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April 22, 2011 5:54 pm
In the vast white spaces of Düsseldorf’s K20 museum, life is imitating art. It’s hardly surprising, since the art in question is Thomas Struth’s museum pictures, near-life-sized images of people looking at art in the world’s most famous museums. The more you look, the more the lines blur. Didn’t I just see those little girls clustered in front of “Las Meninas” in Struth’s “Museo del Prado 7” outside in the café? When I reach the “Audience” series, in which Struth captures people staring up, dazed and confused, at Michelangelo’s “David”, I worry that I might come face to face with myself.
The museum pictures form part of a retrospective of Struth’s work that opened last year in Zürich and will arrive at London’s Whitechapel Gallery in July. His aim with the series, which he began in 1989, is to make connections between the art, the artist who made it and his own role as a contemporary photographer. “My idea was to combine several historical layers into one work of art,” he explains when we meet at his Düsseldorf studio. The gestures and positions of the figures in the gallery (in the “Las Meninas” images, for example) tend satisfyingly to echo those in the painting – the result of seizing the moment. “Often nothing happens for an hour,” Struth continues. “Then suddenly something does and it’s all over very quickly.”
Next month Struth will be installed as the first visiting professor in contemporary art at Oxford under a joint Oxford/Cambridge programme called Humanitas. He will spend a week in the town delivering a public lecture and taking part in symposia, workshops and masterclasses.
In the lecture, Struth will discuss his own art within a wider historical context. “I’m not an art historian, but I will sketch in some possibilities that existed in the past and talk about my own reasoning for making pictures,” he explains. “And I will put it in the context of people making pictures with their cell phones.”
For Struth, 56, photography is both conceptual art and a tool for psychological exploration. Over the past 35 years he has travelled widely, photographing cities, people, architecture and landscapes. He is keen to understand our relationship with the past and our thinking about the future, and to weigh up how we live now.
The centrepiece of his oeuvre is an ever-expanding portfolio of family portraits, a mix of friends, his own family and total strangers he encounters on his travels. Members of the Ayvar family, whom he photographed in Peru, in 2005, for example, worked as cleaners at an art institute in Lima that was helping Struth photograph shanty towns near the city. Often a portrait grows out of a request from the sitter, which happened in Hiroshima in 1987, when he photographed the family of a woman he met who had five daughters. “I didn’t know their circumstances, so I went to their house and tried to figure out what the narrative around them would be. I always try to photograph people in their private spaces.”
Struth traces his interest in family portraits back to his childhood. “When I was born, the second world war and the holocaust were just nine years ago. There was a gigantic painful story in my country and my family about what Germany had done to the Jews and other people. As a child I wanted to know, what was this story? There were family albums, in particular a soldier album of my father – at the front, on a bicycle, on vacation, in uniform, looking like a proud soldier. I was fascinated, when the family talked about the war, how does it match with what I see in the pictures? I talked to my father about it – maybe not enough, it was such a sensitive matter. But it was a very formative experience for me.”
Encouraged by his mother, who was a potter, in 1973 Struth enrolled at the Düsseldorf Kunstakademie (home at the time to the flamboyant Joseph Beuys). Initially he studied painting with Gerhard Richter, then moved on to work with Bernd and Hilla Becher, the photographers famous for their studies of industrial architecture. When Bernd was appointed professor in 1976, Candida Höfer, Axel Hütte and Struth became his first students.
The Bechers are noted for their disciplined approach and rigorous methodology, but they were warm and informal teachers. “We met in restaurants and went to their house,” Struth recalls. “They showed us books and we talked about politics, movies, photography, of course – and design, literature, food. It was rather holistic. They were interested in all kinds of things.”
In 1978, Struth went to New York on a scholarship and produced a series of street scenes all shot from the same angle. I had assumed (as do a number of curators) that these images grew out of working with the Bechers. But Struth is adamant that they did not. A far more significant influence, he says, was the pop art/minimalism of the American artist Ed Ruscha, specifically Thirtyfour Parking Lots and Nine Swimming Pools and a Broken Glass.
“I still have those books,” says Struth. “I had this idea of photographing streets from a central perspective when I was studying with Gerhard Richter and at that time I didn’t know anything about the Bechers.
“I started using photography more and more when I was studying with Gerhard and I’d started to photograph streets using a 35mm camera. When Bernd came, he encouraged me to use a bigger format and it became more systematic. It looks to people as if it came out of the Bechers, but the process that brought me to the streets had nothing to do with them.”
In the past two years, Struth has begun to shoot scientific and industrial sites, including an oil rig in South Korea, Cape Kennedy Space Center and a plasma fusion reactor at the Max Planck scientific research institute, where the dream is to find a way of producing limitless cheap energy. Struth’s aim in part is to show us places normally hidden from view. But he also wants to ask why it is that both the programmes and underlying assumptions of such places are never questioned.
“It astonishes me that people still say: ‘In 2030 we will need double the energy we need today’, or ‘in 2035 there will be double the amount of air traffic’. As if it’s a must. We need constant growth – who says? The idea behind these pictures was to say why is it so much easier to get agreement on scientific research than social and environmental issues? At Copenhagen [the 2009 climate change conference] people misbehaved like in a really bad kindergarten.” Struth’s pictures of the reactor include images of an indecipherable mess of wires and connections – a “manic entanglement”, as he puts it – through which he hopes to convey not only the excitement of pure science, but also the madness of an unquestioning belief in progress.
It would be natural to assume that the luscious rainforest pictures Struth made around the millennium were prompted by this same green thinking. But they came about more by accident. In the 1990s, a project for a hospital led him to photograph in Germany’s forests and he developed a taste for landscape. At the same time, some images shot in China had prompted him to want to experiment with densely filled, layered compositions. “I thought the best object would be jungle,” he explains.
He was also intrigued by the effect the pictures had on viewers. “With a street scene you read all the details, but with these pictures, there’s little reasoning, you’re left in a kind of meditative state. It makes the observer very quiet. You’re liberated from analysing, from thinking, ‘Oh, that’s post-war Germany, that’s Paris’.” This non-thinking state seemed to Struth to resonate with the lack of debate about “the best way of living” after the fall of communism. “There was the free market, that’s it. And I found that disappointing.” Hence, the somewhat ironic title “New Pictures from Paradise”.
After commuting for 12 years between Düsseldorf and Berlin, Struth will move his studio to the German capital in the summer. At least two themes that have long preoccupied him – the “Paradise” series and the museum pictures – are winding down. The family portraits, however, will remain central. “The more I do, the more interesting it gets,” he says. “It’s a slowly developing body of work that changes with my life and who I meet. As I gradually feel more comfortable in the situation, the pictures show that. People come closer to me.”
‘Thomas Struth: Photographs 1978-2010’, Kunstsammlung Nordrhein-Westfalen, K20 Grabbeplatz, Düsseldorf, until June 19, www.kunstsammlung.de; Whitechapel Gallery, London E1, July 6 to September 16.
Thomas Struth’s public lecture at Oxford will take place on May 2, www.humanities.ox.ac.uk
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