On the Beach
In 1990 I visited the seas of New Zealand. The southern hemisphere is so sparsely populated that there were neither boats on the sea, nor people on the shore. One day, I came across an unusual cluster of things strewn over a beautiful beach. Vaguely familiar looking, they turned out to be hundreds of car parts, probably from the sixties, judging by the design. Around thirty years before, someone must have junked a whole fleet of cars there. With the waves washing over them, day in, day out, they had rusted to the point that their chassis had melted into the beach. For a while, I turned my lens away from the horizon to focus on these objets in the sand. Preserving with my loney task on the deserted beach, I half-succumbed to the notion that human civilization had ended. The sight of crafted objects rotting away is at once dreadful and beautiful. Time foments corrosion. It does not take long for civilization to decay. Just a few decades are enough for a car, one symbol of our modern civilization to decompose into nothing.
Antique works of art are one example of how corrosion makes manifest the passage of time. Crafted in the seventh century, this sword from the Asuka period was buried with dead in a tomb mound. It rotted slowly and quietly away in a dark, dank stone chamber. It represents the passage of one thousand three hundred years. This trident vajra sword of the thirteenth century Kamakura period is another case in point. It is thought to be a sacred treasure, an offering to a shrine. When it came into my possession, the blade was gone. For some reason, I wanted to see the blade in all its shining glory. I commissioned a craftsman to make a reproduction in the Kamakura - period style using traditional methods. The sword is made of tamahagane, or iron-sand steel. The newly crated blade was dazzling bright. It marked the starting point ― the now ― in my metallic journey through time. Laved by seawater, the junked cars in New Zealand had also turned into iron sand and returned to the sea. The bright new blade being made from iron sand makes me think of samsara, the endless cycle of birth, death and rebirth. Men craft objects into shapes, then ― exposed to the corrosion of the passage of time ― these shaped objects revert to nature. Just as our bodies, born in nature, eventually return to nature.
I have always been enthralled by the sea. The sea is my first memory. In the sea I can find vestigial memories of our race ― no, memories of life itself ― lingering faintly in the flow of the blood. To me, the sea is amniotic fluid. It was in the sea that life first came into being three billion years ago. Five hundred million years ago life emerged onto dry land from the sea's womb. And in the womb of every gestating mother, the process of ontogenesis incorporates the process of phylogenesis. On the twenty-seventy day, the embryo, implanted in the uterine wall, is shaped like a fish with gills. The gills soon change in to lungs, and on the thirty-sixth day the embryo develops the face of amphibian, then the face of a mammal on the thirty - eighth. The evolutionary drama of 100 million years of life plays out in a mere ten days within the womb. Whenever I go back to Japan and relax by soaking alone in a hot spring, it is as though I am floating in amniotic fluid, regressing through time. I go back to memories from before I was born. This is time's yardstick which passes through hundreds, thousands, tens of thousands, hundreds of thousands of years. I found that yardstick among the rusted scraps of civilization on a New Zealand beach.
- Hiroshi Sugimoto
from Essay "Time's Yardstick" in the book " On the Beach" published by Amana, Tokyo, 2014