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Zen 2.0: Hiroshi Sugimoto at Fondation Pierre Berge/YSL

(Paris.) Among contemporary Japanese artists, Hiroshi Sugimoto is the antithesis to Takashi Murakami. His work is more serious, more grown-up and consequently less frowned upon by art historians. This does not necessarily mean it is “better”.

For his show at the Fondation Pierre Bergé/Yves Saint Laurent, Sugimoto chose the title Accelerated Buddha. Life’s speeding up, and so is Samsara, the circle of life, death and rebirth.

In the beginning stands a thesis. A text explains Hiroshi Sugimoto’s view on religion. In short: It’s bad.

According to the artist, when man settled down five thousand years ago, he started to model gods after his own image, having known only pantheistic/Gaian spirits and embodiments of natural forces before. Men went “arrogant” (Sugimoto’s term), and mortal founders of religions rose to the status of (demi-)gods. Instead of images, people were adored. The artist explicitly names Christianity, Buddhism and Islam (the French version of the press release goes as far as calling these “les trois grandes religions” - “the three great religions”. A strange rating, that - being absent from the English text – has probably not been approved by the artist). From this point on, everything went downwards, and today, religion is solely responsible for war and bloodshed all over the world.

This very simplified view on history seems questionable at best. It recalls Xenophanes’ religion critique from about 500 BC: ‘If horses had gods, those would look like horses’.

In fact, gods are depicted as manlike not only for the last five thousand years, but at least since those wide-bottomed fertility goddesses of the Stone Age. And at the same time, there have always been – and still are - cults, that do not use similar images (Animist religions in the first place, but even Christianity’s Holy Spirit has to be listed here). Hiroshi Sugimoto adds another aspect, that of living persons being worshipped as divine entities. Whilst this may be valid for Zoroaster and Pharaohs, for Divine Emperors of Rome, China and Japan, for Buddha Gautama, Jesus and Mohammed, for Moses maybe, it is obviously not true for the Greek Pantheon and Hinduism (which is certainly another “grande religion”).

Sugimoto’s judgement on the devastating effects of belief is not new, either. Let’s face it: two hundred years after Feuerbach, Materialist religion critique is not exactly avant-garde anymore. It’s well known in art, too (“Earth groans beneath religion’s iron age // And priests dare babble of a God of peace”, P.B. Shelley: Queen Mab, 1812; “And no religion, too”, John Lennon: Imagine, 1971). May it be right, may it be mere scapegoating, in neither case can one escape the search for alternatives.

The problem with a thesis is how you always need examples, proofs, to make it an argument. Being an artist not a philosopher, Hiroshi Sugimoto can probably neglect this restriction, and just use the claim for a manifesto. But then, his works should match it in an ever recognisable way.

In true postmodernist DJ fashion (that’s soooo ‘90s, isn’t it?), the artist assembles antique cult objects, and occasionally mixes in own creations. Instead of one huge installation, he chose to show them in pairs. With some goodwill, one of these can indeed be connected to his concept: A 13th Century sword confronts the photo of a similar shaped landscape, with the blade’s equivalent being a waterfall. - Wait, did we not just learn, religious violence started, once the spirits/gods of nature had been exchanged for anthropomorphic gods? Better don’t go into detail here.

The rest of the collection – historic masks, sculptures and drawings from Asia and Europe - is nice to behold, but the rapport to Hiroshi Sugimoto’s manifesto remains obscure. If anything, these objects prove the prolific rapport arts and beliefs entertained throughout the ages, yet nothing hints to the restrictions and persecutions artists suffered from priests.

Finally, there are Sugimoto’s photos of Bodhisattva sculptures, taken in a temple in Kyoto and arranged in photoshopped ensembles. Closely approaching, one discovers the fine variations in their faces. Very simplified, a Bodhisattva is a person, who could attain the Nirvana status, but who delays his own deliverance, in order to teach others. The monochrome photos look almost like fine drawings. Contemplating them for a while, the visitor starts to wonder whether there’s a problem with the climate control, as a strange hum starts filling the air. Later, distant gongs are mixed into the noise. Following the sounds, one finds the entrance to a side room and a label announcing an Audio Composition (Composition sonore) by Ken Ikeda“. Well, despite that, you should really enter that room, there is not only sound, there’s a video by Sugimoto, too!

An open rectangle shows three times the same short film. A temple (looking much like CGI video game graphics) from afar; the camera zooms in until we recognise one of those Bodhisattva photos. It starts to vibrate, to accelerate (so it’s actually an Accelerated Bodhisattva?), and the sound settles in. The monochrome photo turns into a stroboscope, if you’re epileptic, it’s time to leave now. Faster, louder, harder, faster, harder, harder, speed overpowers human perception, the Accelerated B. seems to stand still again. The climax of a gong, KO in one round.

And that’s it.

It’s a good idea though, to advance to the second storey and visit the gift shop. You’ll find, that Hiroshi Sugimoto wrote a book in catalogue format (and to a catalogue price, obviously). The exhibition actually is no more than an illustration to the essay. The artist turned writer and throws in some pictures, that in itself are irrelevant. That’s fine, but maybe it would be better to announce it beforehand.

The video is actually not about cosmic vibrations, not about the permanence of inner values, of a constant core, despite all changes of appearance, but much on the contrary it is meant to say that acceleration leads to annihilation, contemporary cultures and religions are bound to vanish soon. Again, this may be true, maybe even desirable (?), but is it really expressed in these artworks?

Hiroshi Sugimoto’s work here is a mix of conceptual art and science: He creates a thesis first, and then just chooses art to match it (more or less). A thesis precedes artworks that precede the thesis. – Which came first, the chicken or the egg?

Hiroshi Sugimoto, Fondation Pierre Bergé, Yves Saint Laurent, 10 October 2013-26 January 2014



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