|Thomas Struth, Daintree, Australia 1998|
The best way to judge whether or not photography is any good is to see it in reproduction. At least this is my new theory after having seen the Thomas Struth retrospective at the Düsseldorf Kunstsammlung Nordrhein-Westfalen this afternoon. This is seriously sophisticated photography that must be seen in the flesh.
|Thomas Struth, Dry Dock DSME Shipyard, Geoje Island, 2007|
In a photograph I didn’t know, the hulls of two vessels out of water are shot from below, emphasizing their enormity, making them colossal and monstrous. There are no people to communicate their largesse (as is often the case with Struth's later photographs of technological eyesores) but the diminutive blocks in the foreground create a perspective, however distorted. We know the blocks that keep the ship from falling over to be the size of a car, and next to the hulls they are as ants to elephants. In the foreground of Dry Dock DSME Shipyard, Geoje Island (2007) these blocks are diminished, waiting to be crushed by the boat on the right that looks as though it might tip over at any moment. Simultaneously, like mythological beings, the hulls of these two ships are tired, in need of repair, making them vulnerable on land, like the big white whale of Herman Mellville’s Moby-Dick, without the sea to give them their power. These beasts are all at once, threatening for their sheer enormity, and outmoded, arcane structures at rest. Nothing about their disproportion or their complexity is experienced from flipping the pages of a book.
|Thomas Struth, Kunsthistorisches Museum 3, 1989|
And this can be said for so many of the images: nothing of the charm and legerity of the Samsung Apartments, Seoul (2005), of a world that is monochromatic and alienating beyond belief could be seen in a 4 x 6, even an 8 x 10 reproduction. The green gauze construction material is shot by Struth to be mistaken as wings, giving the impression that the buildings under construction might take off. Again, the size, the contrast of the green with the grey of the buildings, in the dead Korean air, bring the photograph alive. Another image I have always enjoyed, but never appreciated until I saw it in its 141.5 x 183.4 on a museum wall is the Kunsthistorisches Musem 3, Vienna (1989). I have seen this image of a gentleman looking at Rembrandt’s Portrait of a Man (1632) and Portrait of a Woman, (1632) again and again, and thought, oh yes, another of those photographs in which we are looking at a man looking, audience to him as audience, and thus, we are are reminded of our remove from the great art works we experience. This is surely the same oft-recited refrain of the contemporary cultural malaise. But no. In person, a whole world opens up into which I am drawn to participate in a relay of looks in which everyone (including me) is looking and not looking at the same time. Again and again, throughout his career, whether he is photographing 6th Avenue in New York, Notre Dame Cathedral, the Daintree Forest in Australia or Gerhard Richter’s family, Struth captures his subject from an angle otherwise assumed impossible. And again in Kunsthistorisches Musuem 3, the angle is such that we are placed to stand next to the man in the photograph, before the woman in the painting. In this foursome, Rembrandt’s man looks at us, while we are placed to look at the woman. In turn, the woman looks at the man in Struth’s photograph, while he looks at Rembrandt’s man. And so no look is ever returned. Rather, everyone looks past or at right angles to the opportunity for connection. On yet another level, even as we are drawn into the Kunshistorisches Museum, to the point where we edge the photographed man out of our way, we are not looking at the painting, but Struth’s reproduction. And no one, not us, not the photographed man, nor Rembrandt’s man or woman, even think to look at the enormous painting that is, nevertheless, so huge that it spills over into the left hand side of Struth’s frame. Thus, in an extension of the isolation of Struth’s Asian cities in particular, worlds without people, without personality, worlds in which humans no longer matter, isolation is returned to the experience of looking at art. In a place (the museum) where we are invited to immerse in a mystery that promises glimpses of all that is hidden, a mystery which shows us depths we cannot refute, the opportunity passes us by. Instead, we, like them in the photograph, err on the side of separation, singleness and looks without purpose.
|Thomas Struth, Stellarator Wendelstein 7-X Detail Ma Planck IPP, Greifswald, 2009|
|Thomas Struth, Samsung Apartments Seoul, 2007|
This major retrospective is, of course, traveling, having already been in Zürich, and on its way to London and Porto. I don’t know how the work was exhibited in Zürich, but I can’t image how it will fit into the closer space of the Whitechapel in London. In Düsseldorf, the open and upwards expanse of the K20, filled with light, with a silence and emptiness that one tends to only find in museums in Germany, is the perfect home for these photographs. Not only because it is Struth’s home territory and so much of the work speaks to an artistic and cultural tradition that was born and nurtured in Düsseldorf, but because the vastness of the K20 space enables an experience of the photographs that is in keeping with the one they imagine. Inside the K20, the challenge of Struth’s often massive photographs takes place in a world as apparently separated from reality as are those words created by the photographs.