top of page

Time Machine

Hiroshi Sugimoto

Hayward Gallery, London | Oct 11 - Jan 7, 2024

Hiroshi Sugimoto: Time Exposed and Liberated

Lucy von Goetz


Time present and time past
Are both perhaps present in time future,
And time future contained in time past.
If all time is eternally present
All time is unredeemable.
What might have been is an abstraction
Remaining a perpetual possibility
Only in a world of speculation.
What might have been and what has been
Point to one end, which is always present.
Footfalls echo in the memory
Down the passage which we did not take
Towards the door we never opened
Into the rose-garden.


- T.S. Eliot, Burnt Norton, Four Quartets

The Hayward Gallery has mounted a stellar exhibition of Japanese photographer, Hiroshi Sugimoto, aptly titled, Time Machine.


Sugimoto’s oeuvre exposes, teases, and liberates time. Functioning as a visual philosopher, Sugimoto employs images as a medium to contemplate realms entwined with science, mathematics, art, and architecture. He perceives no incongruity among the perspectives of scientists, artists, or even wandering Buddhist monks, whose oral narratives form the foundation of Heike Monogatori. In his words, "Today, many people see no connection between the different fields. To me, it is all very obviously one thing". [1]


This exhibition moves beyond Barthes’ Camera Lucida and the evocations of Tillmans and Gursky. Sugimoto seamlessly integrates physics, poetry, and cinema, with time standing as the paramount element manipulated masterfully in the conception and execution of his works. In a revealing analogy, Sugimoto likens his process to that of a scientist scrutinising an insect, emphasising, “The same method is used by the photographer. You use a sample to understand the whole thing, the whole world.” [2]




Living here day by day, you think it's the centre of the world. You believe nothing will ever change. Then you leave: a year, two years. When you come back, everything's changed. The thread's broken. What you came to find isn't there. What was yours is gone. You have to go away for a long time... many years... before you can come back and find your people. The land where you were born. But now, no. It's not possible. Right now, you're blinder than I am.



Who said that? Gary Cooper? James Stewart? Henry Fonda? Eh?



No, Toto. Nobody said it. This time it's all me. Life isn't like in the movies. Life... is much harder.


- Cinema Paradiso, Giuseppe Tornatore, 1988



Cinema Paradiso is a film about film. Director, Tornatore has spoken much of his earliest encounters with cinema–in Bagheria, just outside Palermo where he grew up–and how they shaped his career. Tornatore shows what happens when technology breaks into a world still governed by premodern social mores. The theatre changes the town, but the town also engulfs the theatre in its pre-existing rituals. The Paradiso becomes a second communal centre, rivalling the parish church. Like Tornatore, Sugimoto sees moviegoing as a communal activity of, “shared fantasy and hallucination in a collective state of trance”. [3]


Sugimoto's photographs of theatres, drive-ins, and opera houses employ long exposure settings to condense the entire temporal and dramatic span of a movie into a singular, luminous moment that extends outward. This approach, as Sugimoto elucidates, freezes a movie's appearance of time and motion, “to watch a two-hour movie is simply to look at 172,800 photographic afterimages. I wanted to photograph a movie, with all its appearance of time and motion, in order to stop it again” [4] echoing William Blake's Auguries of Innocence:


To see a World in a Grain of Sand

And a Heaven in a Wild Flower 

Hold Infinity in the palm of your hand 

And Eternity in an hour


Fundamental to Cinema Paradiso are the dusty surroundings of a Sicilian village, with its peeling facades and whitewashed walls. At the centre of Sugimoto’s theatre images is the blank white screen, projecting its light outward. The process is refined through endless experiment, and the artwork cannot extend beyond the boundaries defined by his method. “My concept adjusts to the limits of the technique. I see what the camera can see. My mind is a black box.” [5] The light created by Sugimoto’s long exposures – light that is both everything and nothing, empty yet filled with phantom images – embodies a semblance of satori, the state of enlightenment in Japanese Zen Buddhism.


Cinema Paradiso is coupled with a score by Ennio Morricone. The movie’s recurrent haunting refrain has a yearning element alluding to loss and the passage of time. The last scene is the most famous. After some thirty years, Toto returns to Giancaldo from his filmmaking career in Rome to attend Alfredo’s funeral. As it happens, the Paradiso is to be torn down at the same time. Toto visits Alfredo’s widow before the funeral, who has something the projectionist kept for him: an old film reel. We watch as the old movie house is torn down, but not before Toto sneaks in and imagines scenes from his past and for good measure watches old movies he had taken of Elena all those years ago.


In his abandoned theatres, Sugimoto reanimated these fallen spaces by projecting films into them. He accompanied these with a sentence or two from a classic Japanese text, commenting on the action of the film from a perspective that is centuries distant. The films he chose showed a world in which human beings face extinction and must decide whether to preserve their genes. In the Paramount Theatre, Newark, he screened Stanley Earl Kramer’s, On the Beach (1959), which portrays the aftermath of a nuclear apocalypse. The accompanying quotation from the samurai epic Heike Monogatari is as concise as it is poetic:


Even the brave will eventually fall, blown

Like dust in the wind                        


Sugimoto has chosen lead for the artist frames of his Opera House and Abandoned Theatres photographs. Lead reacts with oxygen and a coating of lead oxide forms on its surface. For the artist the patination process reflects the passage of time pictured in the images themselves. These artworks are time in an instant, slowed time, captured time, and time manifest.  


The only reason for time is so that everything doesn't happen at once.

- Albert Einstein


Albert Einstein endeavoured to elucidate instances where Newtonian physics proved inadequate in addressing phenomena, prompting him to introduce revolutionary alterations to human understandings of time, space, and gravity. The foundation of his Special Theory of Relativity rested on two pivotal assumptions: first, that the speed of light is constant for all observers; and second, that observers moving at constant speeds should be subject to the same physical laws. Guided by this rationale, Einstein postulated that time undergoes modification contingent upon the velocity of a moving object relative to the frame of reference of an observer.


The speed of light is constant.

- Albert Einstein


Do not Bodies and Light act mutually upon one another; that is to say, Bodies upon Light in emitting, reflecting, refracting and inflecting it, and Light upon Bodies for heating them, and putting their parts into a vibrating motion wherein heat consists?

- Isaac Newton


Optics is a branch of physics that considers the phenomenon of light. Looking at how this complex form of energy behaves and how it can be controlled, the discipline also probes the ways in which light interacts with other substances. In the series of photographs by Sugimoto which takes its name from this field of science, the artist captures the effects of sunlight that has been transmitted through a glass prism. Each image is a record of the colours that were revealed through this exploratory process.


Sugimoto’s Opticks take a historical precedent as their starting point. In 1704, mathematician and physicist Isaac Newton published, Opticks: Or, a Treatise of the Reflexions, Refractions, Inflexions and Colours of Light. Prior to this work, the dominating belief was that light was white. Colour, it transpired, was not caused by an external entity (prism) but was naturally present within light itself. In contrast to, “time and space are modes by which we think and not conditions in which we live” (Einstein).  Colour in light is inherent and time is imbued.


Over a period of six months, Sugimoto re-enacted the study to which Newton had been dedicated almost 350 years earlier. It took Sugimoto close to a decade to develop the type of image that he sought to achieve. “With light as my pigment, I believe that I successfully created a new kind of painting.”[6]


Alike much science, Sugimoto’s photographs remain provocatively elusive, casting a spell of fascination precisely because we are unable to resolve the question of how we regard them. Everything is rendered in mystery and imagination. Susan Sontag observed: “Surrealism lies at the heart of the photographic enterprise: in the very creation of a duplicate world, of a reality in the second degree, narrower but more dramatic than the one perceived by natural vision.”[7] These seemingly precise semblances achieved in scientific and photographic realms map our world, but never entirely capture it.


Home is where one starts from. As we grow older

The world becomes stranger, the pattern more complicated

Of dead and living. Not the intense moment

Isolated, with no before and after,

But a lifetime burning in every moment

And not the lifetime of one man only

But of old stones that cannot be deciphered.

There is a time for the evening under starlight,

A time for the evening under lamplight

(The evening with the photograph album).

Love is most nearly itself

When here and now cease to matter.


Old men ought to be explorers

Here and there does not matter

We must be still and still moving

Into another intensity

For a further union, a deeper communion

Through the dark cold and empty desolation,

The wave cry, the wind cry, the vast waters

Of the petrel and the porpoise. In my end is my beginning.


- T.S. Eliot, ‘East Coker’, The Four Quartets





[1] Sugimoto, Time Exposed, p. 93

[2] Sugimoto, Time Exposed, p. 91

[3] Sugimoto, The Virtual Image

[4] Sugimoto, My Inner Theatre

[5] Sugimoto, Black Box

[6] Sugimoto, Opticks: Cool Eye/Warm Eye

[7] Susan Sontag, On Photography, p. 52

Logo for Von Goetz art advisory service
bottom of page