the ghost in the machine

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

hiroshi sug­i­mo­to,

étant don­né: le grand verre

fon­da­tion carti­er pour l’art contemporain

261 boule­vard raspail

 75014 paris

until feb­ru­ary 27th 2005


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