BERLIN — Thomas Struth’s current exhibit at the Martin-Gropius-Bau is compact yet compelling. The show, titled Nature & Politics, consists of 37 photographs taken between 2005 and 2016. Struth studied with photographers Bernd and Hilla Becher, a German collaborative and married couple, at the Kunstakademie Düsseldorf in Germany. The Bechers’ best-known works are photographic series of similar objects — for example, images of German industrial buildings — which, when set side by side, invite the viewer to analyze the differences, similarities, and overall function and aesthetics of the structures as well as the works. Though Struth’s art appears, upon first glance, much different from the Bechers’ — his photos are oversaturated, complex, and chaotic; theirs are black and white and minimal — they share a similar aim of using the camera as a means to document and analyze. And in the case of the works in this show, to analyze industry and its demise.
The museum’s brochure explains that, for Nature & Politics, Struth
photographed at sites of techno-industrial and scientific research including space stations and operating theaters as well as the Disneyland theme park in California. In an attempt to reconsider how the process of imagination and fantasy works in our collective minds and to show how the imperceptible manifestations of technology and science shape our contemporary reality, these images allude to the hidden structures of control, power and influence exerted by advanced technologies.
Yet what’s most pronounced in Struth’s show is not the power and influence mentioned in the description, but rather the inherent weaknesses and inevitable downfall and deterioration of such technologically driven structures. In addition, though the photographs depict objects, much of what occurs within the large (more than six by six feet) images relates to the formal qualities of, for example, an abstract painting. These are photographs that at times seem more interested in themselves and less interested in their subject matter.
Take, for instance, Struth’s photograph “Chemistry Fume Cabinet, The University of Edinburgh” (2010). Ostensibly a photograph of a chemistry fume cabinet at the University of Edinburgh, photographed through a clear, glass window, the work is also a study in color and form. Within a white background space, the back wall has black horizontal lines running along it, while the side walls have one vertical line each. These opposing lines create what appear to be a haphazard grid. A wide red horizontal structure runs across the front of the room, creating one more line that both breaks up and contributes to the grid. Various machines within the room, two square red panels on the left and right sides of the window, and six colored balloons provide a series of objects that fit within the finely structured container of the photograph’s frame.
What struck me immediately upon seeing this image was how the various lines and objects interact with one another. Struth presents the viewer with a kind of interactive field in which she can either read the image “as is” — photograph documenting a chemistry fume cabinet — or as a purely aesthetic experience. Or, of course, she can do both, which is what makes Struth’s work so rich and gratifying. It is in the way his mastery of color and other formal elements coincides with his documentation of the world.
Another example is a piece titled “Stellarator Wendelstein 7-X Detail, Max Planck IPP, Garching” (2009). The photograph shows an experimental nuclear fusion reactor, but I didn’t know this when I stood before it. Instead, I saw a series of brightly colored, seemingly plastic objects. It was clear that I was looking at some type of machine, and that the mess of bright pieces strewn about came from the machine. Beyond this, I was uncertain — a circumstance which created a kind of argument inside my head. It recurred as I made my way through the exhibit: my intellect tried to place the objects in the photographs in logical settings, while the purely aesthetic part of me wanted only to look at the images and take in their colors and formal design.
This split between the mind and soul is precisely what Struth’s work so expertly conjures. And what makes it so wondrous is that the division within myself felt personal, as if it were mine only, when, in fact, it was the result of Struth’s careful work. When I realized what was happening, I thought of how this very split informs the way we view the subjects of Struth’s photographs. We have grand ideas about the power of technology. We build massive structures and machines, then worship them, giving them preference over our humanity. Yet those structures will deteriorate and become ruins, while we live on. Very subtly, Struth suggests that it is us, not the machines we make, who are most powerful.
Thomas Struth: Nature & Politics continues at the Martin-Gropius-Bau (Niederkirchnerstraße 7, Berlin) through September 18.