Hiroshi Sugimoto’s “Sea of Buddha” is an exhibition featuring photographs from the artist’s famous series of the same name and its related video installation Accelerated Buddha (1997), his first film work.
On view at Pace Gallery in New York through March 5, the Sea of Buddha series, conceived in 1988 and realized in 1995, explores Sugimoto’s overarching interest in light, history, and time—which the artist refers to as “one of the most abstract concepts human beings have created.”
Pace Gallery organized the exhibition in four respective rooms: one hosts 36 photographs from the black and white Sea of Buddha series (1995), a second shows the video installation Accelerated Buddha (1997), while the two final rooms feature works from Sugimoto’s iconic Seascapes series (1980–present).
It took Sugimoto seven years to get access to Sanjusangendo (Hall of Thirty-Three Bays), a 12th century Buddhist shrine in Kyoto, where the original thousand Buddha statues photographed can still be found. The 1,000-armed bodhisattva, also known as Senju Kannon from its Sino-Japanese etymology, literally means “watchful listening,” and is often translated as “one who sees and hears all.” Traditionally the task of the compassionate Kannon has been to witness and listen to the prayers and cries of those in difficulty in the earthly realm, and to help them achieve salvation.
After tedious bargaining and a financial remuneration to the temple (at $100 per statue), Sugimoto was able to shoot for 10 days on location. During these shootings he had all late-medieval and early-modern embellishments removed, as well as the contemporary fluorescent lighting turned off, recreating the ancient majesty of the thousand bodhisattvas glistening in the natural light of the morning sun rising over the Higashiyama hills, as the Kyoto aristocracy might have seen in the Heian period (794-1185).
Sugimoto’s rendered repetition of images signify the Buddhist practice of replicating manifestations of a deity in order to achieve spiritual merit. The compositional structure of the photographs and the effects of light enhance the repetitive nature of the unframed images, creating the impression of a limitless expanse—or sea—of figures in space.
It’s associated subsequent three-channel video, Accelerated Buddha (1997), furthers this feeling of expansion by intensely challenging the viewers’ perception of time, memory and space. The overall cognitive experience permeates with a certain psychedelic note that transcends tradition, modernity and even logicality. One is never sure of what he is seeing. The following Seascape series provides some restful ease after such visceral uncertainty.
Sea of Buddha is on view through March 5 at Pace Gallery, New York.