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THE SEA OF TIME

With gravitational waves from the beginning of Time caught on a telescope at the South Pole for the first time, and a plane with more than two hundred people disappearing into the seas in the early hours of an Eastern morning, this feels like the right moment to be looking again at Hiroshi Sugimoto’s 8.4-cm-high photographic artefact of 1987, Time’s Arrow (left). It is reproduced in the book that followed Sugimoto’s exhibition at Renzo Piano’s Maison Hermés in Tokyo, L’HISTOIRE DE L’HISTOIRE (Rikuyosha, Y6,800). In Time’s Arrow, this 1948-born Japanese photographic artist and architect makes a miniaturized silver-gelatine print of one of his own pictures of the sea, and frames it in a 13th-century Japanese reliquary of gilded bronze, designed to hold the Buddha’s ashes. In his notes to the image, Sugimoto makes us look closely at this flaming jewel: “Note the delicate nanako ‘fish roe’ pattern peculiar to the Kamakura period (1185-1333) metalwork, as well as the powerful sculptural representation of flames, all thickly applied with layers of gilt. In place of the missing ashes, I have inserted a seascape of a calm sea surrounded by fire, somehow reminiscent of the newborn earth. Time’s arrow shoots from the primordial sea through a Kamakura period frame straight at your eye.” Between the I and the you of such an exchange, Sugimoto finds a way of inscribing his own work with an emblematic distillation of nothing less than “the sea of time”. This is done unabashedly, yet with total humility.

In his “Bleached Journal”, Sugimoto acknowledges the profound influence of a passage from Yukio Mishima’s novel, The Temple of the Golden Pavilion, in forming this consciousness of time: “I used to think of the copper-gold phoenix, which crowned the roof of the Golden Temple and which had remained there year after year exposed to the elements. This mysterious golden bird never crowed at the break of dawn, never flapped its wings — indeed, it had itself no doubt completely forgotten that it was a bird. Yet it would be untrue to say that this bird did not look as if it were flying. Other birds fly through the air, but this golden phoenix was eternally flying through time on its shining wings… When my thoughts moved in such directions, the Golden Temple would seem to me like some beautiful ship crossing the sea of time.”

Next to the sea in a flaming jewel is, again, the sea — the Japan Sea photographed by Sugimoto from the Oki Islands in 1981 — fitted inside the lid of a Tiffany’s make-up case. Its silver lid opens to reveal a tiny portrait of the Emperor Hirohito, the “imperial likeness” photographed from a wax mannequin. The entire work is called Morning Sun Illumes the Waves, 1999. By scaling down the monumentality of his seascapes so that he might insert them into differently valued objects from the past, Sugimoto not only confounds the ancient and the contemporary, but also frees his own art from the tyranny of the Decisive Moment, releasing photographic time into what he calls, with a sort of serene hubris, “The History of History”. So, the book, like the exhibition, telescopes the spatial, temporal and curatorial distances between different kinds of history and their materials by placing Sugimoto’s own photographic and architectural work alongside the religious, archaeological and museological relics of Japanese and world history, including the histories of politics, art and the human species. Pseudo-realistically photographed museum dioramas of natural history, Buddhist reliquary fragments, ancient masks and figurines, stone works and textiles mingle exquisitely with Sugimoto’s photographs of the portraits and waxwork of legendary rulers and with his models for the rebuilding of an island shrine — all precisely dated and annotated, yet confounding “recorded history, unrecorded history and… that which is yet to be depicted”: “This world is the interval where something shifts from being to nothingness. Sometimes in that interval, beauty sparkles like a solved riddle from a secret language.”