the phantom in the park and the ghost in the machine: hiroshi sugimoto’s homage to marcel duchamp at the fondation cartier “étant donné : le grande verre”
the glass curtain walls of the jean nouvel designed paris headquarters of the fondation cartier shine brilliantly in the sunlight of an autumn afternoon; a masterful essay in light, steel, reflected blue skies and cedar trees. this seemingly weightless and transparent structure, blurs interior and exterior, inviting the surrounding garden into the ground floor gallery space.
known to locals as the large glass box, the epithet gives a key to the current installation by the photographer artist hiroshi sugimoto. containing nineteen large scale black and white images, sugimoto has resurrected and re-interpreted ‘le grande verre’; the key work of the modernist master marcel duchamp. where duchamp sandwiched his work between two panes, sugimoto places his work within a whole building made of glass.
hiroshi sugimoto is not perhaps readily associated with the mischief and humour of the great iconoclast, but sugimoto asserts he has always been something of a duchampian. this seems odd from an artist whose photography is synonymous with precision and craft. with a hand-made full-plate camera, whose exposures can take several hours to execute, he works painstakingly and exclusively in monochrome, producing exquisite prints to exacting standards, with his team of darkroom assistants. sugimoto’s working practices on the face of it have more in common with twentieth century exponents of fine art photography: edward weston, and the f64 group, for example, than any intellectually rigourous conceptual art practice.
sugimoto’s most well-known works are his seascapes; a series which he has developed over many years. widely exhibited, they are movingly delicate explorations of the shifting tonalities of what sugimoto regards as the most basic elements of the environment; sea and sky, and quiet testaments to the passage of time. more recently he has executed a series of portraits of seminal architectural masterworks: the seagram building, gaudi’s casa batlló ii, the united nations, the chrysler building, the new york guggenheim museum – among others. they were photographed with a special out-of-focus technique developed by sugimoto himself. this strategy reduced the buildings to abstract signifying presences, rather than displaying their material specificity. the buildings became mythic representations of themselves.
in ‘screen memories’ sugimoto presented photographs of cinema interiors with exposures made over the exact duration of complete film screenings; a marriage of ‘concept’ and its illustration, a reminder of the essential relationship which photography has with time.
ample evidence, then, that concept is of prime significance to him, and is perhaps how we find him constructing this paean to the arch priest of 20th century art and his masterwork. for duchamp himself, concept was far greater than what he referred to as the ‘retinal’ in art. without the commentary contained in duchamp’s copious notes, duchamp’s large glass or “the bride stripped bare by her bachelors, even” to give it it’s full title, is incomprehensible to the novitiate. the work, which underwent several transmutations, destruction, reconstructions, and simulations, is a kind of engine of (failed) sexual desire. from our perspective, it can be seen to reflect two of the great pre-occupations of its time; sexual anxiety, and the terrors of mechanisation. duchamp himself called it ‘a joke’, but of course it was deadly serious. sugimoto’s installation seeks to set up a close dialogue with the duchamp work. it is divided into two wings by the staircase in the centre of the fondation building. this division is taken to reflect the ‘horizon’ in the large glass – itself serendipitously reminiscent of the horizon in the seascapes series – the separation of the two worlds of the bride and her frustrated bachelors. the nine photographs on each side are based on objects recovered in a chance find at tokyo daigakuin (tokyo university).
they are a set of 19th century models used as three-dimensional expressions of mathematical formulae, and a set of small working models used for illustrating engineering principles. each object is photographed, from a low viewpoint, in closeup, and magnified into five-meter panels. the panels thus have a monumental, architectural quality, integrating the fondation building itself into the work. the use of these objéts trouvé or ‘readymades’ forges closer links with the duchamp work. on the ‘bridal’ side, the images of mathematical formula are white, sculptural, curved and sensuous. the ‘bachelors’, with their cog wheels, pistons, crank shafts, and nuts and bolts ‚are hard, spiky, glistening and dark. it isn’t hard to see what is being alluded to here. the ranks of panels are positioned so that when contemplating one set, the other cannot be seen. the frustration of bride and bachelors is inscribed into this layout. there is also the uncomfortable reduction of duchamp’s complexities into a series of simple binary oppositions: male:female, light:dark, mathematics: engineering, theory:practice.
these images display the level of technical flare, and meticulous attention to detail for which sugimoto is renowned. the bridal photographs in particular are dazzling. and this is perhaps where the work falls down. duchamp abandoned his work in 1923 declaring it ‘definitively unfinished’. when the large glass was accidentally damaged while being transported, duchamp joyfully accepted the shattered pane into the structure of a work which was witty, playful, and serious. the sugimoto installation is immaculate, and sombre, and a grand gesture. it’s also a little too complete, a little too nicely balanced to be subversive. it’s only a guess, but i’ve a feeling duchamp would have preferred to see a bit more broken glass.
copyright © ken edwards, november 2004
étant donné: le grand verre
fondation cartier pour l’art contemporain
261 boulevard raspail
until february 27th 2005