Five Elements 389, Boden Sea, Uttwill, 1993/2011

Five Elements 458, Sea of Japan, Rebun Island, 1996/2011

Five Elements 408, Tyrrhenian Sea, Priano, 1994/2011


Five Elements



I have been photographing seascapes for more than thirty years now.  It's not a passing interest; by now I can see it will be a lifelong pursuit.  I became interested in seascapes because they relate to memories from my infancy:  the very earliest thing I can picture is the sea.

A sharp horizon line and a cloudless sky - here began my consciousness. From there my thoughts race to the origins of human consciousness. The sea reminds me that within my blood remain traces of human evolution over hundreds of thousands of years. Humans outstripped other species intellectually, developed civilization, art, religion and science, spinning out the strands of history. It seems to me that seascapes have the latent power to reawaken an awareness of the origins of consciousness in this present day. 

The outlines of memory grow indistinct with time. I almost tend to think that memories are merely visions conjured up by the brain. People see the world they want to see, whereupon imagination and hallucination and projection go to work. Whenever I stand on a cliff looking at the sea, I envision an infinite beyond. The horizon lies within bounds and the imagination stretches to infinity. Did we discover mathematical concepts within our own minds, or did our minds simply tap into the mathematic order abounding in the universe?  Astrophysics tells us the universe has been steadily expanding since the Big Bang, its edges ever retreating from us. Which would mean "beyond infinity" gets further away from one moment to the next.

The idea of "zero" is said to have been discovered, or rather invented in India, perhaps in contrast to "one." I exist and the world exists - with that awareness begins objectification, which is also the budding of self - consciousness. Only with this awareness of "one" did the world become countable. Our ten fingers were literally the first calculator. When things to be counted exceeded ten and became uncountable, we created "infinity." Likewise tracing back in the reverse direction, the notion of absence or non-presence led to an awareness of non-being or "zero." Zero might seem like a natural number, but it is not. Neither is it negative nor positive, but rather an even number extracted from the human imagination. 

Religion may also be an externalization of human consciousness. In the Neolithic Age, animistic or shamanistic belief flourished in all parts of the world.  Such pantheistic ideas of spirits manifesting in diverse phenomena gradually shifted toward that of an absolute singular deity.  This image of a monotheistic god compounding transcendent powers with the human form represented both an exaltation and boastful exaggeration of human consciousness. Then from among the ranks of humanity we chose persons with godlike qualities and idolized them, raising them onto the altars of the divine - Zarathustra (Zoroaster), Siddhattha Gotama (Sakyamuni buddha), Yeshua bar Miriam (Jesus Christ) and Muhammad (Mohammed).

The process by which Sakyamuni Buddha was deified is clearly reflected in chages in the pagoda reliquaries erected to enshrine his sarira (Japanese, shari) remains. During his lifetime, worshipping graven images was forbidden in keeping with the precept of anicca (Japanese, mujo) "impermanence."  After his death, however, followers fought over his ashes and bones, their emotional adherence to the holy man reaching such height that the image of the Buddha took on a life of its own and pictorial representations apperared.  At first the Buddha's footprints were carved in stone, then whole body portrait sculpture followed.  Over the next few centuries the Buddha's words were widely interpreted and codified into the  Tipitaka "Three Basket" canon of Buddhis philosophy, cosmology and law.  Buddhist reliquaries likewise were originally little more than earth mounds upon which were planted umbrellas to shade the harsh Indian sun - an honor traditionally reserved for royallty - which multiplied into nine umbrellas to show even greater respect.  These in turn transformed into an ornamental sorin "ringed spire" atop layered roofs added in China.  And so the delineations of what we now recognize as pagoda or sharito "relic towers " were born.

The outward forms created by the faithful were not imbued with any magic significance at first; they simply had to look resplendent to inspire reverent awe. Yet over generations of worship the crafting naturally became more graceful as the iconography took on a mystic aura identified with the object of devotion. By the early Asuka Period( 592-710) in Japan, the Five-Story Pagoda of Horyuji temple embodied the latest in a long line of Buddhist reliquaries transmitted from the Asian continent.

If we find the proportions of the Horyuji Pagoda pleasing to this day, exhibiting a perfect balance of architectural members, how much more so must it have appealed to those in ancient times who revered the untold relics inside? No doubt the depth of their Buddhist faith owed a great deal to the aesthetics of the towering structure, for once such a beautiful form was created it conversely called for an investment of transcendent meanings.

Came the Heian Period (794-1185), the shape of sharito took on a unique new sculptural direction based upon esoteric Buddhist scriptures, namely the cosmological doctrine of Five Universals: the elements of earth, water, fire, wind and emptiness. In a bold attempt to make Buddha's relic container symbolize the very cosmos, the gorinto "five-element pagoda" was to express tenets of pure faith in purest geometric forms: earth as a cube emphasizing materiality; water as a sphere of self-evident clarity, fire as a pyramid in imitation of pointed flames; wind as a hemisphere expressing its power to cut through whole matter; and emptiness - formlessness - paradoxically in the form of a cintamani (hoju) "mystic gem" whose droplet-like shape disappears instantly into a perfect globe, an image of the cosmic void closing upon itself.

Mathematics attempts to represent the world by substitution in numeric notation, a scheme of understanding I would liken to my own wont to trace everything back to questions of aesthetics and belief.  I, however, no longer have anything to idolize. With deity or Buddha both vanished from this day and age, in what can I take refuge? Just perhaps the only object of devotion I have left is the origin of my consciousness, the sea. And so in this Five-Element Pagoda made of optical glass I enshrine a seascape within the water sphere.


- Hiroshi Sugimoto