Palazzo Strozzi

Fidel Castro, 1999
black and white photograph
Courtesy Sonnabend Gallery, New York
© Hiroshi Sugimoto

Pope John Paul II, 1999
black and white photograph
Courtesy Rosa e Gilberto Sandretto
© Hiroshi Sugimoto

Hiroshi Sugimoto
Installation view, Centro di Cultura Contemporanea Strozzina, Firenze
Photo: Valentina Muscedra

The Portraits series was first developed in 1999, starting from a portrait of King Henry VIII of England inspired by the work of Dutch painter Hans Holbein. Sugimoto's self-professed aim was to become "the first sixteenth-century photographer." The series then continued with different subjects, including famous contemporary figures who have entered the collective imagination, such as the Cuban lider máximo Fidel Castro and Pope John Paul II.
Sugimoto's works are not portraits of the original subjects, but of wax sculptures reproducing them in the most hyper-realist way possible. The figures are illumined by a source of direct light and strongly stand out against a black background in an extremely theatrical way, imitating poses typical of the characters they represent, while removing them from all context and thus emphasizing their nature as icons rather than human beings.
For these works Sugimoto has not made use of the 50 x 60 cm format that is typical of him. Yet, they stand in continuity with the artist's unique reflection upon the nature of photography and its relation to history and time. Here he embarks upon a reflection on portraiture and the process whereby an image is translated using different media, emphasizing the problematic "realistic effect" of photographic reproduction.
An attentive gaze will notice small disproportions in the various parts of the subjects' bodies or strange lighting effects due to the way in which light reflects on wax as opposed to real skin. Still, these pictures invite us to look at them as we would other photographs. Thinking, that is, about the genuine subjects they portray, something that paradoxically makes them "more real" than the wax statues that constitute their actual subjects. Different levels of reproduction are at play here: from the original subject to an initial photograph that served as a model for the wax statue that Sugimoto then portrayed in his photographic work. Our gaze will strongly be drawn towards the extraordinary elegance and aesthetic refinement of these works, which reveal the uncommon technical abilities of Sugimoto, marked as they are by the endless range of white, grey and black shades typical of him. Despite all this, his works remain emotionally cold: they consist in conceptual reflections upon the very notion of portrait and its political and cultural value as an icon of the characters it represents, and explicitly forgo any realist view of the individuals they take as their subjects. The artist seems to be causing all sense of natural time to collapse - in such a way as to stress that of absolute time. He attains a balance between life and death that is characteristic of photography but also of portraiture, whereby what counts is not the reality or the life of a subject, but the latter's value as an image in itself, beyond time and everyday life.

Pope John Paul II, 1999
Fidel Castro, 1999

Hiroshi Sugimoto's photographs convey a conceptual attitude aimed at stripping images down to their bare essence, thus emphasizing the primacy of the idea over the object portrayed. His famous marine landscapes and dioramas express a view of photography as a sort of time machine - a way of preserving or constructing memories and emotions.

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1.10.2010 – 23.01.2011