Struth strata – Culture / Next

Lying on his side, the spectacled bear (Tremarctos ornatus) appears asleep, its clawed paw folded in a fetal position, with an air of fat plush. Despite its glossy black hair, the animal will not wake up, dead naturally in a German zoo. Thomas Struth photographed the specimen just prior to his dissection at the Leibniz Institute for Zoological and Wildlife Research in Berlin in 2018. The final outing of the extensive Thomas Struth exhibition at the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, the bear's remains are just side of another striking photograph: a female body intubated and connected to a tangle of machines before intervention in the brain (Figure II, Charity, Berlin 2013). Between the dead bear and the sick woman, both eyes closed, circulates the terrifying idea of ​​nothingness. In this last room full of photos of scientific laboratories, the human technologies to retain life – including photography – appear futile, as sophisticated as they are. In Bilbao, it is with the shock of these memento mori that leaves the spectator, a little sounded. Thomas Struth himself recognizes that he is tired. The idea of ​​letting go speaks to him, faced with the deployment of fifty years of a busy career. With 727 exhibitions since its inception (according to the Artindex ranking), the trajectory of the photographer of the Düsseldorf school is dense, crowned by an excellent rating on the art market (price on request at Marian Goodman Gallery). The former student of Bernd Becher even had to enlarge his teams to answer the requests of exhibitions. "I need to make a break," explains the photographer who has struggled to bring the exhibition of the Haus der Kunst Munich (2017) in the architecture of Frank Gehry: a challenge to hang pictures on curved walls!
"I'm 65 in ten days. It never stops. I do not have time to project myself into the future and think about who I will be at 70 or 80 years old, " says he.

A photograph without signature

To listen to him, he would prefer to return to his drum lessons, a new instrument he is delighted to learn, in addition to clarinet and saxophone. "The music gave me a lot of energy. It's a treasure box. We learn more about the organization of the world than by going to a museum ", explains the enthusiast Shostakovich, Eric Dolphy and Mahler. In his youth, after school, Thomas Struth spent time "listening" to works of art in the silence of the Ludwig Museum in Cologne, where he grew up. "I did not really want to be a painter, I played sax in a group at high school and I liked to draw. Everyone was telling me, do not worry about your bac grades, anyway, you'll become an artist. " From this prophecy, the photographer – with difficult speech – still seems embarrassed, a little awkward and dreamy …

What the exhibition in Bilbao draws is a portrait of Thomas Struth. Faced with beautiful prints whose format grows as the course, a frieze under the window retraces the life of the photographer with his early paintings, his first images combining drawing and photo, his contact sheets, exhibition posters, his invitation cards, his preparatory drawings, his notebooks, his cover letters, more private series and the artists' books that influenced him (Walker Evans, Ed Ruscha …): a wealth of documentation that allows to give flesh to a discreet artist. In addition, this chronological archive is punctuated by portraits: one discovers Struth young, with friends or with the psychoanalyst Ingo Hartmann thanks to whom he initiated his family portraits; in front of a Japanese house; perched on a stool; with the Queen of England; hidden behind his large format camera; or lying on the ground to photograph a dead panther … A real feast of a midwife when there is only one official self-portrait of the artist, back moreover!

At halfway, slip this mysterious self-portrait, Alte Pinakothek, Self-Portrait (Munich 2000). To represent himself, Thomas Struth photographed himself from behind, in front of Albrecht Dürer's fur self-portrait, so that one does not see his face. Separated by, stack, five hundred years, the two German artists face each other, Dürer, Christ, looks at the lens while the photographer, almost invisible, leaves half of the frame. If this fictional conversation between the two men reveals the shyness of the XX photographere century and his reverence to the master of the German Renaissance, his enigmatic self-portrait can also be read as a manifesto for a photograph without a signature.

Audience 07, Florence 2004 (Audience 07, Florenz 2004). Kunstsammlung Nordrhein-Weslalen, Düsseldorf

DO NOT REPUBLIC !!!Audience 07, Florence 2004. THomas Struth

"Beauty and tension"

So, basically, how to define, the leg of Thomas Struth, which unfolds here in 130 works? "I do not think the artist is a hero, I'm aware of the limits of the photo, I do not idealize my activity. Photography is not vain, but it is not completely useful either, he slips, introducing his exhibition modestly.

Born in 1954, nine years after the end of the Holocaust, Struth often recalls that he did not have the choice of where and when he was born. Raised in the country of Leni Riefenstahl, Heinrich Hoffmann and Eva Braun, in a Germany that does everything to forget a guilty and traumatic past, it is wary of propaganda as plague, as well as manipulative images. "I do not want to do propaganda. Maybe it's a good way to get people to watch the pictures … But as an artist, I love beauty and tension. " Trained in the analytical and objective school of the Becher couple, the reflection on art and the links between photography and painting by Gerhard Richter at the Düsseldorf Academy, Thomas Struth develops, from his first images, a neutral eye, rampart to emotions, virgin terrain of the past.

Fascinating entanglement

From 1976, he photographed the streets of Düsseldorf with a central perspective, kind of butterflies without souls wings almost superimposable, a method he will pursue in Manhattan, then in fifty cities around the world. "I was very influenced by post-war architecture in Düsseldorf. I grew up in a partly destroyed Germany, in the middle of a landscape without ornaments, without joy, in a puzzle that was my architectural school. We moved from Düsseldorf to Cologne when I was 10 years old, I was an emotional child, I spent a lot of time on the streets cycling. I remember, little one, having been aware of all that, wanting to analyze it … "

The impartiality of the look, Thomas Struth applies it also to the family portraits, subject that it pursues during his career, until China where he immortalizes the clan of his master of tai chi-chuan. Follower of the Chinese martial art, Struth likes the repetition of "Same gestures in an infinite number of times", as for the photo finally. The erasure of the photographer in front of his subjects gives instead a place for others in front of the lens, his framing are sometimes banal, almost clumsy. A distanced and respectful observer, Struth applies this retreat to his museum photos that made him famous. At the Louvre, at the National Gallery in London, at the Uffizi Gallery in Florence, at the Prado in Madrid, Struth looks at people watching, including, in his pictures, paintings by masters and visitors. In love with the history of art, a field preserved according to him of destructive gears, it is with this same angle of view that he is photographed in front of Dürer's painting: the spectator looking at himself watching … Often, he staged his shots, such as in front of the Atlanta Aquarium or the Pergamon Museum in Berlin.

Today, its museums seem obsolete as cultural practices have evolved with the digital world: art selfie, the current museum is strafed by smartphones, which we do not see in his clichés yet. "What's good about photography is that it allows us to compare things," explains the photographer. Not using digital manipulations like his Düsseldorf contemporary Andreas Gursky, Thomas Struth is part of a classic tradition of photography, inherited from the nineteenth century.e century. His practice of the image is ultimately much simpler, constantly seeking a tension between complexity and stripping. "I am more fascinated by emptiness, by neutrality, by concentration, by the entanglement of things."

This fascinating entanglement of the world is found everywhere in his images: in the streets where the buildings are interwoven; in the sublime jungle photos where the plants intermingle; in museums where eyes and temporalities are intricated; in the photos of families where psychological bonds are woven; in the Disneyland landscapes where fantasies of cardboard paste intertwine; in scientific laboratories where tangles of threads and objects get entangled … Thomas Struth is aware that his generation foreshadowed major changes: "When I started the photo, more than twenty years before the Internet, it's like feeling that something is going to happen and redefine what we can do with the image. I remember that we were celebrating 150 years of the medium. It was a pivotal moment when Jeff Wall, Cindy Sherman, photographers from the Dusseldorf School, Nobuyoshi Araki, entered the museum. "

Having no Instagram account, no Facebook, no Twitter, and seeing in social networks "An expression of globalization", Thomas Struth, who has been a conscientious objector and vote for the Green Party in Germany, does not believe in infinite growth. His photos of fundamental research centers, realized during the last ten years, start from a bitter observation: "Technology, as the main progress of humanity, is one way, it's a no-return bet for humans, no way out." Thus his views of stellarator and tokamak (nuclear fusion reactors promising energy without radioactive waste), photographed at the Max Planck Institute of Physics, are seen as artisanal constructions or contemporary vanities. "I wanted to look at these things from our frenzies and obsessions as sculptures, forms of human expression. As when we look at the works of Louise Bourgeois or Giacometti … " Thomas Struth, hypersensitive man, simply chose the most sensitive medium to print his art.

Clementine Mercier sent to Bilbao

Thomas Struth at the Guggenheim Bilbao, until 19 January. Rens. :

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