zaterdag 15 juni 2013

Paradise Reframed Dandelion Room: a small path leading through a garden of sun-bathed flowers and into the calm shade of the woods Thomas Struth Photography

Grosse Sonnenblume - N° 4, Winterthur, 1991 · C-Print, 84 x 66 cm · Achenbach Kunstberatung, Düsseldorf

Thomas Struth, Shinju-ku, Tokyo,1986, black-and-white photograph, 33 x 26 3/4". 


The center is black as a solar eclipse, the yellow petals surrounding it form a dazzling corona. There is something ecstatic about sunflowers. At times they look like heavenly bodies, flaming suns radiating a cosmic glow. That's how they're depicted in a series of photographs from the early '90s by German artist Thomas Struth: close-ups of single blooms, groups of fiery blossoms against a deep blue sky, a paradise landscape of tall stalks with golden heads that eagerly follow the light. I could hardly imagine a more welcoming vision than Garden on the Lindberg with Sunflowers, no. 1, Winterthur, 1992, presented in Struth's 2001 book Dandelion Room: a small path leading through a garden of sun-bathed flowers and into the calm shade of the woods. 

Confronted by an image like this, I feel tempted to parrot critic and Struth enthusiast Peter Schjeldahl: "When I am looking at it, it strikes me as the best picture in the world." 

STRUTH BELONGS TO a small but highly influential group of artists--including Andreas Gursky, Thomas Ruff, Candida Hofer, and Axel Hutte--who emerged some twenty years ago from the Dusseldorf Kunstakademie and radically altered our perception of the photographic image. (But what may appear from the outside to be a tight clique of artists working along similar lines is in fact--or so Struth maintains--a heterogeneous group who may share the same background and similar intellectual coordinates but who stopped comparing notes years, even decades, ago.) In a German art world dominated by painters, this generation's large-scale photographs, made possible by new printing techniques, mounted an unexpected challenge to the oldest art when they first appeared in the 1980s. By now we are used to these enormous color images of landscapes, architecture, cities, and people--indeed we have come to expect them on the walls of the same galleries we used to visit to see paint on canvas. Still, one shouldn't forget that this is a relatively recent development. 

Thomas Struth, Milan Cathedral (facade), Milan, 1998, color photograph, 69 x 87 1/4".

Today, Struth, Ruff, and Gursky are all world-renowned artists, and all of them have exhibited in major museums around the globe. Last year Gursky was honored with a midcareer survey at the Museum of Modern Art, New York. Now it's Struth's moment in the sun: On May 12 an exhibition of some ninety photographs dating from 1977 to the present opens at the Dallas Museum of Art; it then embarks on a year-long, three-city tour (including a stop at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York). Asked about the possible impact of this major retrospective, curator Charles Wylie says, "Both the artist and I are very curious, since a survey of his work on this scale has never been attempted before. That people will have a chance to view the full range of Struth's oeuvre will no doubt lead to a different perception of his production in its entirety." And while Struth's work is too widely known for there to be any major surprises here, Wylie notes that there are nonetheless "a number of real sleepers in the show, like the s mall landscapes from Switzerland, which hardly anyone has seen, and a number of recent images of contemporary urbanity that open up new issues." Asked about the retrospective, Struth emphasizes the possibility of creating revealing juxtapositions of works belonging to different series, and also of producing a sense of coherence. "For me it's a lot about integration," he says. "For many years the sheep have been running in different directions. Now I'll have a chance to herd the flock together." 

NO ONE WOULD DENY Struth's knack for producing extraordinarily beautiful images; in fact, it's his ability to craft photographs at once formally precise and visually riveting that has won him the recognition he enjoys. And yet, now that digital technology has opened up what art historian Thomas Crow refers to as the "occult potential" of photographic representation, and artists such as Gursky and Jeff Wall produce complicated scenarios montaged out of a multiplicity of shots, thus loosening the indexical link between picture and reality, a photo such as Garden on the Lindberg--or for that matter any of Struth's recent landscapes--may seem astonishingly conventional. 

The flower photographs belong to a body of work commissioned by a Swiss hospital to decorate patients' rooms, but Struth doesn't hesitate to show this work in other contexts, and the Swiss landscapes opened up a new series of images involving far-flung natural environments. So what could possibly be the real aim, the artistic raison d'etre, of these landscapes and floral explosions? Surely a seemingly benign affirmation of nature's beauty can't be the sole motive; considering the rigor and consistency of the artist's previous work, it's only natural to look for theoretical underpinnings. One thing is clear: Struth traveled quite far--literally and figuratively--before arriving at the idyllic rural vistas in Winterthur. The route has taken him from the industrial setting of the Ruhr valley to the most urbanized regions of France, the United States, China, Japan, and back again. Still, there is a structural consistency to the projects that makes it quite clear that the same photographer is responsible for the c olorful image of the small path disappearing into the Swiss fairy-tale forest no less than the 1979 black-and-white photograph of the deserted Dusselstrasse in the artist's hometown. 

My gaze travels diagonally through Struth's photographs of urban landscapes and building complexes. A multiplicity of trajectories seems built into each image. Often there is a primary object, centrally located and of obvious importance, but it offers no stability for the eye. Instead the gaze slides along the streets, through the muddle of thick black cables in a Japanese city (Shinju-ku, Toyko, 1986), through the complicated cell structure of buildings on a hill in Naples (Vico dei Monti, Naples, 1988), or along the smooth facades of Chicago office towers (Lake Street [The Loop], Chicago, 1990). The frontal view typical of German photographers Bernd and Hilla Becher's archaeology of anonymous industrial architecture is thus substituted for an oblique perspective: You are hardly ever allowed a direct view of a building, let alone a peek inside through a window. Your eyes are not given a moment's rest. 

Struth, one of Bernd Becher's very first students at the Dusseldorf academy (he graduated in 1980), is an artist of great persistence. The number of projects he has worked on over the last twenty-five years can still be counted on one hand, and most of them have yet to reach a definite conclusion. The first mature effort considered worthy of public viewing was a series of black-and-white photographs of streets in Dusseldorf, New York, Munich, and a handful of other cities, taken from the middle of the road, the camera placed horizontally at about eye level. In the '8os Struth also began making portraits, mostly of friends and their families, sometimes in black and white, sometimes in color. Two new categories of images--flowers and landscapes-- were added to the repertoire in the early '90s. Additionally, Struth has assembled a large group of photos-perhaps his best-known series-showing people looking at art in museums; and finally, beginning in 1998, an ongoing exploration of jungles and forests which he has titled "Paradise." These categories more or less comprise Struth's output in its entirety (with a few exceptions, like his recent experiments with video, including a collaboration with German video artist Klaus von Bruch). 

Thomas Struth, Garden on the Lindberg with Sunflowers, no. 1, Winterthur, 1992, color photograph, 54 3/8 x 68".

One of the most obvious traits of Struth's early urban photographs is the utter absence of people in the streets. These are not images of city life-people working, doing business, communicating, interacting, playing--but a strict documentation of urban space, of the architectural and societal conditions of human life in different parts of the world. Struth's project must be seen as part of a tradition evolving not only from the Bechers, his immediate predecessors and teachers, but from such historical figures as Eugene Atget and August Sander. In a famous commentary, Walter Benjamin wrote, "Of Atget... quite justly it has been said that he photographed [those streets] like scenes of a crime. The scene of a crime, too, is deserted; it is photographed for the purpose of establishing evidence. With Atget, photographs become standard evidence for historical occurrences, and acquire a hidden political significance." Occasionally one gets a glimpse of a human being in Struth's urban archive, but these people play n o crucial role. Undeniably they are there, next to some parked cars in Shinju-ku, Tokyo, or on the sidewalk along an avenue m Manhattan, but they are not the real subject of the investigation. So what is the subject of these crystalline images? 'What historical processes-and what crimes-are they evidence of? 

When looking at these black-and-white streetscapes I get a strong sense that the world depicted has already disappeared. One can, of course, still find streets like this in Dusseldorf or any other large European city, but the temporal modality that the photographs convey is decidedly not that of presence. As Benjamin Buchloh has suggested, one could see these images as an archive of a "globally disappearing world of the real'-in this case, the reality of inhabited and experienced social space and its public architectural structures." In an era when the obtrusive spaces of electronic communication and media technology challenge our old ideas of a public sphere, pictures of urban architecture in the old-fashioned sense cannot but appear as a collection of bleak afterimages of a past that, as Buchloh put it, "was still animated by utopian aspirations toward public experience, social interaction, and a sense of spatial and temporal reality." 

The strict setup of Struth's early urban photographs makes one aware not only of the laws of perspective but also of the very fact that these pictures are photographs produced by an optical machine rather than unmediated representations of some subjective experience of lived space. The cold geometric objectivity of these images makes it clear that they are not fragments of an ongoing experience of human social interaction and exchange but by their very nature more "objective" than human experience could ever be. After all, lived experience is embodied experience. The camera lens may be thought of as an "eye," but without a natural link to the kinesthetic sensations of a living body it has little to do with the experience we know as human. That is at least partly the explanation of the estrangement these images produce: They depict cities I know yet have never seen like this (being equipped with two eyes embedded in flesh and blood, I never could). This inhuman element is, of course, inherent in the medium and must inform any photograph of a city, but the strict emphasis on central perspective has led some to call Struth's practice a "photography of photography"--in other words, his pictures make their own conditions of possibility visible. The central perspective of the urban photographs can perhaps also be seen as a literalization of the first-person-singular position of the ocularcentric "eye/I" of post-Cartesian epistemology. Given such a point of departure, at issue would no longer be the mourning of the public sphere's disappearance but an even more fundamental question: How is society possible? Or phrased phenomenologically, How can we ever experience a shared world? Radically dehumanized, these images do not grant the possibility of human interaction. 'What we get is a skeletal frame of being together (architecturally), but no subjects really inhabit the structure. 

In Struth's second large project, his portraits of individuals, couples, and families, on the other hand, we certainly encounter subjectivity, but these human beings are always depicted in a private sphere and are never shown interacting as productive members of a community. The only group in view is the family. Society remains a mystery. And so, to a large extent, does subjectivity, because these portraits make no pretense that the people depicted are ultimately knowable. They remain interesting strangers--interesting because they convey an inner life that will never he fully grasped by looking at their image. In that sense Struth is a respectful photographer; he never attempts to make the private feelings, dreams, or thoughts of the other a part of his pictures. He manages nonetheless to seize moments of expressiveness, when his sitters appear full of life and every square millimeter of their faces seems to carry significance. The 1987 portrait of Eleonor Robertson, say, or the 1989 portrait of Claire Chevr ier--both black-and-white and very straightforward frontal shots of women, one young, one elderly--offers very little information about the sitters. The backdrops are generic: a white wall, patterned wallpaper. And yet both women come across as unquestionably intelligent and sophisticated. They're people I would like to know. 

The individuals in these portraits are, as I mentioned, friends and acquaintances of the artist. Sometimes they are photographed with their families, which offers possibilities for comparison between siblings and between parents and children. The large Hirose family in Hiroshima--five kids plus Grandma and Grandpa--look at us with lively and attentive faces in a portrait taken in 1987. They are all seized at the right moment, fully present yet ultimately unreadable. That is one thing these images teach us: The German Tilly family (1989) and the Japanese Shimada family (1986) seem equally dose to us as we scrutinize their pictures, but in the end the sitters are similarly removed and incomprehensible. The great merit of these pictures lies in the subtle balance of proximity and distance which lets the individual features of these human beings become visible without ever trying to reduce them and their interior worlds to something we already know. The people sit next to each other, all looking in the same direc tion (into the camera, at us). There is no real interaction between them, but on the other hand there's really no doubt that they belong together, that they are families. Each of them constitutes a unity--biologically and perhaps psychologically. More mysterious is the sense of a shared life radiated by Eleonor and Giles Robertson as they sit at a large wooden table in their home in Edinburgh (1987) and even more so by Anci and Harry Guy in Groby, UK (1989), who look melancholily into the camera but seem so firmly united through common hardships and love that no action or gesture is needed to illustrate intersubjectivity in the most profound sense. 

Thomas Struth, Shibuya Crossing, Tokyo (Shibuya-ku),1991, color photograph, 54 1/2 x 77 3/4".

A maze of intersubjective relations in a more artificial sense can be found in the museum series, also begun in the '8os, which depicts people--sometimes crowds, but more often small groups--at famous art collections. The throngs of tourists in Stanze di Raffaello II, Rome, 1990, and Galleria dell'Accademia I, Venice, 1992, are in constant motion, and many of the faces are blurred. The people and things depicted in the canonical art works are, on the other had, crystal clear. There are many ways to interpret these museum pictures--as an exploration of the relationship between painting and photography, as critical commentary on the invasion of cultural institutions by mass tourism and the entertainment industry, or even as a twist on appropriation art. What these images offer is precisely what wasn't possible in the urban photographs and portraits, namely a lively being-together of a collective in a public space. But the public realm in question is not the political space that Buchloh had in mind when he talke d about the fading sense of public experience in contemporary cities, but rather its simulacrum, a kind of "social interaction" staged by the culture industry. This would speak for Buchloh's interpretation of Struth's work as an archive of lost political possibilities, the last traces of a disappearing world of utopian aspirations. A phenomenological (and less political) reading might center on the very idea of experience itself, on its subjective conditions of possibility. These images are about the complexities of vision: We see what others have seen, and we see viewers trying to share the visions of others, distant in many ways--spatially, temporally, and culturally. 

About Struth's museum series, art historian Hans Belting writes, "But all the photos in the world constitute, as Roland Barthes said, a labyrinth, and the 'museum photographs' are the best corroboration of this. We fully grasp them only when we perceive the labyrinth in which our gaze gets lost." The mind is a multichannel apparatus, and several programs are active and viewed at the same time. As phenomenology tries to make clear, the nested structure of subjectivity allows for many streams of awareness: While looking out the train window at the landscape passing by, I may fantasize about a memory of a strange dream image, or I may remember a painting I once saw in a museum which depicts a person who looks just like someone I used to know. The museum photographs show people viewing each other viewing, and we, the viewers of Struth's images, represent a third level. Without applying any technical innovation or manipulating the image, these photographs hint at some of the complexities involved in accounting for the alterity introduced into our experience by images, other minds, temporality, and history. A recent image in the series, Alte Pinakothek (Self-Portrait), Munich, 2000, shows parts of the artist's own body in front of the most iconic of German images, Albrecht Durer's self-portrait. It might seem the perfect conclusion to the museum pictures, but, like most of Struth's projects, the series is ongoing. Indeed, quite recently he produced a number of interior images of the Pergamon Museum in Berlin. 

Stepping outside the museum, Struth has renewed his explorations of city architecture with a series of recent pictures of extreme urban situations, such as Times Square, New York, 2000, or even more recently Dallas Parking Lot, Dallas, 2001. The retrospective will present eight of these images, including one shot outside Oslo, Drammen I, Drammen/Oslo, 2001, which Struth calls a "surreal landscape." If the museum pictures were to a large extent about the past, these photos clearly capture the present--and considering the science fiction-like quality of some of them, I would add, a bit of the future. 

Another way out of the museum led Struth into the jungle. In Australia in 1998 he initiated a series of photographs of woods and rainforests, titled "Paradise." Since then he has photographed forests in many parts of the world. Some of these vast landscape images--for example, the romantic Paradise 16, 1999, from Yakushima, which depicts a river running through wild Japanese hills--may seem almost escapist in their affirmation of natural beauty. But other forests are less idealized and extreme and instead present interesting "painterly" patterns, as if the jungle had been designed by Brice Marden. Struth originally saw these dense textures as illegible text, as impossible to grasp as calligraphic writing for an untrained Westerner. Thus a zone of natural phenomena appears beyond the antinomies of subjectivity, a realm of raw but not entirely alien experiences of the world of trees and plants and splendid blossoms. Pure visibility, the flesh of the world, colorful things in the sun. Which brings us back to whe re we began, to the Swiss garden outside the hospital, to the black-and-ye1low flowers rotating their passionate heads, acquiescing to the light and warmth of our nearest star. 

Left to right: Thomas Struth,Alte Pinakothek (Self-Portrait), Munich, 2000, color photograph, 45 3/4 x 58". Thomas Struth,Paradise 14, Yakushima/Japan,1999, color photograph, 70 1/16 x 83 3/4".

A contributing editor of Artforum, Daniel Bimbaum, is director of the Stadelschule art academy and its Portikus gallery in Frankfurt.
COPYRIGHT 2002 Artforum International Magazine, Inc.
Copyright 2002, Gale Group. All rights reserved. Gale Group is a Thomson Corporation Company.

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