Dynamic Composition: Thomas Struth

High Museum explores the photographer’s investigative legacy through new works that see comparisons in networks of cables and patterns of life.

Traditionally “nature” is suggestive of wildness, and is often erroneously contrasted with the notion of social structures and organisation. However, increasingly it is becoming apparent that the organic world reflects and is impacted by our own governing systems. Nature & Politics, an exhibition of new work by Thomas Struth at the High Museum of Art, Atlanta, searches for the intersection between these concepts.

Detailed and complex photographs focus on subject matter from nuclear research to theme park construction. It is through these images that the artist demonstrates change: as we increase our awareness of climate change and the impact of human military, industrial and commercial activity, our geopolitics become ever more ecologically driven.

As one of the leading artists of the Kunstakademie Düsseldorf – a group which helped elevate photography, and which also includes Petra Wunderlich, Andreas Gursky, Thomas Ru and Candida Höfer – he studied painting under Gerhard Richter and, after 1976, photography under the hugely influential duo of Bernd and Hilla Becher at the Kunstakademie Düsseldorf. The Bechers are known for instilling their students with conceptual rigour, stylistic innovation and a sense of the abstract patterns and shapes that underlie both human and built structures. They were also strongly interested in fabricated places and the detached style known as sachlichkeit (objectivity) that appears in Industrial Façades #23 (1980). These concerns were a great in uence on Struth’s early works, which featured the urban spaces of Japan. He has become one of the major innovators of his medium, using large-scale colour pieces to explore cityscapes, architecture, portraits and technology systems. Given this background, it’s perhaps no surprise that the artist should be drawn to the constructed landscape – a border zone between human activity and the natural world – which both mimics and diverts from untouched environments. For example, in a series capturing aspects of Disneyland, he appears to explore what philosopher of the hyperreal Jean Baudrillard described as “a perfect model of all the entangled orders of simulation.” The suggestion here is that, in this international theme park, we lose all touch of an ordered and stable external reality: it becomes indivisible from simulation’s technical effects. The fantasy of Disneyland is depicted as manufactured – a plastic reality is shown empty, vacated by the crowds that usually pulse through it. These still works eerily dissect the ways that the architecture of the park as a whole plays on human dreams, fears and impulses through its attractions and shops.

As Assistant Curator of the photography department, Gregory Harris notes, Struth captures bizarre juxtapositions, such as placing the Swiss Matterhorn next to yellow submarines. According to Harris, the artist is “fascinated by the way that Walt Disney came up with this place from stories his father had told him about the 1893 Columbian exposition in Chicago and also from his own trips around Europe, and how he managed to mash-up all these ideas to make something that is physically real but at the same time totally created out of a person’s imagination. He’s interested in how you can take something from the mind and manifest it in the physical world.” Alongside plastic snake sculptures, fairytale mountains and castles, the images often also depict man-made structures such as fences and walls that keep humans out of this constructed space, and instead on the carefully mapped out paths. Given Donald Trump’s recent comments about plans to build a wall between the USA and Mexico, these fantastical images are particularly resonant where a faux and stereotypical “Wild West” landscape – complete with plastic cacti and large dusty rocks – is seen over the top of a fence, designed to keep the visitors out.

In Space Shuttle 1, Kennedy Space Center, Cape Canaveral (2008), Struth further explores images that fuel our imagination, giving us a back-stage view of the space industry in the form of the underbelly of the famous spacecraft. The pristine surface of the orbiter contrasts with the relative chaos of assorted tools and debris used in the process of its manufacture: yellow step ladders, white computer consoles and silver winches and frames. Struth punctures the iconic image of a shuttle launching and instead foregrounds the human and technological endeavour that makes exploration possible. Given the cessation of the programme, it is uncertain whether this aeronautic experiment is being built or dismantled.

This interest in what humans can conceive and create is also evident in photographs of mechanical sites such as research labs and robotics labs. The focus within these works is on what Harris calls “the aesthetics of innovation”: metallic sheens and complex arrangements of wires and tubes. These labyrinthine pieces are often very di cult to make sense of: the audience is confronted with the visual and textural vocabulary of scientific endeavour without always providing the context. Questions arise here about how the photographs can stand alone as pieces to be enjoyed simply without the mechanical knowledge to unpack them. Alike to the Disney series, the complexity of the saturated technological structures is awe-inspiring and can be intimidating. Tokamek Asdex Upgrade Interior 1 (2009), as an example of this, shows a curving space-age style shape packed with glistening consoles and metallic cubes, shapes and materials suggestive of any sci-fi film set. However, far from an imagined universe, this image is of a powerful Russian thermonuclear device designed to contain and shape plasma.

When the viewer learns that many of the exhibited pieces depict experiments with nuclear fusion, the images take on a more sinister or frightening quality. As Harris suggests: “there is a sense of awe in the pictures about how humans have been able to harness the power of the world productively. At the same time, this is tempered with a degree of trepidation about the potential for destruction.” One of the fascinating things is that these images carry the same objective, clear-cut style as Cinema, Anaheim (2013), in which the auditorium’s dim blue interior light and the curved ceiling designed for surround sound also appear to be uncanny and hyperreal.

Another new series focuses on the conflict in Israel and Palestine, responding to a project initiated by Frédéric Brenner which saw 12 artists commissioned to question the physical and governmentally shaped landscape. These works “pack in a lot of information but don’t necessarily tell you what you are looking at.” For example, in Off Al-Shuhada Street 1 (2009), a street which looks abandoned and nondescript is barricaded with barbed wire, that in are turn painted with colourful rainbow graffiti; there’s a hopscotch pattern on the pavement. At the base of the wall is an assortment of painted rocks and it looks as if a fruit bowl has been upturned and its contents strewn across the street. This used to be a major marketplace in the Palestinian city of Hebron. Located close to the Tomb of the Patriarchs, it was an important thoroughfare and produce market selling primarily fruit and vegetables. Since the mid-1990s, the market has been closed off to Palestinians by Israeli forces: all are shops closed and people are forced to enter their own homes through the back doors. Struth’s subtle and highly specific image is positioned right at the physical intersection of the problematic coexistence of Israel and Palestine.

Stylistically, the new works uphold an interest in colossal, large-scale work. Encompassing almost all of the audience’s field of vision, they become almost confrontational whilst inviting the viewer to pay close attention to the details of structures. Photography in its broadest sense becomes here a sculptural medium that demands to be explored and negotiated as physical objects with many shapes and narratives are to be found within. Semi Submersible Rig (2007) charts the monstrous form of an oil rig that is shown in comparison with a small figure who is working on something in the foreground. Confronted with the sheer and undeniable scale of this human construction, the image also provokes questions about the implications of such massive projects. The glaringly red structure of the rig almost completely obliterates the untouched and verdant rolling hills that lie beyond, which can be seen only in snatches.

For this exhibition, the curators have also included three images from the local geographic area, two from the Robotics Lab at Georgia Tech University and one from the Georgia Aquarium. The pieces from the former provide access to a highly advanced location in which important scientific research is being carried out. A mathematical formula is scribbled on a board, rendered meaningless to a non-specialist in the field. However, they also show spaces that are strewn with the detritus and debris of our everyday lives – backpacks, toys, instruments and computers. It isn’t immediately clear which of the objects are used in the experiments and which are just the everyday objects belonging to the specialists. At the centre of the lab is a robot, reaffirming the photographer’s interest in artificial design but also suggesting the very human basis of these experiments.

Similarly, for the aquarium, a group of what look like school children and accompanying adults are seen marvelling against a spectacular backdrop of tropical fish. Again the notion of the hyper-real is included – the children are being presented with a simulation of life below the ocean – Struth interrogates the space where man-made concepts meet in-built human behavioural tendencies. A double frame is evoked here: the viewer observes the children watching the fish. As Harris remarks: “In recent years, the artist has been interested in human creativity and ingenuity and how those abstract ideas manifest themselves in the physical world.”

Recent theorists of posthumanism such as Donna Haraway and Rosi Braidotti have written of our changing idea of our species in celebrated works such as A Cyborg Manifesto, encouraging readers to challenge the boundaries between human, animal and machine. As an exhibition, Nature & Politics is not so dissimilar: containing monumental explorations into the territory where built spaces, organic matter and robotics intertwine, it suggests that the distinctions between the two pillars of the exhibition’s title collapse, and instead embarks upon a search for where they cross paths.

Colin Herd

Thomas Struth: Nature & Politics. 16 October – 8 January.