- The Washington Times - Friday, May 26, 2006

The Arthur M. Sackler “Hiroshi Sugimoto: History of History” exhibition keeps you on your toes. If you don’t watch where you step, you might stumble into a floor-mounted trilobite slab from Morocco, the lead artwork in the exhibit.Could these fossils, which are 200 million to 550 million years old, really be part of a museum art display?

The answer is a resounding “yes” from internationally known Japanese-American photographer Hiroshi Sugimoto, who here uses his personal collection as space and time capsules.

Unlike the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden’s recent midcareer retrospective of Mr. Sugimoto’s work, the Sackler shows the photographer juxtaposing his own aesthetic, sacred and geological treasures with his much-revered photographs.

Organized by New York’s Japan Society and the Smithsonian Institution’s Sackler and Freer galleries, this exhibit outshines the Hirshhorn’s.

As his own exhibit curator at the Sackler, he begins with the fossils — there are 16 in the show — representing history’s earliest-surviving imprints and the beginning of what he sees as “our eternity.”

He then takes us through Japan’s history, from the prehistoric Jomon era, to the 8th-century Chinese-art-influenced Nara period, through Heian and Kamakura times.

Finally, he comes full circle with a seascape — the Caribbean Sea in Jamaica, what he calls his image of “eternity.”

With Mr. Sugimoto’s exploring of “eternity to eternity” — reminiscent of “from dust to dust” from the Anglican Book of Common Prayer — he shows us exquisitely beautiful East Asian and Japanese art objects.

An early Jomon period clay figure (ca. 5,000-4,000 B.C.) reveals just how expressive Japanese art can be — and how early. Mr. Sugimoto, who wrote the exhibit labels, states the figure could have been made for a shamanistic spirit-possession ritual, as a stand-in for a “kami,” or god.

“Offering up the figure,” the photographer writes, “the shaman goes into a trance, delivering a divine pronouncement; then, at the very climax, the shaman breaks the figure and it falls to the ground, signaling that the kami has departed.”

“Nevertheless,” Mr. Sugimoto continues, “we have no material evidence to prove that this was the case with this figure, save for its expression.”

The exhibit’s first gallery, dimly lit to preserve its delicate early objects, drew me in with the rare textile fragments from the Horyuji Temple (Nara period, A.D. 710-794) and Shosoin Imperial Repository, also from Nara times.

Again, Mr. Sugimoto writes perceptively, “These small swatches of textiles from the Shosoin afford us a glimpse of the aesthetics of that time. The ancient temple Horyuji, near Nara, preserves textiles from an even earlier period, dating as far back as the Hakuho era (A.D. 645-710).

“Some pieces, evidencing Persian design motifs from the Sasanian dynasty (A.D. 224-642), apparently traversed the Silk Road all the way to Japan.”

How did the photographer collect such rare pieces? Born in 1948, he came by this art by working as an antiquities dealer in New York in the late 1970s and 1980s, according to the Japan Society. He did this to support his own art and, quite unexpectedly, became interested in his own country’s art.

He continues to collect and says he likes to show off his new treasures.

The second gallery’s carving of a female Shinto deity from the later, 12th-century Heian period shows the marrying of Buddhist and indigenous Shinto religious forms at the time. Shinto images had never before been represented in figural form and this marks one of the first attempts.

Nearby, Mr. Sugimoto’s enormous black-and-white 1977 “Kegon Waterfall,” a gelatin silver print, couldn’t be more appropriate. Rarely has a contemporary artwork capturing the Japanese Shinto-kami-gods-based pantheistic feelings been created elsewhere.

Two Shinto-oriented vertical hanging scrolls, the “Kasuga Wakamiya Mandala” (13th-century Kamakura period) and “Shinsen’en” — “literally, garden of the sacred spring,” as the brochure describes it — also from Kamakura times, show even more the photographer’s love of Shinto art.

Although somewhat damaged, the “Mandala” shows a number of monks carrying what Mr. Sugimoto describes as “the sacred object of the shrine” away from the shrine, all under a beautiful moonlit night.

In the final room, the artist effectively juxtaposes what he calls the “natural histories” of one of his “seascapes” with the human ones of the six masks that constitute “Confessions of a Mask” (13th to 15th centuries).

Contrasting the masks (the human histories) with the artist’s great Jamaican seascape (part of the natural histories), this room is a fitting end to the artist’s preoccupation with eternity. The show begins and ends with this beautiful symbol of never-ending time.

The exhibit is perfect, except when the artist goes into conceptual pieces like “Sterilized Life,” in which he displays curved stone beads from Japan’s early Kofun period in a 1950s medical sterilizer; and “Testament of a Penis,” in which a Jomon period fertility piece sits atop a 1950s hospital gurney.

Despite these issues, this final stop of the exhibit’s tour shouldn’t be missed.

WHAT: “Hiroshi Sugimoto: History of History”

WHERE: Arthur M. Sackler Gallery of Art, 1050 Independence Ave. SW

WHEN: 10 a.m. to 5:30 p.m., through

July 30

TICKETS: Free

PHONE: 202/633-4880

ONLINE: www.asia.si.edu/exhibitions/current/Sugimoto.htm

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