Sometimes I go looking for art in small, hidden galleries; sometimes I trek off to the farthest reaches of London; but for this exhibition, all I had to do was stroll round to the back of the Royal Academy on Piccadilly, go in through the grand portals of their Burlington Gardens gallery, ignore the imposing staircase straight ahead and take a sharp right into the Pace Gallery where the work of Hiroshi Sugimoto is currently on display.
It’s a spacious gallery – not surprising, given Pace have got their hands on a bit of the old Museum of Mankind which used to occupy this site. Apparently they have a fifteen-year lease on what must be one of the best gallery spaces in London. It’s just as well it’s so grand because Sugimoto’s dioramas are on a grand scale. They’re black and white photos, but black and white photos that won’t fit into any photo album I’ve ever come across.
The exhibition is titled Still Life and contains thirteen large-format photographs of birds and animals in natural settings. The wildlife poses helpfully, artistically arranged against lush backgrounds.
It should have dawned on me that something funny was going on, but I have to confess it didn’t – I took the whole thing at face value until afterwards when I read up on it (in case you’re wondering why I didn’t do that before I went, it’s because I don’t like to have other people’s opinions get between me and the art) and discovered that these aren’t wildlife photos at all – they’re photos of dioramas in museums. No wonder the birds stayed so obligingly still!
Sugimoto began the series, which is still ongoing, in 1976, when he moved to New York and visited the American Museum of Natural History for the first time.
He saw the dioramas as models of nature from which only life itself was missing. ‘Time comes to a halt and never-ending stillness reigns.’
Sugimoto’s process emphasises the absence of passing time. He uses a large-format camera with specific lighting and extended exposures, lasting as long as twenty minutes. Frozen dioramas double-deep frozen into photographs.
There are even some Christmas penguins.
The photos really are enormous, with a striking level of detail. I think I’ll go back and have another look now I have more idea of what’s going on.
The exhibition is free and continues until 24th January. Pace is open Tuesday to Saturday, 10 am to 6 pm.