Wednesday, March 04, 2009

Thoughts on "No Line On the Horizon's" Cover Art: Hiroshi Sugimoto's "Boden Sea"

Hiroshi Sugimoto (Japanese, born 1948)
Boden Sea, Uttwil,
42.3 x 54.2 cm (16 5/8 x 21 5/16 in.) gelatin silver print 1993
Metropolitan Museum of Art


Water and air. So very commonplace are these substances, they hardly attract attention―and yet they vouchsafe our very existence. The beginnings of life are shrouded in myth: Let there be water and air. Living phenomena spontaneously generated from water and air in the presence of light, though that could just as easily suggest random coincidence as a Deity. Let's just say that there happened to be a planet with water and air in our solar system, and moreover at precisely the right distance from the sun for the temperatures required to coax forth life. While hardly inconceivable that at least one such planet should exist in the vast reaches of universe, we search in vain for another similar example. Mystery of mysteries, water and air are right there before us in the sea. Every time I view the sea, I feel a calming sense of security, as if visiting my ancestral home; I embark on a voyage of seeing.
- Hiroshi Sugimoto

Hiroshi Sugimoto's haunting photograph Boden Sea, Uttwil graces the cover of the band U2's new album which was released this week. At its best the music on No Line on the Horizon, produced by Brian Eno, Daniel Lanois, and Steve Lillywhite, is open and atmospheric and in many instances raises similar questions to those found in Sugimoto's photographs in which water meets air. Since 1980 Sugimoto has traveled the world to find his locales. Ephemeral seaside moments are stripped away in Sugimoto's images. Rather it is the "particularity of light and atmosphere" at play in front of a distant horizon which compels Sugimoto. In each of his photos where sea meets sky, the horizon precisely splits the image into equal parts of air and water. From this combination. in primordial times, life began. The Metropolitan Museum in New York, in their catalog notes on Boden Sea, Uttwil, describes Sugimoto's photos as limning "the shifting envelopes of air and water covering the earth" and ultimately describing the ineffable: " the featureless purity of the world's first day."

Hiroshi Sugimoto (Japanese, born 1948)
Aegean Sea, Pilion,
152 x 183 cm gelatin silver print 1990

What does the horizon mean? At some time we have each gazed across a body of water attempting to unlock the mysteries of life and creation. The Metropolitan Museum describes Sugimoto's horizons as both literal depictions of "the contact between Earth's surface and the ether" and also as "metaphors for the bounds of our mental and visual perception."
"The depth of field within each picture is as far as the eye can see. This visual approximation of the infinite is an apt expression of the sublime for an age that has forgotten that such majesty exists on a shrinking and polluted planet."
Like the light from distant stars, we are viewing the light of the past as it arrives in our sphere of vision.

Mark Rothko (American, born Latvia 1903–1970)
White and Greens in Blue, 1957
oil on canvas 1957
National Gallery of Art, Washington DC
photo by Gregg Chadwick

Like Sugimoto, the painter Mark Rothko courted the numinous in his work. Standing in a front of a large Rothko painting is in many ways similar to gazing from a cliff across the sea to a distant horizon. Rothko resisted attempts to see his paintings as abstracted landscapes but we can't help but feel the mists and waves created by the seemingly effortless movement of Rothko's paint across the massive expanse of his canvases. Rothko's paint creates an interior luminosity that pours out of the canvas. Mark Rothko is not illustrating a pleasant day of sun and surf but instead is creating light with the barest of means. This moment of creation which reaches back to the origins of life is a direct connection between Rothko and Sugimoto. In this spirit Sugimoto writes,"The beginnings of life are shrouded in myth: Let there be water and air. Living phenomena spontaneously generated from water and air in the presence of light."

Caspar David Friedrich (b. 1774, Greifswald, d. 1840, Dresden)
Monk by the Sea
110 x 172 cm oil on canvas 1809
Nationalgalerie, Berlin

Another much earlier antecedent for Sugimoto's work is the 19th Century German painter Caspar David Friedrich, whose painting Monk by the Sea depicts the meeting of air and water witnessed by a lone figure. The art critic Robert Rosenblum connected Caspar David Friedrich's seascape and the paintings of Mark Rothko when he wrote in The Abstract Sublime that,"We ourselves are the monk before the sea standing silently and contemplatively before these huge and soundless pictures as if we were looking at a sunset or moonlit night."

Hiroshi Sugimoto (Japanese, born 1948)
Time's Arrow,
(Seascape 1980/ reliquary fragment, Kamakura Period, 13th Century)
H 8.4 cm gelatin silver print, gided bronze 1987

Hiroshi Sugimoto collects fragments of the past. Time's Arrow combines a hoju (flaming jewel) shaped Buddhist reliquary from 13th Century Japan with one of his contemporary seascapes. In the catalog to his exhibition L'Histiore de L' Histoire, Sugimoto writes of this piece:

"In place of the missing ashes, I have inserted a seascape of a calm sea surrounded by fire, somehow reminiscent of the newborn earth. Time's arrow shoots from the primordial sea through a Kamakura period frame straight at your eye."

There is an interesting connection between Sugimoto's interest in time and Brian Eno's involvement in the Long Now Foundation. In 2003, Brian Eno took part in a fascinating discussion at Fort Mason in San Francisco. During the evening, Brian Eno described his musical and artistic goals:

"I was interested in losing the obvious boundaries of music, I wanted to make something that didn't sound like it had edges, sonic edges, or that it had a beginning and an end. I wanted to make something that belonged to a big space and you as the listener could hear some of that but not necessarily all of it, and I wanted to make something that felt like it had always been going on and would always be going on and you just happened to catch a part of it .... and I wanted to give the implication that this was not a piece of music in the ordinary sense of something that had been composed with a beginning, a middle and an end, but instead was a continuous endless place in time. So I was developing this idea of place of music being not so much a sonic narrative but more a sonic landscape - again with the feeling that this was a landscape that was always in the present tense, a landscape that was an extended present tense."

The Sea is Watching  (for Hiroshi Sugimoto) Gregg Chadwick
The Sea is Watching (for Hiroshi Sugimoto)
36"x48" oil on linen 2009

Listening to U2's new album No Line on the Horizon, I am struck how much different the music would be if the band had fully opened up to the sonic landscape that Brian Eno helped them create in the studio in Fez, Morocco. Instead of striving for a hit with Get On Your Boots, the first single released from the work and which reportedly Brian Eno disliked intensely, what if the band had allowed the organic process of creation to lead to an album that felt like a musical equivalent of a Mark Rothko painting or a Hiroshi Sugimoto photograph? There are moments to be sure, but overall the album doesn't reach the grand poetry of Sugimoto's cover image or Brian Eno's production. Ultimately, the final four songs - Fez, White as Snow, Breathe, and Cedars of Lebanon - stand alone as testaments to what could have been a rich voyage of sight and sound. Hiroshi Sugimoto writes in L'Histoire de L'Histoire, "Images of the sea have an evocative power to stir distant memories of where we humans come from. Such images possess a profound embracing gentleness, a healing quality of parental love."

Said Taghmaoui rows from Europe to Africa in the final scene from Linear, a film/music video mash-up of U2's songs from No Line on the Horizon directed by Anton Corbijn

Hiroshi Sugimoto (Japanese, born 1948)
Sea of Buddhas
gelatin silver print 1995

Sea of Buddhas
The art scene I knew in New York in the 1970s was dominated by minimal and conceptual art, experiments in visualizing how abstract concepts. It occurred to me that similar motives inspired the making of art in twelfth-century Japan, when they reproduced the afterlife conceptualized as the Buddhist Pure Land Western Paradise in model form in this world. Thus we have an installation of a thousand and-one Senju Kanon "Thousand-Armed Merciful Bodhisattva Avalokitesvara" figures passed down eight-hundred years to this day in Kyoto. After seven years of red tape, I was finally granted permission to photograph in the temple of Sanjusangendo, "Hall of Thirty-Three Bays." In special preparation for the shoot, I had all late-medieval and early-modern embellishments removed, as well as having the contemporary fluorescent lighting turned off, recreating the splendor of the thousand bodhisattvas glistening in the light of the morning sun rising over the Higashiyama hills as the Kyoto aristocracy might have seen in the Heian period (794-1185). Will today's conceptual art survive another eight-hundred years?
- Hiroshi Sugimoto

More at:
Hiroshi Sugimoto's Website
Brian Eno's Website
Rothko at the Tate
Anton Corbijn's Website
U2 Perform "Breathe", "Magnificent", and "I'll Go Crazy" on David Letterman


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