Hiroshi Sugimoto is best known for his photography, which consists of beautiful yet often haunting images of water horizons, wax figures, buildings, abandoned theaters, and dioramas. Le Monde est Mort, his latest exhibit now showing at the Palais de Tokyo in Paris, is something different. Not merely a photography exhibit (though photos from Sugimoto’s own collection do make several appearances), it tells the story of the end of the world from various perspectives. The exhibit actually consists of several small scenes, each presenting the perspective of a particular person (a biologist, an artist, a politician, etc.), and each scene contains several elements, most significantly, a letter from the person in question describing how the world ended and a few of the person’s possessions. Sometimes the room where the scene is staged is actually a part of the exhibit as well, with architectural elements showing the damage borne in the progress of the planet’s demise.
You start with the letter, each beginning, “Today the world died. Or maybe yesterday,” a reference to Camus’s opening line from The Stranger: “Today, mother is dead. Or maybe yesterday, I don’t know.” Then you move on to the objects to see the effects of the end in three dimensions. The exhibit feels like an archaeological excursion — bits of a lost civilization — with corrugated steel roofing, old fossils, soup cans, collections of old circuit boards, etc. In one scene, you come across a large photo of a wax museum’s rendition of the Last Supper; per the exhibit, it was damaged while the world ended, but in reality, it was damaged during hurricane Sandy. Sugimoto thus hints at the correlation of climate volatility and global catastrophe.
The exhibit is integrated with the space — in one of the end-of-the-world scenes, the author of the letter explains that an asteroid crashed through his roof and through the floor. And there it is: a broken skylight above and a hole in the concrete floor before us, bent rebar and all, all the way to the level below (now that’s dedication on the part of the Palais). If you come to see the exhibit at night, you’re in the dark (no electricity at the end of the world, after all). They give you a flashlight to make your way around. In this way, the staging of the exhibit, the very objects and ambience, feels like a giant Readymade or a Combine.
The exhibit is one of the best that I’ve ever seen, and yet I can’t exactly say why. It’s beautiful, but it’s also complicated and melancholy and full of references that are fun to parse out. And the way it progresses is different than a typical exhibit — the stories unfold. You walk up to a glass case, you read the letter, you examine the objects, you notice a reference to Warhol’s soup cans or to Duchamp’s Etant donnes (for example), and you think and wonder and piece things together. It’s part detective story, part commentary, part Readymade, and part traditional photography. It’s depressing but at the same time beautiful. It’s Stoic — the depressing end-of-the-world scenarios make you appreciate the world, imperfect as it certainly is, as it exists today.
Sugimoto’s work is often available in the secondary market with smaller photos in editions of 25 selling for tens of thousands of dollars, while the large smaller-edition pieces often sell for hundreds of thousands. He is represented by Pace gallery.