Art is not a reliable experience. It operates on wafer-thin margins. For instance, most weeks I pop into the National Gallery for a dose of profundity and greatness. It’s my detox, my gym, my Sunday service. If I have felt myself to be transported one week by a particular painting — an El Greco, say, or a Van Dyck — I invariably return to it on the next visit, hoping for a repeat experience.
Usually, it doesn’t happen. Not with the same uplift. On the other hand, another painting, one that I have scuttled past hundreds of times before — a Pissarro, say, or a Botticelli — suddenly nabs my attention instead, and I achieve my transport after all, just not where I expected. Thus art is as dependent on the conditions as a manned balloon flight. Sure, it can soar, but only if the wind is exactly right.
I hope Hiroshi Sugimoto forgives me for wittering on about my experiences with other artworks at other venues in what is supposed to be a review of his photographs at the Serpentine Gallery. But issues of transport and uplift and even of wind direction are indeed central to Sugimoto’s achievement — or lack of achievement. At first, this show appears to consist of so little. There is a photo of a flickering candle. A line of marine horizons. And some shadowy trees. That’s it. Yet it is clear from the second you step into this deliberately stark display that it is aiming for transportational highs of a religious magnitude. The whole point here is to feel awe, to sense the spirit stirring, to develop goose bumps. Very obviously — too obviously, or not, depending on the conditions — Sugimoto’s show seeks to transport you to somewhere deeper, better, simpler, older. I hope it works for you. Because it did for me.
Fortunately, I was able to see the show when there was hardly anyone else there. Lurking in front of Sugimoto’s stark seas, unhurried, unbarged, I had no difficulty entering into their majestic calm. The ruler-straight horizons seemed to offer a deliberate alternative to the batty bounces of modern motion. And although each picture has a composition a kid with a ruler could have come up with and consists only of the sea and the sky, and that’s it, after a while, your eyes get attuned to these climatic conditions and you begin to notice tiny changes in directional wave patterns, different half-lights cast by the moon, the soft fog on some horizons. A little begins to mean a helluva lot. And this I take to be the chief point of Sugimoto’s work.
Sugimoto arrived in Los Angeles early in the 1970s from Tokyo, and was able, therefore, to coincide with the takeover of American art by the minimalists: the real minimalists, that is — Carl Andre, Donald Judd, Walter de Maria — the first guys, the true guys, and not the namby-pamby, above-the-sofa pretend minimalists who decorate so many of the fashionable walls in today’s loft-land. Real minimalism was damned aggressive. It was a bonfire of the vanities, a stripping away of inessentials, a ripping up of possessions. It is no accident that it emerged straight after pop art. Pop art celebrated consumption and clutter. Real minimalism celebrated their opposites. And the original guys who made it were hard-core. They did their stuff hundreds of miles away from warehouse conversions, deep in the middles of assorted American nowheres — in the desert, in Texas, up a mountain — tough-to-reach places where one person a year might come by and be moved. These days, minimalism has been tamed for the lofts and has a moneyed sheen to it. But I tell you, return to Tate Modern, look again at Andre’s bricks, and they still argue brutally against lofts and Llewelyn-Bowens.
Anyhow, Sugimoto was not a hard-core minimalist and never could be. He’s from Tokyo. He reads books. I doubt he could even lift a breeze block. His preferred photographic process is the silver gelatin print, an old-fashioned dark-room method that leaves the images granular, grey and ghostly. With Sugimoto’s work, the minimalism at the core is lacquered with many layers of surface exquisiteness. His pictures are delicate, frangible, charming. And if there is one thing his art is not, it is aggressive. Since his slow emergence in the late 1980s, I have seen plenty of Sugimotos hanging above sofas in the lofts of New York and London. Nevertheless, the most encouraging aspect of this Serpentine show is the linkage it reveals with the tough original ambition of the minimalists.
The best wall for me featured four stark sea horizons. One was almost white, as if snow had somehow settled on the waves. The next was as crisply divided into dark and light as a national flag. Each was interestingly different from the next, sure. Yet all seemed to overlook the same spot. It was only when I examined the labels that I discovered that these seemingly interchangeable expanses of water were not in fact the same ocean observed under different weather conditions, but completely different nautical stretches from scattered corners of the planet — the Sea of Japan, Lake Superior, the Ligurian Sea, and places I had never heard of.
Sugimoto had voyaged to all of them and clearly has a preference for the ones that are furthest away. In this, he is like his American tough-guy predecessors. He goes somewhere hardly anyone else goes. He camps on faraway beaches and sleeps in his car. He craves solitude and brings some back for us, as others might return from a trek with blackberries. Sugimoto voyages a long way out of his way to gather for us this far-flung evidence of the essential oneness of things.
Yes, it’s a new-age ambition of sorts, and in someone else’s hands, it might have resulted in something yucky: a display of designer Buddhism. But the silver gelatin process gives the sea images a grittiness that hardens them. And it takes considerable gallery nerve to hold onto these oh-so-simple views for so long, and to wait for such minor climatic twitches to make a difference. This holding of nerve we have to respect.
I was less sure at first of the candle pieces and the gloomy pine trees photographed in the Imperial Gardens in Tokyo. Both seemed much more picturesque than the excellently elemental seas. Sugimoto explains that the candles refer to the first art made inside the caves by our ancestors, using exactly such candlelight, and that the pine trees in the Imperial Palace in Tokyo are also prized for their agelessness and longevity. Thus, with the candle and the pine trees, the search continues for ancient essences.
As I said, I was in here pretty much on my own when I visited, and conditions were right for my transportation. You might turn up on a Saturday afternoon along with hundreds of other calm-junkies, and with all the jostling and the chattering and the barging, you may feel nothing at all. In which case, my advice to you is to come back another day. Take a Monday morning off work. It’s worth it.