top of page

#21 Hiroshi Sugimoto

Interview with Hiroshi Sugimoto

Hiroshi Sugimoto is an artist who is active both in Tokyo and New York. While most photographers try to capture decisive moment, Suigmoto’s works are highly evaluated by for his unique concept of time, so he calls “Time Exposed”. We interview about upcoming performance, Sanbaso, which produced by Sugimoto in conjunction with the exhibition Gutai: Splendid Playground at Guggenheim Museum and his future activities.


– What did you learn and experience when you first came to the U.S. to study photography?


I came to the U.S. in 1970, and spent four years in West Coast. Right after that I moved to New York in 1974 and I’ve been working here since then. Once I’ve opened an antique shop in SOHO for ten years, and my experiences through this period of time are still living in my collections and art works as those of a modern designer. I gained a basic knowledge about Japanese art and the unique characteristics of them sank into my body by actually dealing with Japanese antiques. By opening a Japanese antique shop in New York, I’ve become more “Japanese” than Japanese people in Japan. I mean that, it is the same case for any Japanese in foreign countries; we Japanese often encounter the occasions where we have to represent our country to discuss something. I believe that this has much to do with how Japanese overseas build up our identities.

–Do you feel honored about the fact that your works are highly valued all over the world, after building up such an identity as Japanese?


Recently, you can see many of my works fetching high prices at contemporary art auctions around the world, but I don’t really feel it is right. In the time like now when contemporary arts which are just produced are valued as more than ten thousand dollars, I think that a quality of art itself has been changed somehow. It is almost like that art became commodities and markets of that became futures trading. So, there are not many people who purchase art works just because they love art. There is even the one who buys an art and puts it in his garage till he sells it to someone again.

– What are your recent activities?


I’ve worked as a creator and a photographer as before, but these days, I have lots of work related to architectures. One of them is a huge exhibition, led by a designer, Kennya Hara, about the future of Japanese people’s living, named “HOUSE VISION,” opening in Odaiba, Tokyo, on March 1st. Well-known architects actually built each room or house there, along with their own themes. In my case, I built a house with a concept, “thinking about the future of tea-ceremony arbors.” Other than that, the project of Oak Omotesando building is coming close to its completion. Like this, I’ve been busy with these architectural projects in Japan since this January of 2013.

–How have you reached to your career as an architect?


Artists have to deal with and struggle with huge spaces with difficulties like tilted walls, ceilings which has no place to put lightings on, and so on. In that kind of environments, we need to find out and create spaces in our own ways. Through these experiences, I’ve gradually accomplished a way to make spaces with drawings by my hands.

– How do you feel about the fact that Japanese people’s customs and way of living are changed as well as their culture?


These days, it seems like Tatami and Tokonoma have disappeared. Same happened to little inner gardens and tea-ceremony rooms that used to be status of the intelligentsia. For this issue, I suggest new-lifestyle designs such as Tokonoma in condominiums, terraces with Japanese traditional courtyards. Also I would like to design new concepts of tea ceremony rooms.

– Please introduce us your upcoming show of Sanbaso at Guggenheim Museum as its performance director.


I established a charitable foundation in Odawara, Japan, with a mission of reconsideration and activation of Japanese traditional performing arts. Currently performed Noh and Kabuki are modernized versions, not exactly same as their originals in the Muromachi or Edo era. I believe that those new versions are also good in some way, but I personally don’t like some parts of them that much. For instance, I don’t like the too gorgeous atmosphere of modern Kabuki, especially their lightings. Back in the Edo era, we didn’t have such an artificial lighting system, so we should try to get natural sunlight to make it real. I feel awkward when I see the National Noh Theatre because it’s in a modern building. I would like to change those conditions to the ones we had in the mediaeval time of Japan. Therefore I did my best to revive the original version of “Sonezaki-shinju”(Love Suicide) of Chikamatsu Monzaemon by following his original script, so we asked puppetiers to be as disguised as Kuroko, stage assistants, even though they are highly valued living national treasures. This kind of suggestions is usually “taboo” in their inner circle, but I was able to convince them for the sake of production.

– Please let us know about “Odawara Art Foundation,” which you established.


Now I’ve reached sixty years spending so many years in New York, but I realized that this was not my final adobe. Japan is the place for me to bully my bones. If this decision of mine remains as a shape of succession of Japanese culture, there is nothing more than I appreciate. It is wonderful that I can exhibit my favorite antiquities and experiment new styles of performing art as I wish in the building which I designed by my own tastes.

– What is the significance of performing a Japanese traditional performing art, Sanbaso, in the U.S.?


It is important that if we perform it in the U.S. once we can do triumphant return performances in Japan. Japanese people are usually proud of anything that is popular among foreigners, and pay special attention to it even though they never care about it before. By performing a Sanbaso in the U.S., we can promote a Japanese traditional performing art oversea and also we give a positive impression about this performance to Japanese people. This Sanbaso is the performing art keeping its world’s oldest style. Other performing arts such as Greek ones were once lost and rediscovered again. However, Japanese traditional performing arts have been continued with nonstop as if Japanese ancient myths are still living in them. Sanbaso is the story about how Gods came down to the earth to create the world and blessed it with graces. In Sanbaso, performers never read a single line but express the solemn atmosphere of Gods’ coming down to the earth. This is the most amazing part of this show.

– Japan is now facing many challenges not only economics. Concerning not only about art, how do you see a future vision of Japan?


It is true that we have to spend more money in order to make economy better. However, I believe that Japanese culture traditionally has a thrifty aspect. But it is impossible for us to escape from a big wave of an expanding reproduction which filtered into the globalized world. We should find a new alternative system to capitalism which is almost unsuccessful. I think it’s possible that this new idea which may save a whole world comes from Japan. A Japanese life style which we found during the Jomon period, the world’s longest Stone Age lasted for ten thousand years, is the way not to break but to live in the harmony with the nature. And a positive side of this lifestyle has become the roots of current Japanese culture. It is one way that we revise this lifestyle to fit to the world’s standard and suggest it to the rest of the world.

We performed my version of Sonezaki-shinju in Paris this year. I realized the greatness of the power of individuals’ enthusiasm, while we were appealing to governments. I think that anyone who has gained fame overseas has this strong enthusiasm. On the other hand, now it seems like there are many young people don’t find necessity to go abroad, probably because of an information society. When I was young, we used to be told like “Boys be ambitious,” but for younger people now, it became as if they shouldn’t be ambitious. Moreover, current peace-at-any-price attitude in Japan is one of the reasons why status of men is declining compared to that of women.

– What are your future activities?


I’ve been working in Noh and Bunraku regarding to promotions of Japanese traditional performing arts. For Noh, I am aiming at opening facilities of “Odawara Art Foundation” to public three years later. These facilities include a Noh stage with a thatched roof and another one which is built upon the ocean as if it was floating on waves, so I think that they will be landmarks which are worth just coming by to see them.

Also I wrote a script of a new Noh performance, “Sugamoduka,” which is a story of General Itagaki Seishiro who was one of class-A war criminals of WWII. The contents of the story are very cynical because I replaced what happened at that time with that of the era of Genpei conflicts. My biggest aim now is to perform this new Noh piece at the same place where is currently an Ikebukuro Sunshine theatre and used to be the Sugamo prison, at the same time when is the execution day of class-A criminals, December 23rd of this year.

– What is the key to success for Japanese people to be worldwide actors like you are?


First they need to be ambitious. When I first started my career as a photographer, people said that photograph was not an art. That is why I had a strong ambition to make it a primary art by my hand. I would like the younger generation to keep motivated with such a revolutionist’ mind.

Hiroshi Sugimoto

A photographer, architect, designer, was born in Tokyo and now active both in New York and Tokyo. In 1970, after he graduated from Saint Paul’s University in Tokyo, he came to Los Angeles to study photograph at Art Center College of Design. In 1974, he moved to New York. After his work which he brought in to Museum of Modern Art was highly valued, he has kept producing his works as he was earning scholarships. Though his 10-year-long experiences as an antique art dealer in his shop in SOHO, he gained a deep knowledge of Japanese ancient art, architectures, and art preforming. Since he had his first solo exhibition in Tokyo in 1977, he has both solo and group exhibitions almost every year all over the world, including the U.S., Europe, and Japan. In 2009, he founded “Odawara Art Foundation” to promote and revise Japanese traditional art performing. Not only designing architectures that he currently has interest in, also writing a new script for Noh. He continues to expanding his area of activities.

Latest Interviews
bottom of page