The largest survey to date of Hiroshi Sugimoto

The last time I saw Hiroshi Sugimoto’s work, I was standing in front of the ocean in Odawara, Kanagawa Prefecture in Japan. Someone recommended a visit to the Enoura Observatory in Odawara since I was in the region for a couple of days. The arrival experience started not on arrival at the Enoura Observatory but at the train station where a twice daily bus transported visitors from the tiny Odawara train station to the foundation’s site. It seems like everyone on that bus was involved in architecture or the arts, or an enthusiast of either creative industries at the very least.


Hiroshi Sugimoto’s Seascapes series at the Hayward Gallery, London. Image by Von Chua

Hiroshi Sugimoto’s work first appeared in my radar in 2014 when I saw his design for the 2.5m x 2.5m tea house titled the Glass Tea House Mondrian showcased during the Venice Architecture Biennale. At the Enoura Observatory in Odawara, Sugimoto was able to present not just his photographs, but also his philosophies and approaches in architecture and design. From the careful use of materials unique to Japan to the thoughtful furniture designs dotted along the art foundation’s site, the Enoura Observatory was a glimpse into the meditative and contemplative worlds of Hiroshi Sugimoto. Sugimoto’s work in the realms of spatial design and architecture is a close collaboration with architect Tomoyuki Sakakida, as Sugimoto was not formally trained in architecture. In 2008, Sugimoto and Sakakida founded the New Material Research Laboratory (NMRL).

Since mid-October 2023, an exhibition on Sugimoto’s photography work has been held at the Hayward Gallery, Southbank Centre, London. As I walked into the Hayward Gallery, I felt a sense of familiarity but with a number of new photographs from Sugimoto. The Architecture series and more surprising to me, the Opticks series in colours were pleasantly true to Sugimoto’s work that has an extreme abstraction borderlining a meditative state of mind.


The Opera series at the Hayward Gallery, London. Image by Von Chua

Walking through the exhibition, the gallery space itself and how it interacted with the artworks really struck me. Here, on display were some of the same photography work by Sugimoto from the Enoura Observatory. At the Hayward Gallery this time around, seeing a few of the same work from the Seascape series for the second time in a different setting, evoking deeper thoughts about the quality of a space in relation to the artwork displayed. At the Musée de l'Orangerie that hosts the The Water Lilies series by Monet, I was touched in a similar way, but never had I seen the same pieces displayed in a different location that stirred such different emotions.

While the Seascape photographs by Sugimoto were beautifully presented and sublime at the Enoura Observatory, the draw of the ocean at Odawara was an extremely powerful backdrop to the photographs. The draw on the Odawara seascapes, linked to Sugimoto’s childhood experience, is possibly why Sugimoto built the Enoura Observatory there. It is a dedicated place and space to enjoy the winter and summer solstices. Gallery spaces tend to act as a blank canvas and also have a sensitive responsibility to preserve artists’ pieces. I wonder if the architectural conditions in the gallery space at the Enoura Observatory has anything to do with Sugimoto being a living artist - is the NMRL team concerned about potential damage from sunlight to the photographs? Perhaps, but maybe not, stemming from the luxury of knowing that Sugimoto and his work could be replaced easier than, say, a painting whose creator had passed away.

The Hayward Gallery’s brutalist architecture truly provided a complimentary backdrop to Sugimoto’s photographs. Seeing the same photographs again in a completely different setting genuinely elevated my appreciation for his work, the emotions evoked compared to my experience at the Enoura Observatory which was much more about the site and location. It is also knowing and seeing the actual view where a small number of the photographs were taken; as if the camera lens is taken off and you as a visitor are seeing the photograph live. The photographer gave a glimpse into what he was seeing through his camera. The photograph is etched in your mind and memory, and hopefully one that you will remember for the years to come. Sugimoto’s approach and one that he was quoted is

Photography is like a found object. A photographer never makes an actual subject; they just steal the image from the world… Photography is a system of saving memories. It’s a time machine in a way, to preserve the memory, to preserve time.

The unique display of Sugimoto’s Seascape series at the Enoura Observatory were flanked by two strong facade - one oversized, ultra clear glazing, and the opposite facade lined with Oya stone that were unpolished and imbedded with historical fossils sourced from the Tochigi prefecture. At the end of the long and linear space, lies the clear vista to the Sagami Bay, a subject that also appears a few times in Sugimoto’s photographs. For me, the white gallery walls at the Hayward Gallery provided a sense of inward focus to heighten the nuances between each photograph - each piece could be further appreciated. Sugimoto is said to often expose his negatives for several hours, which some suggest is a reason why there is a meditative element that touches on the nature of time. When long exposure that involves a long period of time results in one single frame, are Sugimoto’s photographs a time capsule?

As I approached the last exhibition room within the gallery, there were colours. Sugimoto had created a series titled Opticks, inspired by Issac Newton’s experiments with prisms. Sugimoto began his own efforts to document light in 2009. After almost a decade of experimentations, the coloured photographs were the results of enlarging his Polaroid images from his experimentation into chromogenic prints. The colours and proportions of the Opticks series have a meditative quality that I found in Mark Rothko’s work. Exiting the exhibition into the gallery’s gift shop, next to the exhibition’s catalogue sits other books relevant to Sugimoto, one of them titled Rothko | Sugimoto and that book immediately came home with me.

To see Rothko’s work in London, the Tate Britain holds a small permanent collection of Rothko’s work in the free exhibition area titled Mark Rothko: The Seagram Murals. These paintings presented in the Clore Gallery were Rothko’s gifts in the 1970 to Tate because of his admiration for JMW Turner’s paintings; Rothko hoped that these paintings would be displayed next to Turner’s paintings. I’d highly recommend visiting it and allowing yourself more than just a couple of minutes in the room because when your eyes are truly adjusted to the lighting condition, you will begin to notice another dimension to Rothko’s works that is subtle and sensitive. In the Clore Gallery, the gallery benches are well placed and perfect for a quiet moment to enjoy Rothko’s works. I wonder how gallery curators decide which rooms should receive a bench and which shouldn’t? The Enoura Observatory had none along the 100 meter gallery.


Mark Rothko’s The Seagram Murals at the Tate Britain, London. Image by Von Chua

Similar to seeing Sugimoto’s works en masse, there is a meditative quality to Rothko’s works. Hiroshi Sugimoto’s photographs will be on display at the Hayward Gallery until 7th January 2024, please find details below:
Address: Hayward Gallery, Southbank Centre, Belvedere Road, London SE1 8XX