Yesterday I went with an OCA group to see Thomas Ruff’s exhibition at the Whitechapel. Beforehand, we were sent some links to study up on his work. One takes us to David Campany who begins his essay with the following:
“Indeed what is particular about Ruff’s work is its potent ability to solicit individual and global responses that cannot be entirely reconciled. It seems to belong to everybody and nobody and as a result, we are neither free to look just as individuals nor to respond ‘collectively’ either. For obvious reasons I will try to leave aside your personal response and concentrate on what we might call the public or collective context.” (Campany, 2008)
I do not know what Campany means by ‘for obvious reasons’, however, I note he wrote this in 2008. In 2016, I felt entirely free to look as an individual and to respond collectively, perhaps especially so due to the political climate we are living through. Perhaps my personal reaction would have been very different in 2008. Campany has concentrated in his essay on the medium of photography and its developments and coded signs, and we are directed by OCA resources to see Ruff’s work as being very much ‘about’ photography’. (I feel uncertain regarding the word ‘about’. Identifying what work is ‘about’ perhaps helps us to pin down meaning, which comforts us, but at the same time also narrows it down – which might prevent us from appreciating the indexical nature of an image or body of work).
On the tube over to the Whitechapel, I read something on Twitter which expressed an idea I had been thinking about for a few years, even before 2016 (and that dreaded referendum).
“In the 90s, having lived in Germany for a few years, I was still unable to understand what had happened in WW2. Ironically, it was a 1/4 century later in Britain that my eyes were opened to what had happened to the Germans in the 1930s. ” (Twitter user, 2018). It may seem really unfair to bring this up (unfair to Ruff and indeed the German people whose leaders, some may argue, are being rather grown up compared to our own at the moment – subjective in the extreme, I know.) Nevertheless, the comment was at the back of my mind as I entered the gallery. The first series’ as you enter are from 1982 and then 2013 and 2017, and I thought little of them other than the later works reminded me of Hamilton’s Lobby which I saw at the Tate retrospective. (Similar colour schemes and aesthetic). Then, very early on in the overall space, you are met by the famous large identity-passport-like, except for their size, images, (some of which I had seen 7 or so years, ago, again at the Tate just as I was beginning to take a real interest in photography). Here, we see a sequence of white-skinned faces looking directly out of the frame, in the middle of which is a larger image of a brown-skinned person looking away. The way these blown up images, so powerfully signed as identifiers (also rather reminiscent of identikits), are arranged immediately signify something about group difference and perhaps about European history. Or at any rate, about the common perception of our history. Strangely, on my tube journey, I had also read about philosophers from Ethiopia and Ghana who had predated Kant and Locke and Hume, but who nevertheless wrote similar and even more enlightened texts than their European future counterparts. I mention this as Ruff’s sequencing signifies commonly held ideas about the history of people and ‘types’. Perhaps he aims to make us question deeply held preconceptions – held consciously to greater or lesser degrees within European culture.
These images are followed by large pictures of the night sky where which we might like to be reminded we are rather small and insignificant; more large pictures that explore ‘seeing’ and the tricks of seeing, i.e. 3D glasses are required for one image, and images of war or destruction where seeing is obviously affected by the digital nature of them (as discussed in Campany’s essay). Excuse the rushed synopsis here, but I am getting to my point… Interiors are images of Ruff’s friends’ and families’ houses. We are directed by the writing beside them which says, …” the absence of people or of any mess generates a melancholic atmosphere of restraint and even repression.” (Whitechapel, 2017/18) Fellow OCA students and our tutor, Jayne, wondered if this written direction was too heavy-handed. Regardless, obviously, the word interior can or perhaps should be read as literal and metaphoric. At which point one might feel obliged to consider identity again, what is being connoted (consciously or not within the overall body of work, and paradigmatically as the work is presented here) about our perceptions of groups within groups, and of the commonly held assumptions, clichés, stereotypes held in our language/culture.
Upstairs there are more series’ of images that have been made using various photography techniques that make the work seemingly about photography, and the exhibition ends with old images sent to newspapers, Press (2016) which Russ has overlayed with the instructions, stamps and copyright notes from the back of the pictures. He has blown these up to cover whole walls. Aesthetically speaking, these and the ones rendered negatives and called as much (2014) appeal in the most superficial way to my tastes. However, Nachte (1992 – 1996) placed beside andere Portrats (1994-95), for me at any rate, underpin the defining concern of this well-known German photographer who we are repeatedly told comes from the famous German school/movement of photography, because of what they signify within the body of work, within the overall sequence of the show, and together, separated out from the rest of the show in a room of their own alongside Hauser (1987 -91) which, we are told, recalls Bauhass, another famous German school (1919 – 1933).
Nachte is a series of images of Dusseldorf taken at night with similar technology, albeit adapted to a 35 mm camera rather than a bomber, used by surveillance teams, taken “shortly after the end of the First Gulf War (1990-91)” (Whitechapel, 2017/18) where we saw very similar images on TV. While I looked at these I was reminded that many German cities had indeed also been bombed during WWII and Dusseldorf suffered extensive damage. I was also minded to think about the semiotic significance of the word ‘nachte’ – how the sound of it to my English ear combined with the words on the gallery wall such as ‘target and threat’ (Whitechapel, 2017/18) recalls Kristalnaght, a night of violence and carnage just before WWII began. The large andere Portrats (1994-95) are similar to the portraits downstairs (one is of the same woman at the start of that sequence) except they have been screen printed and are black and white, making them look rather like old photographs, and consequently one cannot help but be transported back to another time in our history where black and white photos were the norm. Films, history books, textbooks at school are filled with such images of people who died or people who committed atrocities during WWII, and so is our collective consciousness. Perhaps Mariane’s Hirsh’s point is illustrated in the way the following example image is rendered a stock image for sale online. (The link takes you to a stock image of concentration camp victims). “As postmodern subjects is our generation not constructed, collectively, in relation to these ghosts and shadows, are we not shaped by their loss and by our own ambivalence about mourning them?” (1997; 266) Perhaps Campany’s expression of difficulty is related to our history when he states “It seems to belong to everybody and nobody and as a result we are neither free to look just as individuals nor to respond ‘collectively’ either”. I am not sure what he means by ‘obvious reasons’ when he decides to leave his and my personal response aside. In any event, despite what we are told by academics, it is simply not possible to be entirely objective. We are not aliens from out of space having just landed on this planet without history or the epigenetic traces of trauma. A personal response rather than an academic one seems entirely valuable and even crucial, especially within the current political and social climate, with the nightmarish rise of fascism and all that leads to it once again.
If it seems unfair to make these connections and discuss them, one might take comfort in the fact Ruff himself has shown us with unflinching honesty his ‘soul’, his interests, his concerns and asked us to think about them. Although the exploration of the medium of photography in this lifelong body of work is without a doubt critical, what I receive as I stand in front of those large portraits for the second time at the end of the visit, is an immensely strong sense that I am in the company of someone contemplating what it is to be one of a group of people who have had to spend decades coming to terms with their place in the universe, and comparing his history to what is going on elsewhere. The work is concerned with the progression of modernity set against a backdrop of what it is to be human, to be human in a certain group with a deeply troubled but also highly accomplished history; it communicates reflection, self-awareness, self-examination – and of an acknowledgment that we human animals, seemingly forever, no matter how ‘advanced’ we become, wage war, experience groupishness, destruction, as well as desire. Desire for each other at times, but without a doubt the desire to keep advancing, as we have done for the relatively short time we conscious beings who look at each other, and recognise selves and others, tribes or outsiders have existed.
Hirsh, M. 1997 Family Frames: Photography Narrative and Post Memory, Harvard, Boston, p226