Currently on display as part of Phantoms of Asia, the current exhibition at the Asian Art Museum, San Francisco, is Five Elements (2011), an extraordinary installation by Hiroshi Sugimoto. In itself it is worth a special trip to the museum. Isolated in its own room, where it can be viewed in a quiet space, it is given its due as a serene, contemplative work.
Five Elements comprises an alignment of seven optical glass pagodas set atop eye-level pedestals spanning the length of the room. A luminous white wall serves as a backdrop. Due to their geometric structure, the components have the semblance of Minimalist sculptures. Despite this association, they derive their shape and symbolism from 13th century Buddhist pagodas. All seven pagodas are identical formations embodying the five universal elements: a cube emphasizing the materiality of earth, a sphere of self-evident clarity symbolizing water, a pyramid in imitation of the pointed flames of fire, a hemisphere expressing its power to cut through whole matter, and a droplet-like shape crowning a globe to convey a sense of emptiness, the image of the cosmic void closing upon itself. In sum, the geometric configurations visualize the universal elements. They merge architectural, conceptual and philosophical approaches even as they embrace similar aspects of ancient and contemporary orientations.
The spare character of Sugimoto’s installation with its small-scale pagodas spread across the room, encourages viewers to walk along the alignment and look closely at each component. The allure of the pristine, seductive surfaces is a further enticement. Only when peering through openings in the pyramid element is it possible to see a black and white film squeezed inside. The film reveals the image of a seascape, an iteration of a photograph from Sugimoto’s esteemed Seascape series.
Whereas the pagodas convey unwavering sameness, the seascapes bear witness to the essence of timelessness and transience, diversity within likeness. Each depicts a different sea. Some feature ripples in the water, some show variations in lightness and darkness, others capture the rising or setting sun. All are composed with the horizon line in the middle, portraying sky and sea as equal realms and expressing primordial nature before human presence.
Not only has the Asian Art Museum respected the sensibility of the artist and artwork, but their display deepens the power of Sugimoto’s vision.