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Photographer Hiroshi Sugimoto Captures "Acts of God"

Acclaimed photographer Hiroshi Sugimoto is known for his masterful images of dioramas and portraits of wax figures, which play with our perception of reality. I was already familiar with his work, but nothing prepared me for the brilliant photographic mural of The Last Supper at Fraenkel Gallery, in his show “Hiroshi Sugimoto: Acts of God”.

The 24-foot mural, which consists of five large panels, hangs alone in the dramatically lit first gallery. The images are photographs Sugimoto took in a Japanese wax museum, depicting Leonardo da Vinci’s “The Last Supper.” It portrays the apostles as they react in a wave of emotion to the moment when Jesus reveals that one of them will betray him.

Sugimoto originally created the mural in 1999, and stored it in his Chelsea studio in New York.

During Hurricane Sandy; the building was flooded, making the storage room inaccessible.  When it was finally rescued, he discovered that the emulsion was damaged and mold had altered the work irreparably.  Sugimoto decided that the work was not ruined, but enhanced - thus adding another layer of meaning in the dramatic narrative of the story of the Last Supper. 

The “damage” is extensive throughout the panels, and appears in places like halos radiating around Christ’s head, or bold brushstrokes across the surface. In other areas, the effects are more like perforated panels, which create intimate enclosures or masks, behind which hide the subjects. The overall effect is painterly, elegant, disturbing yet quirky, and when one reflects on the genesis of the work – it’s also subtly humorous and profane.   

Sugimoto likens the process to Leonardo’s fresco, which has suffered great damage through the years. He writes: “Leonardo completed his Last Supper over five hundred years ago and it has deteriorated beautifully. I can only be grateful to the storm for putting my work through a half-millennium's worth of stresses in so short a time.”

The subtext of New York under siege during the storm is related poetically in the wall text by the artist, a story of the eerie quiet and darkness of New York, during which the artist wondered if it was the city’s “last supper”. 

Other works in the show include his recent series, In Praise of Shadows  - five ghostly photographs of searing candle flames. There’s also an elegant image of the water; Sea of Galilee, Golan, 1992, which is the sea that Christ is said to have walked on. These are works from the artist’s ongoing explorations on these subjects, and which fit in seamlessly within the context of the show.  

It’s worth taking the short walk to 140 New Montgomery, where six Sugimoto photographs from his Lightning Fields series are on display in the lobby of the meticulously restored Art Deco building. Sugimoto creates these works by charging a metal ball with 40,000 volts of electricity, and touching it to photographic paper, which is laid on a metal table. The resulting, (and powerful) electrical charge creates instantaneous images of lightning bolts, fern – like patterns and luminous groupings of trees. The photographs work harmoniously in the building that once served as the headquarters of the Pacific Bell Telephone Company, and is considered to be a masterpiece in itself.

Sugimoto, who lives and works in Japan and New York, writes of interpreting chance as “the invisible hand of God”. This playful openness, along with the curiosity and discipline of a scientist gives form to his compelling work:

THE LAST SUPPER: ACTS OF GOD 

The wind and rain of Hurricane Sandy lashed at the windows of my Chelsea studio as I worked late into the night of October 28, 2012. Hearing reports that the Hudson was rising, I ventured out for a look. Sure enough, the encroaching waters were already just a block away. Not long after, all the lights went out and the city was engulfed in sudden darkness. People said a power plant had exploded. With the lights out, Manhattan, that great symbol of modern civilization, acquired a peculiar beauty redolent of the Acropolis or some other ruin from a long-gone civilization. 

The next day I found that the underground storeroom where I kept my work had flooded. It took three full days of pumping before my photographs could be retrieved. 

The Last Supper was a gelatin silver print. In places on its surface, the gelatin had melted and run; elsewhere microorganisms seemed to have germinated, and their white flecks proliferated over the months it took the picture to dry. Throughout the drying process, I took daily enjoyment in seeing how the expressions of the twelve apostles changed. The face of Philip stabilized on the brink of deliquescence, like a Francis Bacon painting. A white haze shrouded the faces of Judas and Peter. Christ’s face was especially badly damaged from the left temple downward.  

Leonardo painted The Last Supper according to the laws of linear perspective, with Christ’s forehead marking the vanishing point. Imagine, then, my amazement when I saw a halo-like pattern of white lines radiating from precisely that point in my own work. I chose to interpret this as the invisible hand of God coming down to bring my monumental but unfinished Last Supper to completion. Leonardo completed his Last Supper over five hundred years ago and it has deteriorated beautifully. I can only be grateful to the storm for putting my work through a half-millennium's worth of stresses in so short a time. 

Going about my life in a pitch-dark Manhattan, I had the sense that civilization’s own “last supper” was coming closer. From time to time, the light of a candle flickered in a window of the desolate city. H. S.

Hiroshi Sugimoto: Acts of God: Photographs. Through July 2. Fraenkel Gallery, 49 Geary St. (415) 981-2661. 

Hiroshi Sugimoto: Lightening Fields: Photographs. Permanent installation.

Pacific Bell building, 140 New Montgomery Street, lobby. Open Mon. - Fri. 7 a.m. – 6 p.m.