Critical Fieldwork 37

From ‘negative’ eternity to ‘positive’ eternity: Mansai Nomura and Hiroshi Sugimoto – SANBASO, divine dance Kami hisomi iki II (Part 2)

Scene from Mansai Nomura and Hiroshi Sugimoto’s SANBASO, divine dance Kami hisomi iki II. © Sugimoto Studio, courtesy of Odawara Art Foundation.

When we shift the “eternity” that Sugimoto’s photography invents or recreates to “Japan,” it becomes clear that his interest in Japan leads directly from his photography. According to Sugimoto’s negative basic model, the “everlasting world as it is” once existed but has ended and can no longer be captured in photographs, as a result of which the only thing photographers could do was nullify the self (reduce their work to white screens) so as not to betray this “everlasting world.” To put it another way, “Japan as it is” once existed but has ended and cannot be expressed, as a result of which the only thing the artist can do is not express anything (reminiscence via antiques/ancient artworks) so as not to betray this “Japan.” The exhibitions held several years ago at various locations in Japan and overseas including Tokyo, Kanazawa and Osaka, in which Sugimoto’s photographs were displayed alongside antiques and ancient artworks were precisely such an attempt to establish a correspondence between negative “eternity” and negative “Japan.” (1)

At the same time, just as such series as “Talbot” and “Lightning Fields” are positive recreations of “eternity,” corresponding positive recreations of “Japan” must exist. And if it was the eternity of natural law that linked the remote past and the present in “Talbot” and “Lightning Fields,” in Japan such links are preserved only in the “forms” of eternal tradition – the forms of musical modes, of shimai, of utai, of rhythm, of architectural style and time such as shikinen sengu, etc. Positive recreations of “Japan” must be executed via these “forms” that have been handed down from the past and will be handed on to future generations. Which is why Hiroshi Sugimoto has turned his attention to Japanese traditional performing art productions. This is not a return to tradition by a Japanese artist who has succeeded and won fame after a lengthy residence overseas, but something that derives from his photographic work in recent years. Through his collaboration with performers within the often-insular world of traditional performing arts who sympathize with his ideas and are willing to cooperate with him, Sugimoto is able to recreate on the stage “eternity,” “gods” and “darkness.” “Sanbaso is ancient music that retains the oldest forms among all of the numerous performing arts handed down in this country… The dancing represents the manner in which the gods communicate with the dead, and as a Shinto ritual the music is treated with the utmost importance.” (From the explanatory text Sugimoto wrote for this performance.)

The essence of Sugimoto’s productions of traditional performing arts probably lies in his recognition that, to borrow Duchamp’s terminology, “form” is not “appearance” but “apparition.” This is nothing less than the various formal relationships and rules regarding temporal/spatial ratios that need to be preserved for the purposes of invoking the gods. In other words, as long as these rules are adhered to, “form” is reliant neither on appearance (to begin with, total darkness is usually regarded as an important condition for the advent of the gods) nor on the people undertaking the performance (the gods appear even when Shinto rituals are performed by ordinary people). Might it be that in the so-called traditional performing arts, there is too much adherence to the physical/visual uniformity and authenticity of “form” and a tendency to forget the essential power of these arts, ie, that they are forms that invoke eternity? In this production, there is room for Hiroshi Sugimoto to give free reign to his imagination – by using a curtain with the lightning (kaminari, literally “the sound of the gods”) of “Lightning Fields” on it instead of painted pine trees, for example, or by using lighting in which there is a contrast between darkness and flashes of light instead of the uniform lighting seen at regular productions of traditional performing arts. But this is not a production with contemporary elements added to the traditional, much less a contemporary art-style production of a traditional performing art. Sugimoto is focused on restoring form by freeing it from matter and appearance, in the interests of which he reduces the role of matter and appearance on the stage to hinting at the eternity hidden in the form.

Scene from Mansai Nomura and Hiroshi Sugimoto’s SANBASO, divine dance Kami hisomi iki II. © Sugimoto Studio, courtesy of Odawara Art Foundation.

Viewing this Sanbaso performance, I got the impression that it would be apt if Hiroshi Sugimoto were to forget photography and devote himself to traditional performing arts. Regardless of how beautifully it is printed, the recreation of eternity via a photograph will always ultimately be impure as long as it can only be expressed as a physical object in the form of a single sheet of paper, and whether it is as an “allusion” or “pure photography” or “the origins of photography,” the more it is explained the more it resembles an overblown fake. The result pales into insignificance compared to the pure and fulfilling experience of seeing flesh-and-blood people chant, play and dance on stage and to the eternity that resolutely appears at the climax of such a performance only to all too quickly disappear. In fact, perhaps because my seat was in the very first row, the voices and music and stamping were all extremely vivid, and I felt their vibrations almost as a physical confrontation. Rather than viewing a performance staged by Hiroshi Sugimoto and Mansai Nomura in Shibuya, it was as if I were at a festival in some ancient land, captivated by well-executed dancing, the moving bodies brimming with tension from around the point where the performers donned kokujikijo (the masks worn by kyogen performers in Sanbaso), the feeling of emptiness I experienced when I relaxed after being filled and fulfilled by something only for it to disappear suggesting the announcement in past tense of the appearance of “the gods.” This was reminiscent of the spiritual presence I feel in the darkness of the mitama utsushi (transfer of the god) ritual during the Gion festival.

However, the flashing of the lightning bolts on the curtain when it finally came time for the gods to descend and the flashing of the lighting bolts on the performers’ costumes at the end like some kind of aftereffect were in effect stage conventions, offering a glimpse of the willingness of Hiroshi Sugimoto, the common man, to please his audience. Which reminds me, Mansai Nomura’s costume and all the other kimono were magnificent, both in terms of the texture of the cloth and the colors, and when I glanced at the program I saw a note acknowledging the “special cooperation” of Gion Saito. How typical of Sugimoto to be well acquainted with the finest of kimono specialty stores.

Mansai Nomura and Hiroshi Sugimoto – SANBASO, divine dance Kami hisomi iki II was performed April 26 at Sakura Hall, Shibuya Cultural Center Owada following its New York tour as SANBASO, divine dance Mansai Nomura + Hiroshi Sugimoto on March 28 and 29 at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum.

  1. Yukio Mishima is an important reference point with respect to this “negative Sugimoto.” The explanatory text accompanying the “Theaters” series, for example, includes the following: “… As soon as the movie started, I fixed the shutter at a wide-open aperture, and two hours later when 
the movie finished, I clicked the shutter closed. That evening, I developed the film, and 
the vision exploded behind my eyes.” ( In comparison, the last lines (in which the protagonist commits seppuku) in Runaway Horses, the second novel in Mishima’s The Sea of Fertility tetralogy, read: “The instant the blade tore open his flesh, the bright disk of the sun soared up and exploded behind his eyelids.” (Yukio Mishima, Runaway Horses, trans. Michael Gallagher, Vintage, 1990, p.421.) As well, there is the following description of emptiness as a negative expression of “eternity” from the fourth novel in the same tetralogy, The Decay of the Angel: “… It was a bright, quiet garden, without striking features. Like a rosary rubbed between the hands, the shrilling of cicadas held sway. There was no other sound. The garden was empty. He had come, thought Honda, to a place that had no memories, nothing. The noontide sun of summer flowed over the still garden.” (The closing lines of Yukio Mishima, The Decay of the Angel, trans. Edward Seidensticker, Vintage, 1990.)

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