In celebration of Japan Society’s 110th anniversary, internationally acclaimed artist Hiroshi Sugimoto invites visitors on a voyage back in time with his new exhibition Hiroshi Sugimoto: Gates of Paradise. The exhibition brings to life the captivating story of four boys, who in the late sixteenth century became the first Japanese emissaries to Europe. The exhibition, on view from October 20, 2017 to January 7, 2018, will unveil a new monumental black-and-white photo series by Sugimoto, displaying his images of Renaissance European art and architecture in conjunction with east-west ‘hybrid’ (nanban) masterpieces from sixteenth- and seventeenth-century Japan, on loan from the world’s top collections.
In honoring one of the earliest documented moments of cross-cultural exchange between Japan and the West, Gates of Paradise encapsulates Japan Society’s misson of advancing mutual understanding between Japan and the United States.
To celebrate the exhibition and the Society’s anniversary year, Sugimoto unveils his graceful extension of the Japan Society Gallery’s physical space with a newly designed lobby garden in the Society's landmarked building, featuring traditional Japanese design elements like large bonsai, Kyoto-produced ceramic tiles and cedar bark walls. The artist will also premiere his new noh play Rikyu-Enoura in the Society’s recently renovated auditorium from November 3-5, 2017.
In 1582, at the height of Japan’s “Christian Century,” four boys named Mancio Ito, Miguel Chijiwa, Juliao Nakaura, and Martinao Hara were dispatched to Europe by Christian-convert samurai. Fêted at the courts of princes and popes, the boys visited some of the grandest monuments of Renaissance architecture before returning to Japan in 1590. Largely unknown in the U.S., this pivotal moment in the history of global cross-cultural exchange is known as the Tenshō Embassy. In the spring of 2015, nearly 500 years later, Sugimoto was traveling through Italy when he came across a fresco documenting the Japanese envoys, leading him to investigate the boys’ journey in greater detail. Sugimoto realized that he had photographed many of the sites that the boys had visited in their European sojourn, and from that moment he endeavored to capture the remaining locations, carefully crafting his own travels in their footsteps. This culimated in his series depicting the “Gates of Paradise” by quattrocento master Lorenzo Ghiberti, which premieres in the exhibition.
To provide greater context for the boys’ journey and their pivotal role in global history, Hiroshi Sugimoto: Gates of Paradise also draws attention to a parallel development: a new, short-lived genre known as nanban art, in which European and Christian themes were executed by Japanese artists using traditional techniques. Gates of Paradise includes key masterpieces of nanban art, including several six-fold painted screens, one of which is designated as an Important Cultural Property by the Bunka-cho, Japan’s Ministry of Culture. These works provoke visitors to consider the significance of global travel and international dialogue at the dawn of the early modern age.
Viewers will enter the exhibition in Japan Society’s lofty North Gallery, where a succession of images by Sugimoto capture the sites and artworks visited by the boys of the Tenshō Embassy. Monumental in size, and visualizing that the young envoys saw through Sugimoto’s eyes, these black and white images include the Pantheon in Rome, the Leaning Tower of Pisa, and (in the subsequent Bamboo Gallery), the Last Supper of Leonardo da Vinci. Visitors will continue into the South Gallery, where nanban artworks, amongst other masterpieces of Japan’s Golden Age, will give context to the European art and architecture in Sugimoto’s photographs. At the conclusion of the South Gallery, Sugimoto’s Gates of Paradise series will be debuted.
Sugimoto’s meticulous practice defines what it means to be a multi-disciplinary artist working today. His world- renowned photographs—widely lauded as iconic meditations on time and history—form the perfect visual analogy for the Japan Society anniversary in a way that parallels the Society’s mission since its founding in 1907.
“As we celebrate our 110th anniversary, there could be no more appropriate reflection on the institution’s mission to deepen mutual understanding across cultures than with Gates of Paradise,” says Motoatsu Sakurai, President of Japan Society. “We owe our sincerest appreciation to Sugimoto, a true Renaissance man, for conceiving this exhibition.”
“We are thrilled to introduce both Hiroshi Sugimoto’s new exhibition at the gallery and his elegantly designed interior garden for the Society’s lobby, reflecting his design philosophy,” says Yukie Kamiya, Director of Japan Society Gallery. “This novel exhibition transects history by juxtaposing the two distinct bodies of work of the artist’s own newly photographed works and sixteenth- and seventeenth-century classical masterpieces from Japan.”
Kamiya continues, “With Gates of Paradise, Sugimoto explores the fundamental question, ‘What is the West?,’ while visualizing a nascent moment of cross-cultural exchange, directly in line with Japan Society’s mission of exploring the inextricable links connecting Japanese culture to a larger global dialogue.”