Tuesday, 5 November 2013

Hiroshi Sugimoto, photographic artist


In 2012, I had a face-to-face interview with Hiroshi Sugimoto in Tokyo, Sugimoto is a well-known photographic artist. One of his pictures was even used for the most recent U2 album cover. The interview was for an article I was writing for his exhibition "From Naked to Clothed." The exhibition took place at his then new Tokyo atelier. Also present was his assistant/Tokyo representative and a young lady whom he introduced as his niece. This is the first 20 minutes of a 55 minute interview. Much of the conversation is unintelligible without visual references, which I will someday add.


CBL: ...We've got the catalogue. Now, when we talk about different images, you have to pick up and show the camera.

[Laughter]

So, let's just start with a very general kind of question...

HS: So this is for Japan Times cultural section that you have...?

CBL: Arts. Arts and entertainment. We don't have culture.

[Laughter]

It should be culture, but y'know culture's one of those words that scare people.

HS: What's the size of the...uh...

CBL: The article? Oh, it should be around 900 words.

HS: 900 words?

CBL: Yes.

HS: So like a quarter pages of the paper.

CBL: No, more than that. About a third of a page. Maybe even more. Yeh, could be a half of a page.

HS: Japanese newspapers only give you this much.

[indicates a small size]

There is no culture in Japan.

[laughter]

CBL: Well, I believe I've heard that Japanese reviews and interviews, they tend to be very, very kind or overly polite and positive…

HS: Overly polite and no criticism.

CBL: That's right.

HS: It's just reporting what is happening.

CBL: It's like press release journalism.

[laughter]

So, that's not satisfactory for the English readers.

HS: Of course, right.

CBL: They like the idea, em, that it could be thumbs up or thumbs down, y'know, this kind of...and so if you say something positive all the time then you devalue the currency. So, anyway, I'll probably ask some, em, slightly aggressive difficult question just to, y'know, make it interesting for the readers. Right, now, this exhibition, From Naked to Clothed, em, why did you pick on this theme? What was the motivation for going in this direction?

HS: Well, first of all I thought when I was able to cover the modernism from 1920s. Most of the collection of the Kyoto Costume Institute were started from 18th century, even before the French Revolution, but I wanted to focus after the 1920, how women's dress changed almost every ten years, but then I become like a short fashion history survey so I expanded my idea to human history of how we dressed, through the history, from the very beginning, from the ape stage to the half ape to human. That's always something interesting to see how only human became dressed.

CBL: I'm also intrigued in how humans became naked because they used to be covered in hair.

HS: Yeh, yeh, yeh and as we develop our dressing dress then we start losing our hair.

CBL: But I think we've lost our way first, maybe.

HS: Yeh? [laughs] Then we needed to cover our skins?

CBL: Then we kind of, like, migrated to colder areas, and then we thought "whoo!"

HS: We all started from African. Em...East Africa.

CBL: There are several theories about why people lost their hair. One theory is that, em, when they started to walk around on two feet instead of y'know using their hands as well. Em, they...Mmmph, to remain upright you use much more muscle power. And so therefore your metabolism heats up, Therefore you have to lose heat more quickly.

HS: Ahh, I see. Cool your body down.

CBL: Yes, because you have to also appreciate these very ancient proto-humans are running around a lot, in the bright sunshine.

HS: I see.

CBL: So, before that stage we would be living in the forest canopy with the...more leisurely life style. Another theory is that humans went through a phase of being an aquatic ape.

HS: Uhu. Aquatic ape?

CBL: Yes, so... One of the interesting points about humans is how y'know in a state of nature how feeble human are, em, especially things like giving birth, because human birth is very, very difficult compared to other animals. Other animals, they just walk around and the baby pops out and after a few minutes the baby stands up. Incredible! With humans the baby's helpless for such a long period, so humans are very vulnerable, em, but by living near water, when a lion comes, jump in the water, when a crocodile comes you jump on the land. Y'know, this kind of... So, that's also interesting, how humans lost their… how they became naked.

HS: OK. Right, My, my idea, my theory is like the discovery of the use of the fire by human beings. Most of all the other animals they scare fire but only the humans, y'know, because the curiosity, the development of the mind. That humans are so curious about the surrounding conditions so that after the lightning hit the forest and set the fire then only humans approach the fire and pick it up It's hot but it's quite usable and it’s very good tool to scare other animals to hunt. Then after being able to hunt animals then eat its meat they get its taste better and its consumed easier and even the rotten meat can be edible, and then remove the skin the fur and then put it on your skin, so it’s a multi-purpose beneficiary thing, then you can control your temperature whether you put your fur on and off, then your hair is uncontrollable. That’s my theory.

CBL: Yeh, so kill the animal, eat the animal…

HS: You use the skin.

CBL: Use the skin because even in Africa, y'know, there are fluctuations in temperature, especially on the kind of high veldt, places like Kenya and Tanzania, it's quite high above sea level, so you can sometimes have quite cool weather at night, and also in the desert.

HS: The night time is so cold, and the daytime so hot.

CBL: Yeh.

HS: But the human nature, one significant, uh, feature is like heat, heat, sex all the time, all the seasons.

CBL: Always in heat, yeh.

HS: Always in heat. Very human.

CBL: Another unique point.

HS: Very unique human. That I thought that is because of control of the temperature so you can control your body temperature constantly. That brings heating seasons through the year.

CBL: Yeh, that's interesting. So, if you're always in charge of your body then you always feel sexy.

HS: This is a sign of eroticism issues it comes together with how what you dress and whether you show your sexual organ or you hide your sexual organ. You can send a signal "I want you, to have sex with you."

CBL: So it create this kind of selective idea. Of course, a lot of people's image of sexual relations in those days is the cave man hits the cave woman on the head with a club and drags her into his cave, and...

HS: You still remember.

CBL: Well, yeh, it’s a suppressed ancestral memory…

[laughter]

Yeh, and then you mention...In the catalogue, you mention the element of shame. Let me just check my notes here...

HS: Yes, shameness or hazukashi...

CBL: The gap between shame and concealment.

HS: Uhu, right.

CBL: Yeh. And so Lucy...I don't think Lucy would be very ashamed, would she? She wouldn't really be...

HS: No, she wouldn't have that sense yet, but...The fossils were found, just the footsteps, and then, that's how it started, and then the almost complete bone structure was discovered later, two years later, and that’s a sign that male and female was stepping onto this field together, so its kind of sign of love, that’s the beginning.

CBL: Yeh, the footsteps together. Yeh, uhu...Parallel or converging or...?

HS: Seems like a parallel.

Female assistant: Very close

CBL: Parallel lines that sometimes cross.

Female assistant: This is the first date!

CBL: Yes, the first provable date.

Female assistant: Yes, that's right.

CBL: Of course, there must have been other earlier dates, otherwise they wouldn't exist.

Female assistant: Yeh, must be.

CBL: Also when you think about naked and clothed, you also think about the differences to nudity in different cultures, especially...Japan's famous – or notorious – for having different attitude to nudity than Western countries because, y'know, Western countries, there's a bit of a hangover from y'know Christian morality and...

HS: In Utamaru's ukiyo-e there's public bath with men and women...

CBL: Everybody's just, y'know, cool about that. Nobody thinks anything weird or...

HS: But in Western culture then there is kind of idea of let's go back to nudity again, the nudist beach, nudist club.

CBL: Yeh, yeh.

HS: That's intentional, like returning policy to the origin. What's the theory of the nudist people?

CBL: Well, basically, they just, um...I think it's just, um, a coded way of being sexually free. You can't just say "let's be sexually free." It just sounds, it sounds wrong. People will think "You, you pervert" or something. So you say. "No, no, let's be naked because it's healthy." The early nudist movement often used the idea of health to justify it, y'know, because they had an uphill battle against the moral order, and so the way round that, y'know, was "It's healthy, the sun on our skin and the fresh air next to our body. It has a stimulating healthy effect." There's a very famous scene in the Pink Panther movies, where Inspector Clouseau has to investigate a nudist colony, and he's walking around with a guitar, so that always springs to mind. There's something quite comical about nudism.

HS: Is that still popular? Or like it's very popular in the 70s, but I don’t know if...

CBL: I think this camera is a bit wonky. Let's just check that...Yeh, it definitely was popular in the 1970s but I kind of think it lost its reason for existing because after, y'know, we had so much kind of sexual liberation, eh, people thought, "There's no point. I can see naked people more easily anyway, and..." But you exhibition doesn't really refer much to the difference between Japanese and Western attitudes to nudity, does it?

HS: Not much, but 200,000 [he meant 2 million] years ago, this stage of Lucy, there's no Japanese…

CBL: Oh no, I mean later on as well.

HS: It's very near, modern development of nationality so I’m more concerned about the human development itself.

CBL: So that goes through Homo Ergaster and Neanderthals.

HS: Right.

CBL: And apparently people north of the Sahara all have a little bit of Neanderthal DNA.

HS: Yes, that's the recent scientific discovery, that we all mixed from the Neanderthal people.

CBL: Not everybody but people north of the Sahara, apparently.

HS: North of Sahara? Aha. Neanderthal people used to used to live in the continent of Europe.

CBL: And the Middle East as well...and apparently they were much more intelligent than humans, well bigger brains anyway, so it's not always a good point to be intelligent.

[laughter]

And you mention about the woman's teeth were all chewed down to the base?

HS: This is the reconstruction of the scene...[garbled] of these won.

CBL: And these are all eh dioramas at museums…

HS: Museums of natural history, mostly from New York.

CBL: Yeh, yeh. I see.

HS: Some wax figure, this is from California, in wax museum.

CBL: Valentino...in California.

HS: This is Madame Tussauds.

CBL: Oh, Queen Victoria, that's the one in London, yeh?

HS: Yeh. So it is many different locations.

CBL: Em, OK. Then you go, the Cro-Magnons and the Ice Age, which is obviously, y'know, very important in terms of wearing clothes, and you have a kind of...

HS: The Ice Age I think is a very exaggerated, it's very fashionable, I don't know what. This is totally...

CBL: Glamorizing it.

HS: Glamorizing it. It's almost like Issey Miyake.

CBL: Yes, well they're obviously very proud of that moment in their history…

[laughter]

And sort of living inside the bones, yeh, as a house.

HS: The animal bones as a house.

CBL: The animal bones become a kind of residence and the skin becomes a kind of clothes, and then you have Spartacus. Where's that? It looks like a still from a movie.

HS: This is, this is Californian Wax Museum.

CBL: It's very authentic. It looks really...em...

HS: So it's...jumping into Roman times, because I didn't have nothing, anything in between from Magnon and Spartacus.

CBL: Uhu, and there it's, um...You make a connection with sportswear.

HS: Aha, and then warfare.

CBL: Clothes as a kind of armour, protective thing, and that's a theme that sometimes emerges in fashion, using clothes in aggressive...

HS: Yeh, military look is still popular, somewhere.

CBL: Then you have the plague and you tie that into the Fukushima nuclear accident

HS: Yes, those protected masks and costumes.

CBL: "Bring out the dead," and, yeh.

HS: Yeh, this is...The Catholic priest is burning the incense. That's what I guess.

CBL: To purify, yeh. They thought it would purify.

HS: Purifying? What, the dead spirits or what?

CBL: No, just the...Well, the evil.

HS: Evil spirits. Ah, evil spirits.

CBL: And sanctifying the ascent of the holy to heaven.

HS: That's quite a unique, unique and fascinating idea.

CBL: Well, I think, y'know, in Japanese temples there is also the burning of incense, but they don't shake it around so much. These, uh...In Catholic and Orthodox churches they have these swinging censors.

HS: Churches and swinging.

CBL: Em, alright, then, let's see. Then you have, um...

HS: Then, Marie Antoinette.

CBL: Now, this is like an extreme of fashion, and you kind of emphasize that, and that almost justifies the French Revolution.

[laughter]

Are you making a statement there about decadence?

HS: Decadence? Yeh, that's included, decadence and revolutions, and then also how people just tortured the body to make it fit to the expected beauty or expected eroticism. Every detail we share a different sense and taste of a woman's body, not man's body.

CBL: Do you see the same thing in modern day Japan?

HS: Modern day? Of course, the speed of the change in the fashion style is quite accelerating. It used be almost like every ten decade, ten years and decade. Now basically every few years or every...Now it's every year and then I think people get tired of it. So, I don't know where we go.

CBL: But women do a lot of this, well, much more so than men. Um, I often think Japanese women are trying to look like non-Japanese women, so that, for example, they're trying to make their legs longer in various ways, yeh, trying to make their hips seem wider in various ways, trying to change hair colour, eye colour, things like that. There seems to be like a kind of "How can I look like a non-Japanese woman?" sometimes. Some years ago three was a big trend to have darker skin, and then they realized that’s not a good idea 'cos...

[laughter]

HS: In contrast, in the Western world, the Oriental look is kind of getting more popular and the top model is sometimes Oriental models, yeh. It’s a kind of cross cultural things...


To be continued...


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