Voyage of discovery

Art - Richard Cork is transported by the Japanese minimal master of monochrome

Try, if you can, to visit Hiroshi Sugimoto's show at a quiet time of day. A minimal master of monochrome, he has transformed the Serpentine Gallery into a secular temple where contemplation can flourish. There would be no point in moving through this exhibition at a brisk pace: Sugimoto's work reveals itself only slowly, and repays prolonged scrutiny by cleansing our vision of its lazy, impatient habits.

Air and water are the principal elements he deploys in this purgative process. And when Sugimoto trains his defiantly traditional wooden box camera on the epic conjunction of sky and sea, he always chooses remote settings where conditions are uncannily still. Nothing disrupts the placidity of Bass Strait, Table Cape, which Sugimoto photographed in 1997. The image resembles a moonscape, with a great burst of soft light glowing in the water below a sheer black sky.

Intensified by the gelatin silver print technique that Sugimoto favours, this luminous pool makes the sky above it seem utterly impenetrable - even if you peer at it close up. Contrary to appearances, he took the photograph during the day. But because he insisted on a long exposure, from ten o'clock in the morning until one in the afternoon, it was transformed into a nocturne.

After viewing the Bass Strait image in isolation, we move through to a room where four seascapes hang in a row. Shorn of any distracting detail, they look more like paintings than photographs. Stillness is all, and it becomes very silencing. We seem to be engulfed in a primordial world, unchanged for countless millennia. Although the titles - Aegean, Sea of Japan, Lake Superior and Boden Sea - tell us where Sugimoto took these pictures, they are impossible to identify.

The first image is the quintessence of mist. It blurs the division between water and air to such an extent that we are left with a sensuous, endlessly mysterious haze. But all indeterminacy vanishes in the second print, where the two halves - black sea, pale grey sky - are marshalled with as much block-like precision and clarity as the most uncompromising abstract painting by Malevich. Close inspection discloses that the surface of the inky water is in fact riddled with furrows, making it oddly akin to a ploughed field.

Ripples can also be detected in the third image, where sky and sea are reduced to segments of subtly varied greys. Even so, the disturbance in the water is very slight. Sugimoto avoids rough weather as much as he shuns locations where vessels might suddenly invade the emptiness that he relishes. But in the fourth of these mesmerising seascapes, a sense of expectancy heightens the ellipse of light floating on the dark water. The image seems so nuanced and fleeting that change may well be imminent. After a while, we notice a minuscule pale line on the right, like a presage of further disruption. It seems all the more noticeable in a room where the other photographs appear so spellbound by the prevailing calm.

Carrying over the same mood to the main space, the far wall is occupied by a six-part panorama of North Pacific Ocean, Okhurosaki. Sugimoto makes no attempt to hide its vertical divisions. Strangely, though, they fail to interrupt the wide-screen continuity uniting the entire piece. Nothing can be seen here, apart from an immense emptiness. Not even a minute fleck is allowed to upset the serenity of the dark grey sea and near-white sky. Placidity is everywhere, and its aura grows even more beneficent when we turn to Pine Landscapes, stretching right across the other two walls of this potent chamber.

This time, Sugimoto brought his meditative lens to bear on the Imperial Gardens in Tokyo, the city where he was born. Although both panoramas were taken in the early morning, he underexposed the film so that darkness seems to have descended on the blurred scenes. In terms of format and subject, he pays overt homage to one of his eminent fore- runners in Japanese art: Tohaku Hasegawa, who made a celebrated 16th-century ink painting of a similar pine-filled locale. Hence the feeling of velvety texture in Sugimoto's foliage, summarising them as a sequence of plump black lozenges barely discernible against the dark grey skies. Whistler, who uncovered a related spirit of serenity in his minimal nocturnes of the Thames, would have relished the healing power of these deceptively reticent landscapes.

Water, however, is the governing theme of this show. It returns in the final room, even if the four images displayed here look at first like all-black abstract paintings. Reminiscent of Ad Reinhardt, or Mark Rothko at his most brooding and reductive, they seem to offer no hint of recognisable subjects. But if we are prepared to linger, and let our eyes grow accustomed to the dense richness of these prints, we begin after a while to notice faint traces of activity within the void.

It is a measure of Sugimoto's calibre as an artist that we keep on looking. He teaches us to use our eyes as if for the very first time, and the whole Serpentine show is like a voyage of discovery through obscure yet beguiling oceans. It is a supremely meditative experience, and his devotion to black and white marks him out as a stubborn individualist in an age of ever more rampant digitalised colour photography. Sugimoto's work is, in the end, profoundly spiritual. Last year he designed a Shinto shrine in Japan, and the smallest room at the Serpentine contains, at its heart, a real burning candle. The solitary flame is the only source of illumination there. So walking into this space is like entering and losing yourself in one of Sugimoto's midnight pictures. Gradually, your eyes adjust and the wax candle itself becomes visible, projecting from an equally slender glass holder. In this hushed sanctum, so conducive to prayer, the candle's image appears on a black-and-white positive sheet suspended nearby. Each flicker of the flame has been recorded here during the three hours it takes for each candle to burn out.

In one sense, Sugimoto's decision to record this gradual, remorseless destruction may mirror his own growing awareness, in his mid-fifties, of transience. But there is nothing melancholy about the candle installation. He calls it In Praise of Shadows. And his fascination with the fragile flame accords with his insistence, throughout the show, that we have no reason to fear the waning of the light.

"Hiroshi Sugimoto" is at the Serpentine Gallery, London W2 (020 7298 1515) until 18 January

Richard Cork's four books on modern art (1970-2000) are published by Yale

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