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16 January - 3 March 2001
There's a sub-plot in the film Bill and Ted's Excellent Adventure that revolves around the fact that our two heroes have to deliver an end of term history presentation to their school. My memory of the exact details is hazy but basically they travel through time and round up a bunch of famous historical figures and bring them back to the present day to help deliver the talk. Shakepeare, Napoleon, Socrates, Billy the Kid, Freud (and Genghis Khan or Attila the Hun, interestingly, I'm unable to remember which one) are roped into the definitive telling of history. Could history get any more authentic than this - the men, and with the exception of Joan of Arc, they are all men - who made the history get to tell it with the added benefit, having relocated to the twentieth century, of perfect hindsight.
Hiroshi Sugimoto's show at the White Cube 2 is made up of large black and white photos of waxwork figures of the Madame Tussaud's style. The subjects include Oscar Wilde, Yasser Arafat, the Pope, Salvador Dali, Richard III, Lenin, Elizabeth II, Shakespeare, the Duke of Wellington, Napoleon and, the only group composition, the Last Supper, based on Leonardo's fresco in Milan. The prints are mounted on thick board which is edged in black to match the deep blacks of the background of the prints. This whole lot is then mounted in shallow glass and a pale wood frame - the whole serving to emphasis the object rather than image quality of the pieces. They're like big slabs of black marble or matt formica in a cabinet. This seems to be the distinctive style of Hiroshi Sugimoto presentation; a similar set of photos of Henry VIII and his wives in the Saatchi gallery exhibition, I am a Camera, are identical in this and other formal respects.
Stylistically, with the exception of the Last Supper, the pictures follow the same pattern in their framing but also in their composition - a single standing figure cropped just below the waist against a completely black background that both isolates and separates the figure from its surroundings and any contextualisation in place and time.
When viewing the pictures in the gallery space there is a tension present that plays in the space between what we know and what we see. Alongside this interplay there's the question that in this endless chain of reality versus representation ("real" Napoleon, popular culture Napoleon, historical Napoleon, portrait painters' Napoleon, a Japanese waxwork of Napoleon and now an art photo of that waxwork), what exactly comes first and, as the viewer, where do we begin in attempting to unravel it?
Made up of five panels, the Last Supper is a photo of a Japanese waxwork based on Leonardo da Vinci's picture of the same scene. Long and thin, it fills the wall in the final room of the gallery. That it's in a room on its own with a facing bench to view it from adds to the slightly uneasy contemplative feel. It's OK to supplicate in a church, moderately so in a gallery or museum with religious icons and artifacts, but what should one do when faced with a photo of a waxwork of the last Supper in a commercial gallery in East London? At what point does christian religious iconography and its move to ever-greater post-Renaissance realism just become too real to be seen as purely spiritual? For me, looking at Hiroshi's Last Supper, while being a black and white picture endows it with a certain seriousness that prevents it falling into kitsch, the two details I still remember about it are the fact that there wasn't much food at the last supper and the back of Jesus's hand is very very hairy. It's the details that take me away from the supposed revelatory content of the image.
Formally, each panel in the Last Supper, although joined together as a continuous piece in the presentation, is actually shot separately from a different viewpoint. Each group of figures was taken separately from straight on. The effect is to disjoint and segregate each of the panels from the ones around it - there is no single unifying point of view that pulls together the scene. Spatially Jesus is in a panel on his own and this sense of isolation is heightened by the fact that none of the apostles appears to be looking at him, but slightly past him.
On a technical level Hiroshi's pictures are flawless - not only in the quality of the printing but also in the relentlessly clean
formal style across each series of photos, whether they be the early cinema scenes or Henry VIII and his wives. In an interview with art critic Martin Herbert last year, Hiroshi Sugimoto explained:
"Developing a low-quality aesthetic is a sign of serious fine art - I still see this. But to me, serious concepts are only shown through a highly mastered technique. Painters - if you're not a skilful painter, how do you paint the thing? Maybe I'm very 19th Century minded, but I still feel very engaged with the technical aspects of art."
Ultimately, as much as I love the pictures I feel a certain ambivalence towards Hiroshi Sugimoto's recent work in these two shows. Undoubtedly it needs to be seen in the "flesh" as opposed to on the pages of a catalogue as so much of the effect of the pieces is dependant on scale, size, quality, surface and simply being in the same room as them. It is their undoubted presence as objects which is, I suspect, the source of much of my mixed feelings. On the level of a piece of art they're fantastically lush and invoke a response about the nature of realism that I find extremely compelling. At the same time the attraction of photography (for me) has always been in its reproducibility and the mechanical nature of its production - and the possibility of an art that doesn't depend on the aura of uniqueness.
Visit the White Cube website.
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