Saturday, December 13, 2008

Thomas Struth, Audience, 2004, Kunstsammlung K21, Düsseldorf

Another of Nordrhein-Westfalen’s cultural treasures are the modern art museums in Düsseldorf. Though I went to the Kunstsammlung K21 (Kunstsammlung K20 is closed through 2009 for cleaning and renovation) to see the special exhibition of Lawrence Weiner’s As Far as the Eye Can See, as often happens, a wander through the permanent collection brought many wonderful surprises.

One of which was a series of four photographs by the local, ie from Düsseldorf, photographer Thomas Struth Audience. I find his work fascinating on a number of counts, but mostly because of his fascination with looking at us looking, in photographs which then invite us to look at ourselves looking - and to self-reflect on our own commodification by the art museum. As if this is not enough, the mise-en abîme continues as we also look at our objectification of the works we look at, or don't look at. If this sounds circular and confusing, that's the point, because when we look at Struth's work, it is like looking into a mirror that simultaneously does and does not reflect our own processes of looking. On that count, he's the modern day Velasquez - either that or the tourists in the Galleria dell'Accademia in Florence are the modern day members of the court of Philip IV. In which case, what a disillusionment we are. At least the members of the court were watching out for the Infanta, while we watch only to see ourselves and our mirror images.

Struth took the Audience photographs in the Galleria dell'Accademia, and though it is nowhere indicated in the images, the tourists with their cameras and their guide books are all looking - or not looking - at Michelangelo's David. For some the guide book is more captivating, for others their own camera's view, and still others are mesmerized by Struth's camera - presumably not knowing they would appear in such high profile photographs as they looked into his lens. Clearly, everything about the audience in the photograph - and by extension we who look at the photograph - speaks a full immersion into the wiles of the tourism industry. Similarly, the postures, the facial expressions, the mouths agog, the utter reverence (and irreverence) shown the absent sculpture that nevertheless overwhelms these images, speaks David's cultural capital. Given the insistence with which these people look at Michelangelo's famous sculpture as an object of utter adoration, the question becomes what exactly are they looking at? Or not looking at? And then, inevitably, what exactly are we looking at? Or not looking at?

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