Framing Nature, East End Gallery, Sainsbury Centre
18 June – 3 October 2021
In celebration of the Japan-UK Season of Culture
Framing Nature highlights photographic work in the Sainsbury Centre collection by Nobuyoshi Araki (b.1940) and Hiroshi Sugimoto (b.1948). Obsessional in their exploration of life and death, Araki and Sugimoto share an abiding fascination in photography’s ability to manipulate the viewer’s perception of time and reality. Although both artists explore natural forms and processes in their works, they approach their subject matter in extremely different ways: Araki’s bold sensuality contrasts with Sugimoto’s minimalist, slightly austere compositions.
Five photographs from Araki’s Flower Rondeau (1997) series are displayed in Framing Nature; these works are on long-term loan from Judith S. Novak. In Flower Rondeau, the themes of Eros and Thanatos (Sex and Death) are expressed through eroticised images of nature’s fullness and decay. Araki uses the jewel-like colours of Cibachrome print technology to endow each bloom with a lurid brilliance.
“Flowers become more enriched with life as they approach their death. The most beautiful moment is just before they perish. When coming close to them, one is enraptured with sexual spirituality and I can hear the Flower Rondeau.”1
Araki associates Flower Rondeau with childhood memories of visits to Jōkanji Temple in Tokyo, where the spirits of over 20,000 sex workers and entertainers from the Yoshiwara licensed quarter are enshrined. The cut floral offerings left at their graves introduced Araki to a beauty that was permeated with eroticism and death. Araki uses photography to halt the onset of decay, preserving nature’s ephemeral beauty eternally.
Framing Nature presents 11 works by Sugimoto. The most enigmatic of these being two silver gelatin prints from his Seascapes series, titled Sea of Japan: Hokkaido 1 (1986) and Sea of Japan, Oki 1 (1987). Beginning in the 1980s, Sugimoto embarked on an ambitious project to document the rhythmic waves and glacial stillness of bodies of water at various locations around the world. To capture the rippling motion of the waves, Sugimoto used a large format 8 x 10 inch camera set to a slow shutter speed for a lengthened period of exposure. In Seascapes, the artist offers the viewer a sublime encounter with elemental nature, which transcends geographic and cultural boundaries. Produced over a period of three decades, Seascapes became a photographic obsession that resonated with the artist at an instinctual level.
In each photograph from this series, a horizon line bisects the composition, dividing sea from sky. Variations in light and environmental conditions serve to sharpen or blur the boundary, subtly altering the viewer’s emotional connection with the distant horizon. Blending scientific enquiry and spirituality, Sugimoto’s photographs are meditations on eternity.
“‘I have always been enthralled by the sea. The sea is my first memory. In the sea I can find vestigial memories of our race ― no, memories of life itself ― lingering faintly in the flow of the blood. To me, the sea is amniotic fluid. It was in the sea that life first came into being three billion years ago. Five hundred million years ago life emerged onto dry land from the sea’s womb.”2
In these lines, Sugimoto refers to the primordial sea in which protocells first appeared, heralding the beginning of life on this planet. Sugimoto has likened the calming experience of viewing the sea to visiting his ‘ancestral home’.3
Framing Nature features a selection of duotone, offset prints from Sugimoto’s Dioramas that were photographed between 1976 and 1996, and republished in The Origins of Love portfolio (2004). Begun shortly after moving to New York in 1974, the Diorama series was inspired by the artificiality of the exhibits in the American Museum of National History. After squinting at the displays with one eye closed, Sugimoto realised that he could use his camera to invest the museum’s taxidermy animals, wax models and plastic scenery with a vitality and authenticity that they did not possess in real life.
The Origins of Love portfolio also includes a colour inkjet print of one of Sugimoto’s Portraits, which was originally commissioned by the Deutsche Guggenheim, Berlin in 1999. The Music Lesson is a photograph of a Madame Tussaud’s waxwork recreation of Johannes Vermeer’s (1632–1675) painting, A Lady at the Virginal with a Gentleman (1662–64). When setting up the shot, Sugimoto used lighting to animate the life-size wax figures, and wittily substituted the reflection of the painter’s easel with a glimpse of the photographer’s tripod. Sugimoto moves between two-dimensional and three-dimensional simulations of reality, using the medium of photography to investigate multiple layers of illusion and artifice. For Sugimoto, photography is a time-recording device that ‘fossilises’ the present.4
Assistant Curator, Sainsbury Centre
1. Nobuyoshi Araki, Kakyoku (1997).
2. Hiroshi Sugimoto, ‘Time’s Yardstick’ from On the Beach (2014).
3. https://www.sugimotohiroshi.com/seascapes-1 [Accessed 6 July 2021]
4. https://www.sugimotohiroshi.com/pptrd [Accessed 6 July 2021]
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