As part of his ongoing project of photographing theaters, in the spring of 2015, photographer Hiroshi Sugimoto found himself at the oldest surviving opera house in Europe, Andrea Palladio’s Teatro Olimpico in Vicenza, Italy, where he noticed something surprising. A fresco in the foyer included a panel showing Japanese envoys visiting the theater when it first opened in 1585. The artist recognized them as the quattro ragazzi, or the Tenshō mission, a group of four teenage Japanese nobles sent to Europe by Christian samurai lords to experience Christiandom first-hand, helping spread the faith on their return home — and perhaps securing some more funding from the Vatican. Inspired by the first Japanese emissaries to the West, Sugimoto decided to trace their footsteps through Italy, taking photographs under full moonlight of the historic places they visited more than 400 years ago, most notably Lorenzo Ghiberti’s Gates of Paradise.
On view at the Japan Society, and in celebration of the organization’s 110th anniversary, Hiroshi Sugimoto: Gates of Paradise combines Sugimoto’s large-scale photographs from his travels in Italy with various historical objects and artworks on loan from museums worldwide, as well as items from the artist’s personal collection. All are results of encounters between Japan and the West (Sugimoto himself divides his time between Tokyo and New York), highlighting the importance of cross-cultural exchange through the ages.
Perhaps the most interesting of these historic artworks are the nanban screens from the late 16th and early 17th centuries, which feature European and Christian themes, but are painted in Japanese traditional techniques. At times, Japanese artists even tried to imitate European painting techniques; the resultant works are fascinating, if a bit awkward. Sugimoto likes to point out that if you look closely, many of the Europeans in the paintings have exactly the same face — not to mention that the sheep are rat-sized. Clearly the person who painted these has never seen a sheep, the artist said with a chuckle at the press preview.
As for Sugimoto’s photographs, the giant and serene images of places like the Pantheon in Rome, the Tower of Pisa, and Florence’s Duomo exude a sense of slowness, tranquility, and silence. (The artist had to wait until the middle of the night to take most of them, when all the tourists were gone.) Although there’s an entire room devoted to the titular close-up images of the Gates of Paradise, perhaps one of Sugimoto’s most arresting is a panel of photographs of da Vinci’s “The Last Supper,” a work that was ultimately finished by, as the artist himself describes it, the “invisible act of God.”
When Hurricane Sandy hit the East Coast in the fall of 2012, it flooded much of Lower Manhattan, including Sugimoto’s storage space, where he kept his “The Last Supper” prints. They were soaked through, but instead of throwing them out, in the month that it took the silver gelatin print to dry, the artist “took daily enjoyment in seeing how the expressions of the twelve apostles changed,” comparing the face of Philip to something out of a Francis Bacon painting. One day, he noticed that a halo-like pattern appeared right above Jesus’s head, and he knew the work was finished.
Despite the obvious undercurrents of religious and cultural colonialism that pervade the whole exhibition, Sugimoto doesn’t appear to take sides in history. It seems that he sees all these episodes of cultural contact as more beneficial to global understanding than anything else. In this exhibition, at least, Christianity and Shinto and Buddhism live in shared harmony.
Hiroshi Sugimoto: Gates of Paradise continues at Japan Society (333 East 47th Street, Midtown East, Manhattan) through January 7.