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ART REVIEW : Sugimoto's Sea of Meditation at MOCA

March 04, 1994|WILLIAM WILSON | TIMES ART CRITIC

Our great oceans are differently named but all run together in a vast unity covering nearly three quarters of the Earth's surface. No wonder they fascinate us as the elemental womb mother of the planet.

Hiroshi Sugimoto spent the last 14 years wandering the globe taking pictures of all this brine. He's looked at it as the Caribbean Sea from a bluff in Jamaica, at the English Channel from Fecamp, at the Arctic Ocean from Nordkapp.

Sugimoto was born in Tokyo in 1948 and works out of New York. Now his art has its L.A. debut as part of the Museum of Contemporary Art's ongoing "Focus" series. Organized by curator Kerry Brougher, the show consists of about two-dozen images Sugimoto derived from all his travels.

A reasonable person might well ask, "Why bother?"

The black-and-white pictures are all exactly the same size, bifurcated exactly in half by the horizon line. They could have been taken from the same spot on the same day from a camera on an affixed tripod to note the changes in light, tide and weather from dawn to dark. They could have been ascribed to the same exotic locales and nobody would be the wiser. So why go to all that trouble?

Well, if Sugimoto had cheated, his series would have been yet another ironic repetition of the idea that the camera can--and does--lie. That truism has been so oft repeated that photography, now aided by the deft manipulations of the computer, has grown to seem as cynical and artificial as the rest of the media world.

There is something very heartfelt about Sugimoto traipsing virtually from pole to pole, trying to make sure his pictures won't be mistaken for images that are just about themselves and their capacity to manipulate the viewer.

He wanted them to be about their subject, that wine-dark mystery of the timeless sea in conversation with the endless sky. That's the stuff of poetry and philosophy. It deals in questions so persistently profound and so fundamentally unanswerable that--frustrated by our lack of wisdom--we dismiss them as "Blue Sky."

We are all moved by the sea as if it had some control of our feelings. We are calm when it is. When it is agitated, so are we. Maybe that is because both of us have smooth visible surfaces that rest on uneven interior terrain. The bottom of the sea is not flat. It is a geography with its own Alps and chasms. Our inner structure is not a domesticated plain. It's a jagged terrain of memory as deep and unfathomable as the great waters.

Will anybody heed Sugimoto's invitation to honest meditation? Many a browser will retreat politely when their glance takes in another of those weird enigmatic art shows with no entertainment value. On to the Lichtenstein extravaganza where a person can have some fun. Who can blame them? Life is boring enough.

Those most likely to miss the point are the dedicated artniks. They will be too busy congratulating themselves on recognizing Sugimoto's resemblance to everybody from Monet to Ad Reinhardt to think about what he's trying to say. And who can fault that? Thinking about art excuses one from thinking about life.

It's a show for the occasional innocent who bumbles into arts sanctums with plenty of time and the naivete to ponder what this is really about.

* Museum of Contemporary Art, 250 S. Grand Ave.; to April 14, closed Mondays (213) 626-6222.

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