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THOMAS BEYOND THE SURFACE
Exhibition strategies, history of photography, relations with critics, digital revolution, the universe of images and much more. All this was discussed with Thomas Ruff on the occasion of his exhibition in Prato, curated by Pier Luigi Tazzi. And once the talk starts...
<b>THOMAS BEYOND THE SURFACE</b>Published Monday, December the 6th, 2010
What do you think of this exhibition strategy, which places artworks in not strictly artistic contexts, both in Prato-city as well as in some places in the province? You've already experienced something similar, a couple of years ago in Germany. What is your interest in this curatorial strategy?

I honestly do not know ... [he laughs]

It’s a particular choice, compared with the exhibitions that you usually hold in galleries, museums and prestigious foundations ...
Yes, I believe it is simply a matter of fun: to display artworks other than in the White Cube, within alternative contexts, although sometimes problematic, is extremely amusing. The White Cube is a kind of sacral, protected place; the audience doesn’t have any distractions. Here the works are exposed in government offices and libraries; I’m fascinated by the reaction of people that work and visit such places.

It seems like you are interested in the point of view of those who aren't normally involved in contemporary art. ..
Yes. A couple of years ago I was invited by Deutsch Bank, in Germany. They positioned some of my portraits in their lobby, next to the right door. Once I met an employee saying, "Mr. Ruff, we have a lot of problems with our clients, because each time, instead of pulling out the money, they keep staring at your portraits". [he laughs]

Were they distracted by the photos?!
Exactly...

Thomas Ruff - zycles 3048 - 2008 - stampa inkjet - cm 295x230 - courtesy l’artistaSpeaking of portraits, I find remarkable the series Andere Porträts, where we see black and white photos showing human faces. Those are overlapping like as if in an identikit. Very often in your photography there’s a kind of dialectic between past and present, connecting old and new pictures. For this job particularly you used the Minolta Montage Unit, an analogical device used by the Police in order to create identikits. This machine was technologically updating the strategy developed by Francis Galton around 1880, the so-called "composite photography". A similar connection with the past can be found in Zycles, where digital curves made with software Cinema 4d can be observed. Those curves closely invoke Maxwell representations of electro-magnetic fields. What is your interest in this relationship with the past along with the history of photography?
First I must say that my whole work is extremely autobiographical ...

What do you mean?
My work derives directly from my life, my own experiences; it’s originated from things I've seen which impressed me, made me angry or otherwise. I react to these experiences through images. With Andere Porträts I wanted to create artificial faces. The idea came in 1994, Photoshop was already pretty advanced, but I didn't want to realize these images through the computer since they would have come out too perfect. I wanted to get an aesthetic effect slightly démodé. That is because one of the subjects on which I'm working is also the history of photography, image development and imaginary coefficients into photography, so I always try to reflect on the history of images. This was the basis of Andere Porträts: to achieve double portraits through a single shot, which in itself is a quite absurd thing. So I discovered this Minolta Montage Unit, the perfect tool for this type of work.

How did you get this tool?
I came to know that the Police used this equipment and I wrote to several central departments. There was one machine in Düsseldorf and one in Berlin, which had just been donated to the Museum of the Police. I got in touch with the Museum and I asked if they could lend it to me for a couple of months. They were very helpful, but at the end of the work I had to return it. It is now back at the Museum.

Thomas Ruff - jpeg ny01 - 2004 - stampa cromogenica - cm 256x188 - courtesy l’artistaIt’s a bit strange to think that your photography is heavily autobiographical, since, especially in the first part of your career, you had an extremely cold and detached style ...
You see, the problem is that people began to write more on the theoretical and conceptual aspects of my photographs rather than actually looking at them. That is why you would always think that I was working on the surface. What was inside the photography was not considered important. But there is something in my photography! There are portraits showing my friends, interns describing environments where I grew up and lived; there are buildings that surrounded me, photographs of newspapers that I was flipping through every day...

Everything that was part of your ordinary life ...
That’s exact. Then with Sterne [1989-92], it’s been alleged again: "It’s a work on the surface, on photographic image". But the truth is that I'm a big fan of cosmology! People have always written on the surface of my work without ever watching the image content.

Without even looking at what lies beyond the surface ...
Bravo.

Last year the book Düsseldorf School, by Stefan Gronert was published. For the first time this infamous movement, so often quoted and called into question, it has been finally analysed. I figure you have been working together with Gronert in the process involving the drafting of texts and the selection of pictures. Let me know what you think of this school: does it exist, can you actually speak of a school? Since in some cases this movement is almost treated as a photographic genre ...
Yes, indeed. Well, the idea came from the Publisher, Mr Lothar Schirmer. I immediately told him that it looked like a stupid one. Sure, we all studied in Düsseldorf, we all have our roots in the Chair of Bernd Becher, but it was useless to do even a show or a book on this subject. He argued that this was a functional book for the American market, because a label simplifies things, everyone is able to put you in a box and then follow you.

The tag that you received was coming precisely form the United States, wasn’t it?
In fact it seems to me that the first person to use the expression "School of Becher" was Isabelle Graw. From there the artists were all catalogued, or sort of…

Thomas Ruff - anderes Porträt Nr. 127/38 - 1994 - stampa cromogenica - cm 200x150 - courtesy l’artistaWell, there's no doubt that it worked as a definition ...
Yes of course. Things are much simpler once you have a label.

Along these thirty years of career you've gradually moved from a cold and detached, extremely sharp style (the stereotype of the school of Düsseldorf), to a type of coarser, uncertain and sometimes disturbing one. Following this trend, you massively compared yourself with digital techniques. How do you consider the digital? Some argue that it’s a real revolution that is going to change the course of photography, others believe it being simply a means through which the same results that once were obtained in a darkroom can be achieved ...
Initially I thought that digital photography was just a new tool, as a new lens or a new film. This was what I was thinking in 1996, when I realized the computer Plakate series, since at that time that was the easiest way to build photomontages. Today, in 2010, I can say that since 1977, when I started with photography, there was a huge development of photographic technology, not only regarding the medium itself, but above all as of the use of images themselves.

What about the context in which images are used?
Of course, also the context is important. I thought that such radical changes were to influence my work and become part of it. In this sense jpeg. [2004] is not only a work on the formal aspect that today images have, but it is also an effort on their distribution over the Internet, on how people look at pictures today — increasingly on the computer monitor, rather than on the wall. Probably it all started with Nudes [1999], when I realized the rate of voyeurism and exhibitionism present on the Internet, where the husband takes pictures of his naked wife and show her to the world through a site.

Pornography, central theme of Nudes, is perhaps a sort of paradigm that can be reflected on a more general condition ...
Yes, in some sense it is.

Thomas Ruff - Porträt [A. Siekmann] - 1987 - stampa cromo genica - cm 210x165 - courtesy l’artistaIn fact, you've worked a lot with pre-existing images, often not belonging to the artistic sphere: scientific, pornographic images, taken from newspapers, from comics, downloaded from the Internet etc. There are some theories according to which, in Western culture, the images would serve as protective barrier screens that filter the outer reality by creating a surrogate of experience, sheltered from trauma. Kevin Robins published an interesting text in 1996, titled “Beside the Image”. It discusses issues raised already in the 1970s by Susan Sontag and, before her, by Italo Calvino and Walter Benjamin. What is your opinion?
I think it all depends on the person that looks at the images and the spirit with which they watch them. Everyone has a different look, a life and a baggage of different experiences. Each one reacts to images starting from its own subjective background. It is something very personal, and undoubtedly cultural. Sure, there is a sort of "Western way" to understand and use images which undoubtedly is dominating and has ruled for quite some time. But I think it will come to an end soon.

What do you mean?
I mean, the Western world itself is close to collapse, along with its imperialism and its imaginary. I don't think the Western model is the best for all cultures, as it is evident from what is happening. It cannot be imposed. Everything, also culture and art, should be the result of a choice: the freedom to say, "Yes" or "No, thanks".


by gabriele naia

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From october the 16th to december the 11th, 2010
Thomas Ruff - Prato 16.10-11.12/2010
Curated by Pier Luigi Tazzi
Various locations- 59100 Prato
Free Entrance
Info: tel. +39 0574604939;
info@dryphoto.it; www.dryphoto.it

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