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Washington (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.

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 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,” he said in an interview.

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 12-foot (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 3,300-square-foot (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.

But the original terrazzo floor, exposed aggregate walls and coffered ceiling remain intact for the museum’s first redesign since opening in 1974.

– ‘Patination of aging’ –

Sugimoto doesn’t care about children and other visitors spilling drinks on the tables and bumping into the large, precious roots. In fact, he welcomes it.

“I like this patination of aging,” he said.

As it turns out, transforming spaces has become a bit of a habit for Sugimoto, whose practice has long spanned various media, including sculpture, installations, architecture and the performing arts.

In recent years, he has lent particular focus to design and architecture, revamping and creating restaurants, private residences and his own Odawara Art Foundation.

The arts and culture complex’s Enoura Observatory opened in October, nestled on the outer rim of the volcanic Hakone mountains overlooking Sagami Bay about an hour’s drive from Tokyo.

Sugimoto also created a two-level indoor garden for the 110th anniversary of the Japan Society in New York last year — his first US architectural design project — complete with pond, bonsai, stone islands, the artist’s three-dimensional mathematical objects and a pulsating waterfall.

While not a licensed architect himself, Sugimoto co-founded the Tokyo-based architecture firm New Materials Research Laboratory, with which he collaborates on projects like the Hirshhorn.

“I took it as a commission to design the space as an artist, not an architect,” said Sugimoto, who has several photographic prints on view at the museum for the ongoing exhibition “What Absence is Made of.”

“If I were to take this job as an architect, so many local rules (would) apply to me. As an artist, I’m free.”

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