INTERVIEW: “Thomas Struth: Talks About His ‘Paradise’ Series” (2002)

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Paradise 29, 2006

Thomas Struth: Talks About His “Paradise” Series

Originally published in ArtForum, May, 2002

At this point, Paradise consists of twenty-five photographs I’m just beginning to understand. intuition is an old word, but many things sprout from inner processes and needs and then take on a form. My approach to the jungle pictures might be said to be new, in that my initial impulses were pictorial and emotional, rather than theoretical. They are “unconscious places” and thus seem to follow my early city pictures. The photographs taken in the jungles of Australia, Japan, and China, as well as in the California woods, contain a wealth of delicately branched information, which makes it almost impossible, especially in large formats, to isolate single forms. One can spend a lot of time in front of these pictures and remain helpless in terms of knowing how to deal with them. There is no sociocultural context to be read or discovered, unlike in the photographs of people in front of paintings in museums. Standing in front of the facade of the cathedral in Milan, one experiences oneself as a human being defined by specific social and historical conditions. The jungle pictures, on the other hand, emphasize the self. Because of their consistent “allover” nature, Paradise numbers 9 and 4 could be understood as membranes for meditation. They present a kind of empty space: emptied to elicit a moment of stillness and internal dialogue. You have to be able to enjoy this silence in order to communicate with yourself–and eventually with others.

In some of the photographs, the picture stands like a screen in front of another, invisible image, dissolving the vanishing point that photography usually puts into focus. I made several attempts to take pictures in the old German woods close to the Czech border, but pine forests always look like Christmas. I didn’t want to portray a specific place, that specific forest. Rather I was trying to feel within its primeval branchings the moment of beginning that once was the world. I also avoided pictures that would evoke exotic fantasies or look like botanical gardens. Actually, I don’t even see the images as depictions of nature. The theme may play a major part, but the undertone makes the music. It’s about the experience of time as well as a certain humility in dealing with things. It’s a metaphor for life and death.

My trips to China made me aware of Brice Marden’s “Cold Mountain” paintings. You can feel the time invested in those canvases. Marden engages in Asian calligraphy but frees the characters of their semantic aspect. He respects these signs as a sort of homage to an alien cultural phenomenon. He’s not Chinese, so he has to find his own language following the Chinese script. It’s very important to me to relate my own cultural work to the achievements of other cultures. I try to constantly be in between spaces and to feel life’s breath–the rhythm of inhaling and exhaling, as in tai chi. Every day, I could think of thirty pictures that would have a spectacular effect, but it’s not about big ideas. Instead I’m trying to effectively unite the conscious and the unconscious of life and the time I live in and thereby create authentic pictures. Even in the portraits, I’ve always sought the moment in which the portrayed’s presence is especially strong.

I don’t understand why so many people equate the notion of paradise with escapism. Paradise was never a place one could enter–though, in this global moment, escapism is no longer an issue either. The disappearance of the social debate about utopia, which the title “Paradise” alludes to, is an impoverishment and banalization. I focus exclusively on the experience of proximity. Nowadays the human being is reduced to a consumer and therefore to an instrument of a global economic mechanism. I, on the other hand, am interested in peculiarity, the individual ways of people and what goes on inside them when their historical bearings are disoriented. Certain aspects of cities now strike me as being straight out of science fiction, such as a particular intersection in Tokyo’s Shibuya district, where everything revolves around the increase and intensification of information. Then I notice a growing confinement, not only in a physical sense but also in terms of vital energy. We must look elsewhere if we want to expand the individual’s space. Understanding and communication have increasingly become inner processes originating in silence. As sources of air and space, the jungle pictures offer me an even deeper purchase on another of my ongoing subjects–the city.

Translated from German by Philip Glahn.

RELATED ARTICLE: With the decline of the utopian spirit and the demise of the “great narratives,” the word paradise has taken on an ironic undertone that it just can’t shake. I met Thomas Struth last winter at his apartment in the middle of Dusseldorf, overlooking a rather verdant courtyard. There we talked about his ongoing series of photographs of jungles and forests, in which the artist confronts the Edenic. His paradise is neither lost nor won–it has no innocence to lose. Rather, pluralized in a series of images, it embodies a phenomenon of viewing: the gaze losing itself in the branches only to be thrown back onto itself.

Struth paces the borders between cultures. His forthcoming retrospective will connect his various series: the famous street photographs from Dusseldorf, Rome, Edinburgh, New York, Tokyo; the individual and family portraits; and the museum pictures, begun in 1989–each of which presents different places or people of different origins within an equivalent framework. The museum images surprise the viewer by making him the object looked at; the “Paradise” series, 1998–, too, revolves around the issue of observer and observed: Faced with a reticent image of undifferentiated foliage, the viewer’s thoughts have nowhere to turn save inward. In these photographs, Struth encounters the limits of a nondiscursive photography that de-emphasizes its specific object through the motif, a phenomenon manifested in Paradise 17, California, 1999, Struth’s image of the dense California forest. This approach further highlights his particular, “painterly” manner in the context of contemporary German photography. Paul Virilio under stands photography as “the transit, or passage of the image, that confirms its concrete presence, here and now, before the viewer.” Struth’s photographs seem to extend and intensify this concrete presence in order to trigger the viewer’s transit. Paradise has always been the fictive point of departure for a transformed view of the world. Changed, we grow toward ourselves–and each other-out of the picture’s jungle.

HANS RUDOLF REUST

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