much as a "Japanese" sensibility, too, even though the Japanese tradition of modernism and minimalism really is a worldview apart from that of the West; but it's seductively easy to fall back on the myth of the Inscrutable Oriental--or worse, the pathetic, westernized Pop Zen--when praising his work.

Still, let's face facts: the man has photographed an icon of Buddhism in Kyoto [the sanjusangen-do temple], he's designed a Noh stage and a Shinto shrine, and his longtime profession has been a dealer in Japanese antiques. And you can't get much more self-consciously Japanese than all that. But maybe it's like being an American in Paris being a Japanese in New York; your awareness of difference is enhanced.


sugimoto_hirshhorn.jpg


Back to the stunning, though. Sugimoto's recent forays into architecture and spatial design are (coincidentally?) timed with a waning--or an impending extinction, to hear him talk about it--of photography as a medium for him. The recent discontinuation of his favored materials and the ascendance of digital photography are rendering him obsolete. Not wanting to go the Sally Mann route by adding another layer of meaning onto his work by choosing to homebrew his materials, Sugimoto said he's just printing as much as he can while he can, and is looking to other mediums for his work.

The result, oddly enough: giant prints. While some of his newest work, wax figure portrait photos and those mathematical model images, were always larger-than-life-size, with this show, Sugimoto has gone back and printed older work in seductive, giant formats. There are museum dioramas, a movie theater, and, stunningly, seascapes. These giant prints are really objects now, not images; conceptually, maybe that's always been the case, but it's certainly a much clearer assertion of that idea than Sugimoto's ever made. This is doubly true for the dramatically lit Seascapes in the massive, blackout gallery [the museum removed some non-loadbearing walls, and they should never put them back; this is probably the most breathtakingly sublime space the Hirshhorn has ever had.]

But I'm not sure that's entirely a compliment. Large prints are the new market hotness, and since his most popular works, the seascapes, had long ago sold out their editions, there was little opportunity for the artist to be rewarded for his pioneering work. Now, though, he gets a piece of the action himself, and new collectors get the impressive Sugimoto-brand wall candy they crave; it's win-win. I guess.

But then I have to look back and wonder; it wasn't "development" who tore down the movie palaces in Sugimoto's now-deeply nostalgic photos; it was developers. At one point, his work was not only beautiful, it was marginalized, radical, even, as well as conceptually rigorous. And now, well, this show just arrived from the Mori Art Museum at Roppongi Hills, and you can't get any more "developer" than that. [And I say that as someone counting developers among my family and close friends. But still.]

Of all people, I'm stoked when artists have the freedom to pursue their vision, and I wouldn't want to stick Sugimoto in the twee realm of master photographic craftsman if his interests lie elsewhere. But at the same time, when I am instantly blown away by beauty in art, I have to admit, I'm a bit skeptical.

I took an old catalogue for him to sign (Sugimoto's actually doing a signing and a speech this evening, starting at 6, but we can't make it), and he graciously dashed off a dramatic "S" and some illegible stuff with a silver pen. When I got home, though, I compared it to a catalogue he'd signed for me eight years ago; it was sober, meticulous cursive, as if he were signing a will, not an autograph. And somehow that seems to make sense.

Hiroshi Sugimoto at the Hirshhorn

Previously: greg.org on sugimoto

January 19, 2005

On Smithson, Space & Time

Another cover from Life"the lunar surface photographed by the Apollo astronauts in 1969" yields a comparison to Smithson's cover for Artforum published just a month later: a distribution of mirrors across a square of parched earth, one of a number of illustrations from his "Incidents of Mirror-Travel in the Yucatan." Placing these images together, which speaks to an argument about travel as a form of cultural repetition that suspends an experience of the present, demands a great deal of archival legwork on Reynolds's part.
-Pamela M. Lee writing about new books about Robert Smithson in "The Cowboy in the Library," published in the Dec/Jan 2005 Bookforum. She's referring to Ann Reynold's 2003 book, Robert Smithson: Learning from New Jersey and Elsewhere, which draws intensively and creatively on Smithson's archives at...the Smithsonian.

The image above is Moonworks, artist Craig Kalpakjian's 2003 proposal for creating earthworks on the moon. Read about it in Issue Magazine. Craig's got a show up through Saturday at Galerie Edward Mitterand in Geneva.

Lee continues:

In one of the most striking passages of art history I've read in a while, Roberts connects a Mannerist altarpiece Smithson studied at length with the abstract sculpture he began making in the mid-'60s, by bridging a discussion of Jacopo Pontormo's Descent from the Cross, 1525-�28, a deposition image composed around the rotational forms of its sacral actors, to the spiraling forms and crystalline structures of works such as Gyrostasis, 1968. What connects them in Smithson's oeuvre, Roberts argues, is their attitude toward the deposition of time: Pontormo's languorous Christ now exhibits a "depositional temporality," whereas the growth process of a crystal is itself called a "deposition." It says something about Roberts' gifts as a polemicist that she can make this leap wholly convincing for the reader. More art history should be written with the kind of imagination and verve displayed here.
Roberts is Jennifer Roberts, who wrote Mirror-Travels: Robert Smithson and History. Smithson's sculpture Gyrostasis was recently on view at the Hirshhorn.

Last Sunday at the Hirshhorn, I saw a great documentary about one of my favorite artists. Juan Carlos Martin followed Gabriel Orozco around the world for three years, filming and taping the meandering artist's creative process, his installations, and the art world's reactions to his work.

To my eyes, apparent slightness is one of the most powerful aspects of Orozco's work. Martin's film reveals the intensely sustained effort Orozco's effortless-looking art requires. Weeks of tedious fabrication in a small Mexican hamlet translates into an unassuming beachscape in a German museum. The objects exhibited in The Penske Project turns out to be the tip of the iceberg of searching, alteration, and driving in the rental truck that gave the show its name. "When I'm enjoying the process, I know the result will be OK," Gabriel's voiceover explains.

With palimpsest voiceovers and interviews, raw camera movement and editing, and a marked lack of self-importance, Martin's film is a standout in the deathly boring artist documentary genre. (Think talking academic heads, the artist walking on cue, and endless tracking shots through an empty museum.) But this light-n-lively touch has its drawbacks, and they still bug.

Gabriel Orozco usually installs his photos interspersed with other works--drawings, collages, and sculpture. The Hirshhorn show which opened last week is the first time they've been shown alone. The show felt instantly familiar, and not because I've been a follower, fan, and collector of Orozco's work for almost ten years. In that time, the artist has published several text-free collections of his photography. The exhibition feels like one of these artist books.

my_hands_gabriel_orozco.jpgEach image on its own is almost incidental. This is purely intentional. From one of the earliest, most literal works in the show, My hands are my heart, Orozco takes the gesture of the artist as his theme. The gesture, no matter how slight, is at least one degree more concrete than that holy Duchampian standard of Artistic creation, the idea. But that doesn't mean a gesture is any more substantial, just the opposite.

Traces of the artist's breath on a grand piano. Condensation inside a recently removed wristwatch. Ripples from a stone thrown into a rooftop pool. Damp, cyclical bicycle tracks on an empty street. Orozco relentlessly experiments to discover the outcome and significance of even the most fleeting, insignificant gesture. That these gestures won't last even a few minutes is just fine with him.

In some of his work, it's hard to even tell what, if anything, Orozco's done; it's as if he's playing a game of Where's Waldo with us, challenging us to find his intervention. And just as often, especially in the photographs, the gesture is in the snapping of the shutter, the framing of the image. Through the camera's lens, Orozco invites us to see the world differently, to see it through his eyes.

Given the art world's current penchant for photography--especially for giant Gursky- and Gaskell-sized c-prints--Orozco's small format photos seem almost quaint. [Only recently has the artist given in to market pressure and printed his photos in larger sizes. Fortunately, none of these super-sized prints are included in the Hirshhorn show.] Their effect on the viewer doesn't come from easy, overwhelming spectacle, but through the accumulation of small elements over time. As the Japanese saying goes, Chiri mo tsumoreba, yama to naru (dust, too, piled up, can become a mountain).

From Green Glass to Airplane, Gabriel OrozcoAnd this is where the great power of Orozco's work lies, and where the Hirshhorn show doesn't quite deliver. Orozco's evanescent gestures gain cumulative power when they're manifested across various mediums, an effect which is muted by the photographs' formal homogeneity. But put the concentric ripples in a pool next to a boarding pass with compass-drawn circles on it next to a video of a soap bubble floating down the street next to--no kidding--a sculpture consisting of a clear yogurt lid pinned to the wall, and, to the viewer's surprise and amusement, the specific and banal becomes universal and profound. And I guarantee, you'll never see a bubble or a cue ball the same way again. You'll be playing Where's Gabriel wherever you go.

Related: It's almost two years since I took New Yorker critic Peter Schjeldahl to the woodshed over his negative review of Orozco's work. So Tyler, you're in good company.

Buy Extension of Reflection, the excellent exhibition catalogue, or From Green Glass to Airplane, the even better collection of stills from Orozco's video works.

June 11, 2004

On Politics and Art

Rob Storr interviewed Felix Gonzalez-Torres in 1995. Felix identified Helen Frankenthaler as the most successful political artist alive, and then told about the invitation he received in 1989 to participate in the State Department's Art for Embassies Program:

It has this wonderful quote from George Bernard Shaw, which says, "Besides torture, art is the most persuasive weapon." And I said I didn't know that the State Department had given up on torture - they're probably not giving up on torture - but they're using both. Anyway, look at this letter, because in case you missed the point they reproduce a Franz Kline which explains very well what they want in this program.
4/06 update: Creative Time has since removed this interview, and only one other place, the Queer Cultural Center, is hosting it. To make sure it stays out there, I'm reproducing it in whole on greg.org, just because. [note: I formatted it for easier reading.]

July 11, 2003

Well Hung

When our DC neighbors' rather inconsiderately left their wireless networks turned off this morning, I ran over to the Hirshhorn to see their new, temporary installation of the permanent collection. It's pretty fresh, with room to breathe. A lot of wall and floor space is devoted to newer work, which had always gotten short shrift in the Hirshhorn's rather staid, historical hang (like a history teacher in May, having to cover "WWII-to-present" in a week).

There are moments of real enjoyment, if not brilliance, but the limitations are the collections' (pretty good, with a few greats), not the curators'. Turning from the all-black wall (Ad Reinhart, Frank Stella, Richard Serra) to find a rarely seen Robert Smithson spiral sculpture perfectly framed in the doorway is awesome, even if it doesn't necessarily mean anything.

Maybe it's my skewed NYC perspective, but the installation takes a luxurious approach to space; Wolfgang Laib pollen carpet has a huge gallery to itself. In an equally giant Ann Hamilton room, ceiling robots periodically sent sheets of white paper fluttering to the floor. Some tourists frolicked in the resulting paperdrifts, flailing goofily to catch the falling sheets. Their photosnapping attempts to capture what is, essentially, an experience, didn't fare much better.

It's always good to see a Tobias Rehberger, even if it's taped off like a crime scene; and they thankfully purged a lot of the tchotchkes that made the sculpture hallways so avoidable.

One thing I don't understand, though, is the Hirshhorn's embarassing practice of selling its old mail. Seriously. There are two milkcrates in the giftshop, full of minor auction catalogues, reports, and obscure 1970's exhibition brochures from other museums. Priced are based solely, it seems, on binding type. It's enough to make me take a stand, Tyler Green-style: lose the trash bins. Or, at least, start throwing out more interesting stuff.

At the Hirshhorn Museum yesterday (originally to see the Ernesto Neto installaion before it closed), I kind of fixated on the work of Anne Truitt, which is in the "Minimalism and its Legacy" installation on the lower floor.

I wasn't familiar with Truitt's work, but a quick Google search shows an embarrassingly long and distinguished career (embarrassing for me not to know about it, that is). Go ahead, try it. Truitt was a central figure (along with Judd and Andre, but "championed," for better or worse, by Clement Greenberg) in the emergence of Minimalist art in the 60's. Yet unlike the canonical Minimalists, her work never sought the complete elimination of content. It seems obvious to me (although no shows seem to have been done to examine it) that the surge of artists using minimalist vocabulary (Felix Gonzalez-Torres, Robert Gober and Ellen Gallagher are among the most obvious) to biographical, emotional and political effect can relate directly to Truitt's work. (One of Truitt's earliest sculptures was--and wasn't, of course--a section of picket fence, which suggests Gober's various playpen/crib sculptures.)

Surprisingly, Truitt's still alive and cranking away (although from the tone of this interview in Artforum, "cranking" isn't the steely-yet-genteel artist's style) right here in Washington, DC. And looking at the consistency of her more recent work, she continues to pursue her interests, while being somewhat inexplicably underappreciated by the current art world/market. [Here is Daybook: The Journey of an Artist, Truitt's well-reviewed diaries. Buy it. I did.]

Oh, the Neto piece is great, btw. I'd seen a couple of less successful ones lately and wondered if he's been in a slump, but the strong sculptural quality of this one was really nice. Since it was rice and styrofoam, it didn't smell, but it did have so many visual references to genitalia (think mons, orifices, and billygoats moving away from you, not the "wombs" the brochure delicately alluded to) that an arts funding crisis would've broken out if conservatives didn't feel oh-so-comfortable with their grip on this town right now.

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Since 2001 here at greg.org, I've been blogging about the creative process—my own and those of people who interest me. That mostly involves filmmaking, art, writing, research, and the making thereof.

Many thanks to the Creative Capital | Warhol Foundation Arts Writers Program for supporting greg.org that time.

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