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Friday, Oct. 30, 2009

Izu's great stormy weather

Staff writer

The new Izu Photo Museum opened over the weekend, and Raijin, the Japanese god of thunder and lightning, was evidently pleased by what he saw.

News photo
Bright lights, Izu City: "Lightning Fields 144" (2009) gelatin silver print. #169; IROSHI SUGIMOTO/COURTESY OF GALLERY KOYANAGI

The deity features prominently in the Shizuoka Prefecture facility's inaugural exhibition — a customarily exquisite presentation by Hiroshi Sugimoto — and he expressed his godly approval by drenching the opening party with rain.

"I'm usually lucky with the weather," a sheepish Sugimoto told the assembled guests. "I guess this is how Raijin expresses his appreciation."

Raijin had reason to be happy — rarely are gods given such accomplished modern treatment. Sugimoto's homage came in the form of two giant photographs from his "Lightning Fields" series. Created by discharging static electricity directly onto unexposed film, the works consist of stunning, haphazard white streaks of light scorched into deeply rich black backgrounds.

Although Sugimoto has exhibited this series in Japan before, he has never done it at this scale, and the result of the adjustment is awe-inspiring. From afar, the works are reminiscent of Ogata Korin's "Irises," with each crack of lightning whipping the viewer's eyes back and forth across their 7-meter breadth. From up close, however, they change completely, revealing faint but intricate patterns at the sides of each lightning bolt — like iron filings on a magnet, or fur-covered skin stretched over a spine.

But it's the presence of a 60 cm-high, 13th-century sculpture of Raijin that brings the gallery to life. Standing on a 2-meter-high plinth, in his customary foot-raised dance, the god essentially becomes the artist, appearing to survey his lightning-bolt handiwork in the photographs on the far side of the room.

The second body of work occupying the 499-sq.-meter museum, "Photogenic Drawing," also sees Sugimoto strike up a conversation across the centuries. Here, his counterpart is 19th-century photographic pioneer William Henry Fox Talbot, whose paper negatives Sugimoto has reprinted. Sugimoto's enlarging of the works — by 10 times, to about a meter in height — emphasizes their subjects' ethereal nature, heightening the sense that in viewing them we are peeking back through the ages.

The exhibition represents a milestone for Sugimoto. Last month he was awarded the Praemium Imperiale, the Japanese answer to the Nobel Prize that is given internationally in categories where no Nobel is available (painting, sculpture, architecture, music and theatre/film). Sugimoto got his for "painting," thus winning establishment recognition for his long-held view that photography is that medium's equal.

Not only that, but the Izu Photo Museum's building represents the insatiable artist's first foray into architecture. The simple white-cube interior and surrounding garden (the building was existing) are all the handiwork of the New Material Research Laboratory, the architecture office he launched last year.

Naturally, Sugimoto's interior fits his own exhibition like a glove — the high precision, simplicity and almost blinding whiteness seem to have been made with celestial beings like Raijin in mind.

How the galleries stand up to more gritty work in the museum's future exhibition roster (three shows per year, with the next to be curated by City University of New York's Geoffrey Batchen), only time will tell. For the moment, it's best just to stand back and marvel at what happens when an artist at the peak of his talents is given free rein to make his mark on the world.

"Nature of Light" at the Izu Photo Museum runs till March 16, closed Wed; admission ¥800; open 10 a.m.-4:30 p.m. (till 5 p.m. in Oct., Feb. and March). For more information visit www.izuphoto-museum.jp

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