Ancient tree root revamps US museum

AFP
For years, it sat in the corner of a Tokyo lumberyard, a tangled, muddy mess of roots no one wanted. That was until Hiroshi Sugimoto came along.
AFP

Hiroshi Sugimoto has taken what was once the life support system of a medieval tree to help transform the ground floor of Washington’s museum of modern and contemporary art into an airy game of light and space.

For years, it sat in the corner of a Tokyo lumberyard, a tangled, muddy mess of roots no one wanted. That was until Hiroshi Sugimoto came along.

Now, the Japanese photographer has taken what was once the life support system of a medieval tree to help transform the ground floor of Washington’s museum of modern and contemporary art into an airy game of light and space.

The 700-year-old roots form the base of twin glass-top semicircle tables that are part of Sugimoto’s redesign of the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden lobby that opened last Friday, echoing the donut shape of the brutalist building conceived by Gordon Bunshaft.

“If people ask me to do this again, it’s impossible,” said Sugimoto, who has spent the better part of his lifetime documenting the “history of history” in pensive black and white reflections on the passage of time. “Someone cut the tree and then found these roots are even more interesting, and so carefully dug it out, almost excavated. This is definitely one of a kind, nature art.”

Sugimoto, 70, sliced the root system in half, to dramatic effect. “The cut piece is so fresh and new. Even though the outer part is very old, it shows the presence of the power of life, of light.” 

Soft gray spiral chairs evoking the DNA helix surround the tables. White vinyl benches sit atop large blocks made of the same type of glass used in camera lenses. Light passing through the prisms forms small rainbows scattered on the ground.

A multicolored light play takes place above as well, thanks to a 3.7-meter swirling sculpture hanging from the ceiling by Olafur Eliasson, an Icelandic-Danish artist who has also dabbled in architecture.

By removing an “ugly” dark film that covered the lobby’s 307-square-meter windows, Sugimoto created a more open feel and enhanced the museum’s views over the National Mall, the grassy esplanade that runs from the US Capitol to the Washington Monument.

A 20-foot brushed brass coffee bar displays a tin diamond pattern inspired by fireproofing techniques used in 1930s Tokyo. Sugimoto even created the menu’s font.


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