Hiroshi Sugimoto - Disruptors: Evening Sale of 20th Century & Contemporary Art, Design and Watches Hong Kong Thursday, May 25, 2023 | Phillips

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  • A poignant, elegant and compelling meditation on time, Hiroshi Sugimoto’s portrayals of otherworldly seascapes capture motionless waters in a state of tranquillity. Produced via prolonged exposures, Sugimoto creates unrecognisable scenes of the sea that are unusually flat and clean, where waves melt into each other like silk beneath misty horizons. Taking away any specificity of the location depicted, Sugimoto presents to the viewer a distilled image that freezes a moment of time whilst simultaneously encapsulating an impression of eternity within one simple frame.


     “Water and air. So very commonplace are these substances, they hardly attract attention―and yet they vouchsafe our very existence. The beginnings of life are shrouded in myth: Let there [be] water and air. [...] Every time I view the sea, I feel a calming sense of security, as if visiting my ancestral home; I embark on a voyage of seeing.”
    — Hiroshi Sugimoto


    Setting him apart from his contemporaries, Sugimoto’s distinctive use of natural light and manipulation of shadow creates sublime, abstract photographs of the sea that are almost geometric in form, reducing the face of the earth to its most primordial, simplistic elements: water and air. Adamant on producing images that are without a single streak of clouds in the sky, the artist spent 10 years developing a processor that eliminates unevenness in his photographs.


     The artist interviewed at the Enoura Observatory, which faces the Bay of Sagami, further elaborating on the inspiration of his seascape works



    Scenes of the Eternal - The Seascapes Series


    For over 40 years, Sugimoto had travelled the world to capture the Earth’s various seas, utilising an identical composition for all of his seascapes – the horizon line divides each image across the centre. This strict repetition of format reveals the unique meeting of sea and sky at each location, never appearing exactly the same – even though Sugimoto had returned to certain locations time after time. Each image contains subtle variations of the atmosphere and water surface, appearing absolutely universal yet exceedingly specific.


    Works such as North Pacific Ocean, Ohkurosaki and Bay of Sagami, Atami were constructed with the same photography settings, choice of framing, and use of material, differing only in location and the passage of time that disrupts the unchanging seascapes. Capturing the permanence of the impermanent, Sugimoto’s seascapes represent a new perspective of photography where the lines of the pictorial and the naturalistic blur into one.


      “The sea represents the world before the birth of humanity, as well as after its end.”
    — Hiroshi Sugimoto


    Sugimoto’s first memories of the sea were created in the Atami area. Geographically, both North Pacific Ocean, Ohkurosaki and Bay of Sagami, Atami depicts the waters of the Noth Pacific Ocean in the Atami region near or facing the Bay of Sagami. As a child, he and his family took a train trip in the region; and as the train passed through a tunnel, a brilliant and clear view of the sea was revealed. Sugimoto saw a distinct horizon line where the sky met the waters, and the view made him think: ‘I am here and I exist.’i This memory no doubt proved crucial to the artist’s seascapes series, as he returned to photograph these waters throughout the years (one version of which is in the collection of the Guggenheim Museum in New York), whilst also designing the Enoura Observatory which faces the Bay of Sagami.



    Detail of Lot 344 - North Pacific Ocean, Ohkurosaki


    Minimal Composition, Maximal Emotion


    Sugimoto’s seascapes are characterised by their distinctive horizon line that splits the air and water into equal halves. This minimalist composition is echoed by many artists as a visual tool to explore similar themes of contemplation, such as Mark Rothko. In 2012, Pace Gallery London held a duo exhibition – Rothko/Sugimoto: Dark Paintings and Seascapes that explored the relationship between Rothko’s late monochrome paintings that focused only on light and dark, and Sugimoto’s seascapes. In preparation for the exhibition, Sugimoto had touched on the similarities between the work of Rothko and his own:


    “For several decades I have created seascapes. Not depicting the world in photographs, I’d like to think, but rather projecting my internal seascapes onto the canvas of the world. Skies now forming bright rectangles, water now melting into dark fluid rectangles. I sometimes think I see a dark horizon cutting across Mark Rothko’s paintings. It’s then I unconsciously realise that paintings are more truthful than photographs and photographs are more illusory than paintings.”
    — Hiroshi Sugimoto


    Painted a year before his suicide, Rothko’s late monochrome paintings such as Untitled (Black on Gray), 1969-70 from the collection of the Guggenheim Museum, New York are theatrical and intense in its execution. An elegant reflection on human existence, this group of monochrome paintings utilise simplistic and abstract means to express complex yet universal human emotions.


    Works by Sugimoto and Rothko shown side by side at Rothko/Sugimoto: Dark Paintings and Seascapes at Pace Gallery, London, 2012


    Sugimoto, like Rothko, is able to encapsulate a wide spectrum of emotions using limited colours of black and white within a simple bilateral composition. Sugimoto’s focus on water and air — the ingredients that gave rise to life — evoke primordial oceans and the origins of human consciousness. Rothko and Sugimoto share the same philosophical interest in exploring themes of human emotions and introspection, timelessness, light and shadow through a use of a limited monochromatic colour palette. The minimalist and meditative quality of each of their works provides an openness for viewers to contemplate the beauty of nature in its purest form, as well as reflect upon the essential questions of life.


    Both a tribute to his childhood memories and the power of nature, Sugimoto’s peaceful yet intense seascapes reimagine photography through minimalist composition, poetic motionlessness and monochromatic nuances. As showcased by both North Pacific Ocean, Ohkurosaki and Bay of Sagami, Atami, Sugimoto’s seascapes are formed of the simplest elements of sea, sky and horizon, to bring together larger themes such as permanence within impermanence and universal human emotions. As such, they speak not just to the visual senses but also stir our inner depths with philosophical contemplation on life itself.  Ultimately, these visuals are more than just photographic works – they represent the power of nature and its ability to provoke thought, emotion and transcendence.



    Detail of Lot 345 - Bay of Sagami, Atami



    Collector’s Digest


    • Hiroshi Sugimoto (b. 1948) was born and raised in Tokyo. He studied politics and sociology at Rikkyo University, later retraining as an artist at the Art Center College of Design in Los Angeles. He now lives between New York and Tokyo.

    • Sugimoto has been an active photographer since the 1970s, and has always explored themes of memory and the passage of time through the use of long exposures that often require an entire roll of film.

    • Apart from the Seascapes series, some of his other major photographic series include the Dioramas, Theaters, Portraits, Architecture and Lightning Fields.

    • Sugimoto has been honoured with extensive solo exhibitions throughout his career, in key venues throughout the world. This includes his recent 2020 solo show at the Kyocera Museum in Kyoto.



    i Hiroshi Sugimoto, quoted in Roxanne Bagheshirin Lærkesen, ed., ‘Hiroshi Sugimoto Interview: Between Sea and Sky’, Louisiana Channel, 11 September 2018, online

    • Provenance

      Fraenkel Gallery, San Francisco
      Acquired from the above by the present owner

    • Literature

      Damiani and Matsumoto Editions, Hiroshi Sugimoto: Seascapes, New York, 2015, p. 273 (illustrated, front cover, p. 267)

    • Artist Biography

      Hiroshi Sugimoto

      Japanese • 1948

      Hiroshi Sugimoto's work examines the concepts of time, space and the metaphysics of human existence through breathtakingly perfect images of theaters, mathematical forms, wax figures and seascapes. His 8 x 10 inch, large-format camera and long exposures give an almost eerie serenity to his images, treating the photograph as an ethereal time capsule and challenging its associations of the 'instant.' 

      In his famed Seascapes, Sugimoto sublimely captures the nature of water and air, sharpening and blurring the elements together into a seamless, formless entity.  This reflection of the human condition and its relationship with time follows through his exploration of historical topics and timeless beauty as he uniquely replicates the world around us.

      View More Works


North Pacific Ocean, Ohkurosaki

titled, dated and numbered with the artist's blindstamp '"NORTH PACIFIC OCEAN OHKUROSAKI" 2013 18/25 582' along the bottom edge
gelatin silver print
42.5 x 54.2 cm. (16 3/4 x 21 3/8 in.)
Executed in 2013, this work is number 18 from an edition of 25.

Full Cataloguing

HK$160,000 - 240,000 

Sold for HK$215,900

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Disruptors: Evening Sale of 20th Century & Contemporary Art, Design and Watches

Hong Kong Auction 25 May 2023