Hiroshi Sugimoto Le Notti Bianche

Aimee Lin finds Zen metaphors in the photographer’s capture of 1920s Italian theatres

By Aimee Lin

Teatro Comunale di Ferrara, Ferrara, 2015, II Conformista (Screenside), 2015, gelatin silver print.Courtesy the artist and Marian Goodman Gallery, New York, Paris & London

Fondazione Sandretto Re Rebaudengo, Turin, 16 May – 1 October 2017

Following a 12-year hiatus in the production of Hiroshi Sugimoto’s Theaters series (begun during the late 1970s), Le Notti Bianche, showcases 20 photographs of theatres and opera houses produced in Italy over the last three years. These ‘new’ theatres are in fact old: markers of the country’s history. They include the famous Teatro Carignano in Turin (built in 1752), the private theatre in Villa Mazzacorati, Bologna (inaugurated in 1763) and Teatro Olimpico in Vicenza (Andrea Palladio’s final design, built between 1580 and 1585, it is the oldest surviving enclosed theatre in the world) and Teatro all’antica in Sabbioneta (constructed between 1588 and 1590 it was the first purpose-built freestanding theatre in the world). Sugimoto sees the theatre as a place for collective ‘religious’ experience, and notes in his essay ‘Image of the Void’ (included in Time Exposed, 1995) that movie theatres in the United States ‘have adopted elements of religious architectures from all over the world without principle’. By visiting classical theatres in Italy – all built before the invention of cinema – he aims at exploring the root of the architectural form and its cultural meaning: the ways in which the architectural features of American movie theatres of the 1920s (which were featured in the artist’s early Theaters works) derive from the older, palacelike theatres of Europe.

Like those earlier works, the photographs on view here explore the perception of time, of space and the relationship between the two by blending three kinds of time into one: the time of a film screening, the time of a camera exposure and the time of human attention (watching the film). The production of the photographs depends on the length of time of a particular movie, screened on the theatre stage (as Sugimoto previously did on the movie-theatre screens), which determines their exposure times. In the case of the Italian photographs, these films are national classics (selected by Sugimoto) such as Pier Paolo Pasolini’s Salò (1975), Luchino Visconti’s Le Notti Bianche (1957) and Federico Fellini’s I Vitelloni (1953). But the object (classical theatres in Italy) and the selection of films are not the only features that differentiate these works from the earlier photographs. When Sugimoto rebooted the project in 2014, he added a new gesture: having taken the familiar photograph of the theatres’ stage, he reversed the scenario to photograph the auditorium from the stage. Each theatre is now represented by two images that, here, are hung face-to-face on opposing walls, so that visitors, standing in between, can only see one of them at a time.

While this new mode of representation obviously provides a more complete representation of the actual space of the theatres, it also inspires further reflection on the space of theatre in more general terms. The theatre as a place for focused, cultural activities where comprehensive art appreciation becomes a collective quasi-religious experience, a space that, despite being a social space, has one absolute centre: the screen/stage. In his new series of works, by turning the camera around and looking back to the rows of seats, Sugimoto has captured two spaces that face each other, bound in an antithetical relationship – the ‘Look at me’ of the stage is now complemented by the ‘We were here’ of the auditorium.

In the pictures of the stages, the space of the screen onto which the films were projected becomes, due to overexposure, a void across the space: as if a spirit (or as Sugimoto puts it in ‘Image of the Void’, ‘the kami [god] of film’) has just arrived, or the soul of a movie-watcher has disappeared in the act of losing oneself while watching the film. In the auditorium images, the functional facilities, such as the seats and the main entrance, may appear quiet and empty, yet their hidden message is one of fullness, of numerous ghosts speaking in low voice: ‘I was once here, watching’. Indeed, the antithetical structure of the spaces and the images reminds me of a classical Zen metaphor: the void is a consequence of fullness. 

From the Autumn 2017 issue of ArtReview Asia