|Thomas Struth, National Museum of Art Tokyo, 1999|
I have been critical of Thomas Struth in the past, primarily because I am not always convinced of the novelty of what he is doing. Is the ultimate significance of his work the same, no matter the museum, no matter the old master painting on display? In each of his museum photographs we see images of an audience looking, or more likely, not looking, at an icon of Western art in what is meant to be its sanctuary environment of a world renowned museum-cum-theme park.
However, this image, National Museum of Art, Tokyo, from 1999, on display in New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art as part of their “Between Here and There: Passages in Contemporary Photography” exhibition is in a category all its own. National Museum of Art is layer upon layer upon layer of representation: a photograph of a painting, mounted on a white board, against a curtain drawn to create a temporary gallery wall, all of which is further photographed with an audience looking on in darkness. And as if that were not enough, the layers of meaning and potential for interpretation are multiplied when the painting is recognized as Eugene Delacroix’s Liberty Leading the People (1830) on loan to the National Museum of Art in Tokyo from the Louvre. Delacroix’s is a painting in which Liberty leads people of all classes out of the chaos and confusion of the French revolution in 1789. The painting is huge, it is flush with intense emotion, colors, building to the crescendo of Liberty forging onward and upward, the French flag proudly and unerringly at the helm. And in Tokyo, 1999, a world far removed from the passion, the political and cultural ideals of France two hundred years earlier, the audience in Struth’s photograph stands in darkness, silent, still, and distant from the image they cannot possibly understand, activities that must seem incomprehensible to their present moment.
|Eugene Delacroix’s Liberty Leading the People, 1830 Oil on canvas, 102 1/4 x 128 in. (260 x 325 cm) Musee du Louvre, Paris |
As if in reflection of the diminished intrigue and significance of the French Revolution to the unsuspecting Japanese audience, in Struth’s photograph, the Delacroix painting is small, minimized by the layers of backdrop, mounting, photograph, audience that are all given equal weight in the huge photographic representation. The painting, its frame, the glass in front of the painting, which is then mounted on a panel, is kept at a distance from the perfectly posed, presumably immaculate Japanese audience in Tokyo. A barrier stands between them and the painting such that the movement of and in the painting is framed, trapped, not important in the face of the layer upon layer of protection given the French national treasure that is, really, now, a photographic representation of its display in Tokyo. A guard stands next to the painting, keenly observing the people who, in turn, stand at a distance, clearly separated by the barrier we nevertheless do not see. And I assume that somewhere in Struth’s conception of his photograph he is fascinated by the mechanisms of distanciation that ensure we never get too close — in time or in space — to a work or art that might, ultimately, celebrate our own liberation.
Then, as I look at Struth’s image in the hallowed halls of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, yet another discordant layer is added to an image already bursting with impossibility, conflict, an image in which everything is out of place. I become the audience who watches the audience in Japan who, in turn, pays homage to the French who put their faith in Liberty all those years ago. In true Metropolitan Museum style, I am allowed to wander around the photograph, move extremely close, lounge on the bench placed right before it. My interaction with Struth’s photograph could not be more different from the cold, static audience in Tokyo, and again from the passionate, fiery participants in 1789 Paris. So in tune with the institution and the city in which I encounter this image, just as are the represented audiences, I behave as though these pasts, these other worlds did not exist, so caught am I in my own present perception of Struth’s enormous photograph. Me, my experience, my present time and place is all that matters in my encounters with great works of art in famous museums, if I am to believe Thomas Struth.