Hiroshi Sugimoto’s ‘Lost Human Genetic Archive’ and the end of mankind

text: Taka Kawachi


Having undergone a major overhaul since September 2014, the newly renovated Tokyo Photographic Art Museum reopened its doors to the public in September 2016. With his work entitled ‘Lost Human Genetic Archive’, the honor to hold the first exhibition went to Hiroshi Sugimoto, an artist based both in Tokyo and New York and active not just in photography but also sculpture, architecture and theater. Under the theme of the “demise of mankind and civilization’ and consisting of 3 series occupying the 2nd and 3rd floors of the building, it was a comprehensive look into what Sugimoto had been tackling in recent years.

Perhaps apocalyptic, or perhaps Sugimoto displaying a dark sense of humor, the theme represents a series of 33 scenarios where “the world died today, or perhaps it was yesterday”. This exhibition made its debut at the Palais de Tokyo in Paris in 2014 and where it has been reworked specially for this exhibition. In fact, I had the opportunity to see the Paris exhibition, where I felt he took advantage of what the decrepit venues offered to him. It was an exhibition that I found elaborate in many ways and went against the image I previously held of Sugimoto. In his “personal museum” flowing with the themes of time and history, there is the image of a theater that suffered significant water damage from a powerful hurricane that had hit New York in ‘The Last Supper’, along with his own collection of fossils and meteorites, ancient art and monuments. Aided by descriptions of a variety of apocalyptic scenarios, it was a kind of structure that dazzles the visitors.

One part of the series that Sugimoto exhibited ‘On the Beach’, is his first attempt with platinum prints. Taken at the beginning of the 1990’s during a trip to New Zealand to photograph ocean scenery, these were images of the wreckage and parts of a vintage car that had drifted ashore. Having run out of the film that he had on him, he turned to using film that he had procured and was unaccustomed to. Through the old technique of platinum printing, this remarkable work brings out aspects that had long remained dormant in his work up to then.

The exhibition also provided the first public showing of ‘Abandoned Theater’. As the title suggests, it is a series of images of abandoned theaters taken by Sugimoto. A movie that Sugimoto carried with him was projected on a specially prepared projection screen placed in the front of the theater, where the light from one showing of the film was used to capture the entire theater. The white light emitted from the screen allowed the decay to faintly emerge from this somewhat decadent work. The balance differs from previous images in Sugimoto’s ‘Theater’ series, by which a sense of unease can be felt, more than likely symbolizing the end of civilization and history. As the white screen draws us in, possessing what seems a life of its own, there is an echo around telling us that “today, the world died……” Somewhere in our hearts, we want to answer back “Despite this, mankind will live on, right?”

‘Abandoned Theater’ In this piece, Sugimoto visited abandoned and ruined movie theaters across the USA, where he mounted a projection screen before playing a movie of his choice where the writer emphasized the end of history. The image was exposed by the light from one showing of the movie. Hiroshi Sugimoto ‘Paramount Theater, Newark’ 2015, Gelatin silver print © Hiroshi Sugimoto / Courtesy of Gallery Koyanagi

Taka Kawachi

Benrido, Overseas Division Director

Taka Kawachi has extensive international experience, having graduated from the Academy of Art University of San Francisco, to then working in New York City as a book editor and curator for 15 years. Returning to Japan in 2011. In 2016, Kawachi published his first book “Art no Iriguchi (Entrance to the Arts) ”.His publications illustrate his experiences of art and photography, and offer readers an opportunity to engage with the history and subjects of both regions from his unique point of view. He is currently the Director of the Overseas Division of Kyoto’s Benrido, working to disseminate the classic and rare photographic process of Collotype, and produced portfolios of Saul Leiter and J.H. Lartigue, etc. His latest publication is “Artists: Masters of Architecture and Design” (Akatsuki Press).

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