By Daniel Birnbaum, Originally Published in Artforum International, November 1, 1996
Go to a European art school or a large group show, and you’ll see them everywhere: large photographs of expressionless faces. Thomas Ruff is not solely responsible for this phenomenon of course; he emerged in the ’80s as part of a group of artists doing related work, including Thomas Struth, Candida Hofer, and Andreas Gursky, all of whom studied under Bernd and Hilda Becher at the Kunstakademie in Dusseldorf. For some reason, though, among these artists, who together have shifted the very vocabulary of contemporary art, Ruff seems to have made the biggest impact.
Bringing together the most important of Ruff’s works from the late ’70s to the present, this large retrospective provided a good sense of his art’s diversity, with its portraits; photos from newspapers; images of stars, buildings, and night scenes; pictures of the architecture of Herzog & de Meuron; stereoscopic images of buildings and landscapes; and a series of recent black and white pictures that feature two human faces blended into one image by a police composite camera. At the same time that the show conveyed his work’s range, one also left with a sense of the conceptual rigor and the consistency of his approach. Ruff emerged as a cold technician, interested in the workings of the camera but not at all in the psychology of his subjects, or indeed in anything interior. He approaches everything with the same cool detachment, buildings and people alike. It is because of this absence of personal charge and involvement that Ruff’s art has been christened “objective photography.” The portraits are distant and anonymous; even the human face – for Walter Benjamin, the last refuge of the “aura” – has been drawn into the camera’s machinery, leaving no trace of subjective life. The young Germans in the “Portrait” series, 1987-89, appear less as individual people than as samples from some scientific typography.
In hanging these portraits in Malmo, Ruff interspersed them with the large images of the night sky from the “Stars” series, 1989-92. The dark spaces of these latter works, with their icily twinkling stars light-years away, created an atmosphere that inflected to the human faces and to their serious eyes staring out into the room. The people and the celestial bodies seemed almost equally remote. The photographs made me think they had been made by an alien, who knew nothing of life among humans. This thought kept returning throughout the exhibition: everything was registered by the same indifferent eye, often slightly from above – cityscapes, buildings, interiors, and the strange creatures inhabiting them. In some of the images in the upper gallery (for instance, “Night,” 1995), the alien’s spaceship seemed to have glided over nocturnal highways, bridges, and railway tracks. A night-vision enhancer on the camera has given the pictures a mysterious greenish cast. They are without any practical value for us earthlings, but the space-man needs to map the infrastructures of our terrestrial existence. They radiate a strange poetic shimmer.
In much of his production Ruff seems to want to question the camera’s status as a reliable witness. Some of the images are manipulated, but usually in a way that is hard to detect. In the gallery downstairs one found the photographs of Herzog & de Meuron’s architectures – reliable documentation, one first believes; but on closer inspection some details just don’t make sense. The subtle Sammlung Goetz building in Munich has been photographed by day, yet in the inviting library on the ground floor, night prevails. Once this is noticed, it becomes hard to trust the images as before. How do we know the only alterations are apparent? Could these images be completely constructed digitally, without reference in the real world?
The results could be very dull, a fate Ruff occasionally risks. But he takes his approach so far that dullness becomes fascinating, and sometimes quite disturbing. For Ruff, psychology and subjectivity are suspect notions, which blur and distort what is actually there, making a “realistic” approach impossible. Asked what “realism” means, Ruff replies in the catalogue, “Letting the machine do the work it would do anyway. If things are the way they are, why should I try to make them look different?”
This is an interesting notion. The machine works – do we need the artist at all? Questioned in the catalogue as to his own contribution to the creative process, Ruff responds, “After all, I was always involved in the shooting.” Involved, yes. But in what way – as an active agent picking the subjects? As a passive recipient? Ruff contends, “I don’t pick the subjects – it’s the other way around, they come to me.” If that really is the case, it seems to leave very little to the artist’s subjectivity, since in the actual production of the images the machine does the job. That is what makes his position so extreme. He has reduced himself to close to nothing. Mechanization rules supreme.
ASX CHANNEL: THOMAS RUFF