Hiroshi Sugimoto, master of light and dark

Images from Sugimoto's Lightning Fields series are part of the designs for the costumes and backdrop of Sambaso. -- PHOTO: SUGIMOTO STUDIO & ODAWARA ART FOUNDATION
Images from Sugimoto's Lightning Fields series are part of the designs for the costumes and backdrop of Sambaso. -- PHOTO: SUGIMOTO STUDIO & ODAWARA ART FOUNDATION
Japanese artist Hiroshi Sugimoto. -- PHOTO: HIROSHI SUGIMOTO
The Polar Bear (1976), an artwork by Japanese artist Hiroshi Sugimoto. -- PHOTO: GALLERY KOYANAG

As an artist, Hiroshi Sugimoto, 66, is best known for his photography works, which radiate an aura of mystery.

Among his most enigmatic images are the ones he photographed from 1980 of vast bodies of water and expanses of sky. This monochromatic series, Seascapes, depicting only air, water and light, rests on the idea that views of the horizon at sea today are timeless and similar to what the first men saw.

Sugimoto has also photographed natural history dioramas where fake specimens appear in uncanny lifelikeness and death becomes ambiguous.

More recently, he has sought to create and capture static electricity on photographic plates, creating a body of work titled Lightning Fields.

His artistic practice, however, goes beyond the two-dimensional. It includes art installations, sculpted works and architectural designs. At the Venice Architecture Biennale which opened last month, he unveiled a glass tea house he designed.

For the consummate artist, the traditional performing arts of Japan has been an area of continued interest.

He has produced and directed everything from bunraku puppet plays to Noh theatre pieces and will present a double-bill at the upcoming Singapore International Festival of Arts.

The show is headlined by Sambaso, an ancient divine dance accompanied by traditional Noh music and chants. Sugimoto's production of this work first showed at the Guggenheim Museum in New York last year to a sell-out crowd.

The second work, Boshibari (Tied To A Pole), is a comic Kyogen play about a master who binds two of his servants to a pole to prevent them from drinking his liquor while he is away.

Perhaps this duality of both the light and the sombre exists in Sugimoto's own personality.

While his photographic works may be known for their stillness, he comes across as animated and jovial over the telephone from Tokyo.

When did you, as an artist, become interested in traditional Japanese performing arts?

My pine tree landscapes from 1997 were how it all started. I had been given permission to photograph the Imperial Palace Garden in Japan and it is covered with pine trees.

Then in 2001, I had a one-man show at the Kunsthaus Bregenz in Austria that travelled to the Dia Art Foundation in New York and I decided to create a theatre within the museum setting. I wanted to use my pine tree landscapes as a backdrop and, in Noh theatre, the backdrop always shows pine trees.

I produced the Noh classic Yashima. This is a famous story of the battle between the Genji and Heike clans in the 12th century. The interesting point of this play is that the winner of the battle, Yoshitsune, even though he won, his spirit floats restlessly between the worlds of death and life. In a battlefield, there is no winner or loser.

This theme was quite appropriate when the piece showed in New York in October, just after the 9/11 incident.

All the Broadway theatres then were closed because there was a feeling at that time that entertainment-related theatre shouldn't be played out of respect for the dead.

How do your theatre productions fit in your larger body of work?

I may have started as a photographer but the theme of my art is related to the concept of time. Photography is a time-related art medium and my work, the Seascapes series, for example, is related to people's ancient memories.

I am interested in how people of the past gained self-awareness, how consciousness came to be realised in this world and, because of this, I am also interested in ancient theatre.

Noh theatre is one of the oldest forms of theatre in the world and it is kind of like a time-travelling machine to me. Usually, its story is set in ancient or mediaeval Japan and when the storyteller shows up and tells the story to the audience, it is as if the spirits of the dead are awakened and called back to the stage.

I am also a collector of traditional and ancient art including Japanese, Chinese and European art and, because of this, I study traditional literature and am familiar with Noh and Kyogen pieces.

Why did you decide to produce Sambaso?

Sambaso is a divine dance. There is no story but it shows an ancient form of theatre and how the spirits of the divine descended from the heavens, to us. It is also well-known and popular among the Japanese. It is often broadcast on TV on New Year's Day because it is about new life and celebrates rebirth.

I can also combine my art with this piece. Images from my Lightning Fields series are fitting designs for the costumes and backdrop of Sambaso.

How did the Lightning Fields series come about?

I use a large-format camera with flash and film. In winter, static electricity interferes with the film and spoils it. This happens about once in every 100 sheets of film I use.

I have been studying how to eliminate static electricity from film, but I have never been able to, so I decided to study how to make it happen. Then I might be able to know how to make it stop.

I continue to experiment every winter, changing the conditions for making it happen. Sometimes the voltage reaches almost 400,000 V.

Static electricity used to be my enemy but now it is my friend.

What sets your production of Sambaso apart from others?

Sambaso is usually played in a traditional Noh theatre, but in my case, the theatre is not a Noh theatre so I had to redesign the space and set.

Everybody knows Sambaso - it is actually kind of cliched and nobody pays much attention to it. But with a new stage set, audiences can gain new insights into the play and they are reminded of its ancient origins and meaning.

I have produced this piece as a contemporary work but, to me, it carries the most ancient feeling.

Did you encounter difficulties in producing the costumes and set for Sambaso?

They were all made by traditional methods and by traditional craftsmen, hand-drawn on silk and hand-dyed by artisans. It is a hard job but people with the expertise to do this still exist in Kyoto. But they were surprised by my commission. Nobody has ever commissioned them to make lightning patterns on kimono so it was a challenge for them. I held many meetings with them and made checks at every stage to ensure things were the way I wanted.

You will also debut a Kyogen piece, Boshibari, in Singapore. Why?

Usually, Noh and Kyogen pieces are played together to counterbalance each other. Noh theatre is serious and related to the spirits and the dead so it is very heavy and, sometimes, even dark. Kyogen theatre is funny, comedic and light. It shows a very optimistic side of human culture.

Boshibari is funny and easy to understand, even if one does not know the language. I think the audience in Singapore will enjoy it. It is a popular work.

What keeps you awake at night?

Because of my jetsetting lifestyle, I constantly have jetlag and, each time, it lasts about two weeks.

I usually wake up around 2.30am or 3am and I use this time, when nobody is around, to concentrate and hatch many ideas. My mind has to be crystal-clear and I do not take any calls or look at my computer.

When I free my mind, many ideas and images come to me and I make sketches of them. I always have some project in front of me so I am also thinking about that. And I always have a due date coming up for the monthly magazines that I contribute writings on art.

I am also writing scenes for the next Noh play that I plan to premiere.

What gets you up in the morning?

I wake up when I feel I am full of energy and clear-minded. Usually, six hours of sleep is good enough for me. But I would rather sleep in the day so I can excuse myself from social calls. I would rather have time alone to work.

Who are your muses?

That, I don't know. But I really want to know where my ideas come from. They are like a fountain that just keeps flowing up from my roots, from my ancestors and I feel that my spirit is connected to hundreds of generations ago, from the beginning of mankind.

I don't believe in one particular religion but I am spiritual. I think my roots are why, as an artist, I am unique and why I can produce Noh and Bunraku plays, and the Seascapes photographs. My muse is perhaps the ancient memories I hold.

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