Hiroshi Sugimoto’s Double-frozen Still Life

Alaskan Wolves (1994), Hiroshi Sugimoto © Hiroshi Sugimoto

Alaskan Wolves (1994), Hiroshi Sugimoto © Hiroshi Sugimoto

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.

Hiroshi Sugimoto at Pace GalleryIt’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.

Hiroshi Sugimoto at Pace GalleryThe 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.

Ostrich-Wart Hog

Ostrich-Wart Hog  (1980) Hiroshi Sugimoto © Hiroshi Sugimoto

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!

California Condor (1994) Hiroshi Sugimoto © Hiroshi Sugimoto

California Condor (1994) Hiroshi Sugimoto © Hiroshi Sugimoto

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.

Polar Bear (1976) Hiroshi Sugimoto © Hiroshi Sugimoto

Polar Bear (1976) Hiroshi Sugimoto © Hiroshi Sugimoto

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.’

Birds of the Alps (2012) Hiroshi Sugimoto © Hiroshi Sugimoto

Birds of the Alps (2012) Hiroshi Sugimoto © Hiroshi Sugimoto

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.

Galapagos (1980) Hiroshi Sugimoto © Hiroshi Sugimoto

Galapagos (1980) Hiroshi Sugimoto © Hiroshi Sugimoto

There are even some Christmas penguins.

Hiroshi Sugimoto Birds of South Georgia

Birds of South Georgia (2012) Hiroshi Sugimoto © Hiroshi Sugimoto

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.

Wapiti (1980) Hiroshi Sugimoto © Hiroshi Sugimoto

Wapiti (1980) Hiroshi Sugimoto © Hiroshi Sugimoto

The exhibition is free and continues until 24th January. Pace is open Tuesday to Saturday, 10 am to 6 pm.

7 thoughts on “Hiroshi Sugimoto’s Double-frozen Still Life

  1. I know Hirosi Sugimoto from his photos of sea blending into sky. Wasn’t impressed by his photos above. Thank goodness you have a more enquiring mind than me. Will now revisit and reappraise.

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  2. It’s perhaps a double take on nature by humans. The photographs make you pause and consider our history of idealising nature – a re-presentation of a reconstruction? I think it looks beautiful, but with maybe a subversive thread.

    Absolutely agree with you about not reading reviews first. Sometimes that is more difficult for a so-called blockbuster if all the press are raving about it.

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  3. Pingback: Magnificent Obsessions at the Barbican | Sequins and Cherry Blossom

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