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Hiroshi Sugimoto, Emphasizing the Play Of Shadow and Lie

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Finally, it turns out that Sugimoto's truthful-looking panorama of the Buddhas shows us far, far more than the temple's 1,001 sculptures. Because the Hirshhorn panorama is made by assembling a suite of separate photos, in which the camera was moved over to catch a new batch of Buddhas in each picture, only the frontmost sculptures actually change with every shot. Each time the camera moves sideways, many of the back-row Buddhas seen in one shot are repeated in the next. "(Imagine standing at the back of a rock concert, looking at the two fans right in front of you. If you edge sideways so you're staring instead at the next two over, the people in the far front row will mostly be the same ones you saw a moment before.)

One cliche about Buddhism is that it achieves its spiritual goals by encouraging the most intense, direct confrontation with reality -- the here-and-now transcended by confronting the here-and-now. And yet Sugimoto's photographs, which seem to capture such notions better than most others might, are about as full of unreality and trickery as anything could be.

You could argue that they use Madison Avenue lies to hint at spiritual truths.

Still more contradictions are at stake in Sugimoto's pictures of landmark modern buildings: great monuments such as the Seagram Building by Mies van der Rohe or Le Corbusier's Villa Savoye, shot once again on crystal-clear 8-by-10 film -- but this time with the camera focused so that everything is blurred in them. (Sugimoto boldly states in his wall text that the camera has been carefully focused on "twice infinity" -- but is happy to concede in person that, in optical terms, this means precisely nothing.)

The preternatural sharpness of Sugimoto's blur -- an oxymoron his pictures manage to give substance to -- makes you imagine it's your eyes that have gone awry, rather than the camera. There's no visible grain to let you know that you're properly focused on a blurred picture, rather than looking cross-eyed at something crisp. Get too close to these photos and your head may start to spin, as though you'd put on someone else's spectacles. Just as strange, Sugimoto's out-of-focus images actually have greater depth of field than a focused one might have: Instead of the normal photographic situation, where one part of a building is in focus while others go soft, Sugimoto's pictures provide an even, equal-opportunity blur across his entire scene. In Sugimotoland, the best way to capture the hard reality of modernism's greatest structures is by softening it.

Such talk could go on and on, digging ever deeper into Sugimoto's art and getting more and more lost in it.

But too much of it might distract from the work's own meanderings.

Hiroshi Sugimoto is at the Hirshhorn Museum, on the south side of the Mall at Seventh Street NW, through May 14. Call 202-633-1000 or visit http://www.hirshhorn.si.edu/ . An extended analysis of Sugimoto's "waxwork" photographs, also on view in the Hirshhorn show, can be found here.


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