Sunday, May 8, 2016

Thomas Struth Nature and Politics, Folkwang Museum Essen

Thomas Struth at Marian Goodman Gallery, London
Thomas Struth, Hushniya, Golan Heights, 2011
For my first ever visit to the Folkwang Museum in Essen, I was treated to a small, provocative exhibition of Thomas Struth’s photographs from the past few years. Small because unlike the blockbusters at major museums in the capital cities I usually visit, the Folkwang has curated 34 images in a themed exhibition. And provocative because the images together bring new meanings and perspectives to each individual photograph. Thomas Struth, Nature and Politics which, had I been charged with titling the exhibition, it would be called, Industry and Humanity, presents work that reveals the disastrous results of human constructions that apparently underwrite social and economic progress. Interestingly, this is only revealed across the 34, superbly hung, photographs that comprise the exhibition.

Thomas Struth, Cinema Anaheim, 2013
As I wandered around, I felt myself falling deeper and deeper into human invention and intervention gone wrong. The photographs show, but do not always represent, the dystopia of a man made world, either through violations of nature or the mess of technology. The chaos is communicated through something as simple as the tangled wires of the Tokamak Asdex near Munich. Even though the machine may be functioning perfectly well, the representation would suggest the confused and chaotic state of technology. Even those images in which the represented world is apparently sterile and orderly--take Cinema, Anaheim, 2013, for example—something is not quite right. Standing before such an image for a period of time, we start to wonder what exactly we are looking at. Is that the screen that consumes the image? And are those steel contraptions on the right supposed to function as chairs? This is Disneyland afterall, but there is no entertainment in sight. And then, by the time we reach Curved Wave Tank, The University of Edinburgh, 2010, the green fumes spewing toxicity into a contaminated--though clinical--space, we need no convincing of the destruction of man’s great inventions.   

Thomas Struth, Figure, Charité, Berlin 2012
The majority of the photographs give the feeling abandonment. Machines or experiments built and, having outlived their purpose, the people have stood up and walked away. The sense of abandonment and decay of the machines is felt through the absence of humans. Though the presence can be registered through a glove, or an open computer screen, even a vague figure dwarfed by the construction, these are worlds in which humans have lost interest. The museum leaflet refers to the fantasy and desire of industry and manufacturing as it is represented in the images. If I had to identify where fantasy and desire is, I would locate it in this sense of abandonment. That is, the fantasy of creation that ends up as the reality of destruction, unfolds in the narrative that I impose on the photographs, a narrative that isn’t in the image.

Hot Rolling Mill, Thomas Struth
Thomas Struth, Hot Rolling Mill, ThyssenKrupp Steel, Duisburg, 2010

The exhibition also brings together images of locations that we, as general public , have no access to. This, together with the unusual angles, the use of distorting lenses and filters, leads us into places that are strange and unrecognizeable. And when we think we know them, through photographic manipulation, Struth reveals worlds that are everything we imagine them not to be. Hot Rolling Mill, Thyssen Krupp. Steel, Duisburg, 2010 is an example. The machinery in the image shows everything that Thyssen Krupp, the ambassadors for the Ruhr region, claim they are not. Here we see the decay, arcane state of industry, machines rusting over, empty bulwark structures that have the look of being deserted long ago. The slick and shining steel objects produced by this machine that feature in the Thyssen Krupp publicity are nowhere to be found in Struth’s image. When this same photograph was exhibited at the Metropolitan Museum of Art last year, side by side with museum photographs and other interiors, the machine was seen as charming and beautiful. Here in Essen, the same image, juxtaposed with, for example, the inhuman incarceration of the sick at Charité in Berlin, steps into a world gone wrong, a nightmare from which there is no way out. The body technologized by a mass of wires and machines in Charité shows the danger and horror of technology and industry, and there is nothing enchanting about it. Of course, our shock before this image carries over to our perspective of the Thyssen Krupp machinery. And then, around the corner, an image of the Golan Heights shows a roof collapsed, a world falling apart, extends the nightmare to its most obvious conclusion. Even though there is not a trace of technology or industry in Hushniya, Golan Heights, 2011, we know very well how this happened. The frightening narrative of human invention reaches its most terrifying moment in this images that shows none of the inventions.

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