At first glance, the latest exhibition at Pace London appears to be the work of a formidably talented wildlife photographer. A pack of hunting wolves gaze across a frozen landscape as they hunt out their next meal, whilst a timid deer peers from within a dark forest landscape. A group of condors watch from a cliff top, a pair of ostrich protect their clutch of eggs.
Television documentaries in mind, one pictures a patient photographer trekking for days, before holing out in an expertly camouflaged hide for days upon end. He awaits the perfect shot, an image of nature’s ultimate perfection, and wildlife at its most liberated.
We soon discover that the truth actually illustrates quite the reverse. These images are simply capturing large-scale dioramas set inside natural history museums. The photographer is in a warm room. Everything is dead. We long to see nature’s grandeur and majesty, but all we get is a hollow reproduction inside a glazed box.
Hiroshi Sugimoto’s latest exhibition is of large format works from his ongoing Diorama series. Composed in crisp black and white and sharp tones, the pristine quality and stillness of these large-scale pieces reveal the inherent artificiality of the constructed worlds contained within their frames.
Sugimoto dwells in the artifice of the images “The only thing absent is life itself. Time comes to a halt and never-ending stillness reigns.” “All over the planet, nature is being transformed into un-nature at breakneck speed. My life is part of natural history. I long to know where that history came from and where it is going.”
The exhibition highlights recurring themes and images that have sustained Sugimoto’s interest and work for almost four decades. Essential are the concepts of memory and preservation, evident here in his exploration of nature as mediated through the museum. Since beginning this series, the notion of fossilization has become an important concept for him and this permeates his work.
Exploring it as a historical fact and photographic conceit, the fossil serves as a living record and point of departure into history, crystalizing a moment in time into a singular object. Sugimoto’s process echoes this notion, capturing these frozen scenes on his large-format camera with specific lighting and extended exposures, lasting as long as twenty minutes.
Ironically, the very absence – of natural habitats, unspoilt landscapes and animal species – that these images highlight at the same time, serves to inspires our determination to preserve them. After all we do not want to find the human race represented as exhibits in a Natural History Museum.
Hiroshi Sugimoto: Still Life, is on until 24 January 2015. For further information visit www.pacegallery.com.
Images by CELLOPHANELAND*.