HIROSHI SUGIMOTO at the Royal Ontario Museum (100 Queen's Park), to September 3. $20, stu/srs $17, Friday after 4:30 pm $10. 416-586-8000. Rating: NNNN
Contemporary Japanese artist and photographer Hiroshi Sugimoto is enjoying a very successful summer. The subject of a 30-year photography retrospective at San Francisco's de Young Fine Arts Museum, who also had an installation recently at Paris's Centre Pompidou, now opens the Michael Lee Chin Crystal with the show History Of History.
It's a natural choice. Sugimoto is deeply invested in the ideas and concepts surrounding the institution of the museum: memory, time, the nature of consciousness and the history of culture and representation. His preoccupation with fossils, natural artifacts and Asian art seems to complement the ROM's collections.
To put together this type of show in a bold new space is an artist's fantasy, and Sugimoto rises to the occasion with an imposing sense of restraint. Very new and very old objects are placed in configurations that collectively evoke the passage of an immense period of time.
Fossilized lilies from Morocco, ancient clay Buddhist sculptures, silver gelatin prints, a chrome paperweight from the 1934 Chicago World's Fair and a cast of a whale penis on a medical gurney are just some of the 80 artifacts in the show. Placed together, they suggest a rich allegory, one that is rescued from incoherence by carefully thought out associations and rueful wit.
It is the sea, however (as image, source and symbol), that drives this show. A curved wall of photographic seascapes occupies its centre, meditatively drawing the viewer in with minimal abstractions of waves and sky. As a symbol of Japan, a reminder of the geologic immensity of time and a central metaphor in Buddhist literature, it helps to unify and ground the show's immense 540-million-year scope.
The sober mood of the wall is countered by a 13th-century Japanese miniature treasure pagoda inset with a tiny crystal ball at eye level that allows you to peer, camera like, at each print. Viewing images of the sea through this tiny model brings to mind something ineffable about the way we live through time, look at beautiful things and record our passing.
The history of art has never been so artful.