Hiroshi Sugimoto: ‘The deeper I explore Shinto and Buddhist art, the more it reveals the shallowness of contemporary art’

‘Hiroshi Sugimoto – The Descent of the Kasuga Spirit’, at the Kasuga-Taisha shrine in Nara, Japan, sees the acclaimed photographer draw on Japan’s spiritual past and present

Hiroshi Sugimoto–The Descent of the Kasuga Spirit
Installation view of ‘Hiroshi Sugimoto – The Descent of the Kasuga Spirit’ at the Kasuga-Taisha shrine in Nara, Japan
(Image credit: Sugimoto Studio )

It doesn’t get more site-specific than ‘Hiroshi Sugimoto – The Descent of the Kasuga Spirit’. The new exhibition at Kasuga-Taisha, an 8th-century Shinto Shrines complex in the ancient city of Nara in Japan’s Kinki region reflects the close relationship between the Kasuga-embraced Japanese artist and the sacred site. 

Sugimoto, whose artistic expression spans sculpture, photography, performing art and architecture, is also an acclaimed collector of Shinto and Buddhist antiques, notably from Kasuga. For Sugimoto, Shinto – a Japanese animist religion dating back to the 8th century whose minimalist aesthetics are the foundation of Japanese refinement – came first. Then Buddhism spread in Japan and the two were fused. 

‘Hiroshi Sugimoto–The Descendant of the Kasuga Spirit’

Kankitsuzan panoramic view, a folding screen display which forms part of ‘Hiroshi Sugimoto – The Descent of the Kasuga Spirit’ at the Kasuga-Taisha shrine in Nara, Japan

(Image credit: Sugimoto Studio )

‘Kasuga’s art came to me, it’s not the other way round,’ he says. ‘I learn immensely from the masterpieces I collect. They are so inspiring. Now that our civilisation is on a downhill trajectory, we should learn from the beauty of ancient times. The deeper I explore Shinto and Buddhist art, the more it reveals the shallowness of contemporary art’, quips the artist. ‘I buy antiques by selling my artworks. My collection generates a circular system.’

Thoughtfully curated under the supervision of Sugimoto, the show is composed of two chapters. The National Treasure House showcases more than 90 Kasuga antiques, such as Kakemonos, objects and masks from the 12h to the 19th century, including pieces selected from the artist’s private collection. 

‘Hiroshi Sugimoto–The Descent of the Kasuga Spirit’

Five Elements, installation view of ‘Hiroshi Sugimoto – The Descent of the Kasuga Spirit’ at the Kasuga-Taisha shrine in Nara, Japan

(Image credit: Sugimoto Studio )

To connect heritage and modernity, Sugimoto has adorned the back of a deer statuette with one of his iconic works, five elements, a miniature five-storey tower made of optic glass. (According to Shinto mythology, the Kasuga god appeared on the back of this sacred animal.) If this chapter indicates the artist’s creative motivations, his new works reveal a bold new direction. 

Large – 215cm x 565cm – folding screens of colour photography are spread across eight panels. For this, he employed the latest digital techniques using emulsion coating to fix enlarged platinum prints on Japanese paper Washi, an experimental approach Sugimoto has been exploring in recent years. Platinum prints feature richer nuances of black, which add striking depth to the artist’s photography, while Washi, with its thick, matte, textured quality, serves as the perfect material for Japanese-style screens. 

‘Hiroshi Sugimoto–The Descendant of the Kasuga Spirit’

View of Kasuga-Taisha, a folding screen display in the Treasure House Installation view of ‘Hiroshi Sugimoto – The Descent of the Kasuga Spirit’ at the Kasuga-Taisha shrine in Nara, Japan

(Image credit: Sugimoto Studio)

‘Hiroshi Sugimoto–The Descendant of the Kasuga Spirit’

A folding screen display of Kasuga-Taisha with wisteria in bloom, in the Treasure House. Part of ‘Hiroshi Sugimoto – The Descent of the Kasuga Spirit’ at the Kasuga-Taisha shrine in Nara, Japan

(Image credit: Sugimoto Studio )

Two folding screens displayed in the Treasure House show panoramic images of the Kasuga Grand Shrine, captured during different conditions, from different angles. But the most spectacular can be found at Wakamiya-Jinja, a 12th-century auxiliary shrine in the upper area of the worship site. Placed in Kagura-den, a hall facing the shrine and dedicated to holy dance and music is the Kankitsuzan mountain folding screen. The landscape depicts the vast site of the Enoura Observatory-Odawara Art Foundation, established by Sugimoto himself in Kanagawa to house his architectural masterpieces, artefacts and Shinto art collection. A small red gateway on the image is a subsidiary Kasuga shrine that was re-enshrined earlier this year. 

At the other end of the hall is a monochrome photograph of air and water, one of the poetic seascapes from the ink painting-like photography series Kaikei, shot around the world over decades. The Japan Sea, immortalised in Sugimoto’s photography in 1987 has been displayed in many different situations but looks particularly dignified in this sanctuary. Indeed, nothing is by accident for Sugimoto, and everything relates to celebration and respect for nature. ‘Though the ancient animist mind appears to be vanishing in modern civilisation, it still remains in the heart of Japanese people. This is what appears in my artistic expression’, says the artist. ‘I feel so blessed. Sometimes I receive revelations in my dreams about my next work.’

‘Hiroshi Sugimoto–The Descendant of the Kasuga Spirit’

Oki from Kaikei series. Installation view of ‘Hiroshi Sugimoto – The Descent of the Kasuga Spirit’ at the Kasuga-Taisha shrine in Nara, Japan

(Image credit: Sugimoto Studio )

‘Hiroshi Sugimoto – The Descent of the Kasuga Spirit’, is on view until 13 March 2023 at the Kasuga-Taisha shrine in Nara, Japan. kasugataisha.or.jp (opens in new tab); sugimotohiroshi.com (opens in new tab)

Minako Norimatsu is a Japanese journalist and consultant based in Paris. Extremely curious about everything creative, her field ranges from fashion to art, dance, hospitality and travel. She has interviewed many Japanese fashion designers and artists for Wallpaper*, as well as non-Japanese creatives whose inspirations are drawn from Japan.