Thomas Ruffby John Yau
David Zwirner November 9 – December 22, 2007
Thomas Ruff’s latest exhibition of large-scale, modified digital photographs is a continuation of an Internet-based project, jpegs, which he started in 2004. It expands upon his earlier, Internet-based nudes, where he downloaded and categorized, then altered and enlarged, low-resolution images of pornography. Like looking through an irregularly faceted window (or visual filter), the resulting shift from instantly legible imagery to pixilated squares of color was creepily brilliant for the various questions it raised about the spread of voyeurism and the seamy underbelly of the World Wide Web, which both isolates and empowers individuals as faceless members of hidden subcultures. In nudes, Ruff underscored the anti-utopian aspects of the Internet, namely that fantasy, titillation and staging can pass for information. In contrast to the sinister feelings and disturbing thoughts that seep into one’s consciousness while viewing nudes, there is something too calculated and hipsterish about jpegs, in which Ruff’s enlargements dissociate the images, often derived from the news, from their context. Is this just a misstep by Ruff or is it possibly endemic to his project?
Nearly fifty, Ruff belongs to the first generation of students to study photography with Bernd Becher in Dusseldorf in the late 1970s. Another influential teacher there was Gerhard Richter, and both contributed to the use of typology in art. Becher’s other students at this time included Andreas Gursky, Candida Høfer, and Thomas Struth, all of whom have gone on to achieve international prominence. Unlike his classmates, Ruff never developed a signature image, which is to his credit, and therefore doesn’t have to deal with the issue that they currently face, which is whether they can get beyond a recognizable (and often predictable) oeuvre that satisfies the marketplace but only adds laterally to what we already know of their work or the way they see reality.
As a collaborative team, Bernd and Hilla Becher are celebrated for their typological groupings of black-and-white photographs of industrial buildings and equipment, whose functions were seldom apparent. Their project had deep roots in German history and language. As anyone familiar with nineteenth and twentieth century German history realizes, morphological classification had both a high-minded use and an evil one. Classification and typology are central to various branches of science (archaeology, which the Germans practically invented) and pseudo-sciences (racial purity). The difference between them is that in their investigations, science supposedly isn’t governed by a pre-established opinion, while pseudo-sciences (such as intelligent design) focus on substantiating an assertion or bias.
Central to the Bechers’ project was the surgical removal of their subjects from their contexts, which is one of the currents of modernism. The Bechers didn’t place their images in a new context, but located their frontal, centrally-located subjects in an indeterminate zone or what is called the realm of abstraction. In addition, in their non-compositional, workmanlike attitude, their work signaled a shift away from the photo-documentary tradition where figure and ground (context) are inseparable (Diane Arbus, Robert Frank, Danny Lyons, and Gary Winogrand). The Bechers weren’t alone in engineering this shift. Bruce Nauman was one of the very first to redefine the figure and ground when he photographed himself engaged in activities that questioned language’s transparency—eating bread carved into letters that spelled out words (“Eating My Words”), for example—while Cindy Sherman transported figure and context to the fictional realm, when she began working on Untitled Film Stills. By staging their photographs, Nauman, Sherman and others called the veracity of the photo-documentary into question. In retrospect, the 1980s was the decade when, in photography, the performative superseded veracity.
There is however, another, bigger issue that I think ought to be examined, which is the widely held belief that all experience is mediated. Ruff belongs to the first generation to subscribe to this belief, which has been touted by theorists as the death of the self and the author, under which rubric one can also group Struth, Sherrie Levine, Richard Prince, and many others whose self-conscious use of photography gained attention in the 1980s. The most influential figures in this paradigm of art making are Andy Warhol and Gerhard Richter. Warhol’s goal was straightforward enough; he wanted to turn everything under the sun into commercially viable art, while Richter, in his Atlas, began collecting found images, including out-of-focus photographs that are ordinarily thrown away, in order to expose and undo hierarchies and conventions that shape the individual’s relationship to society.
Richter’s highly influential, deeply pessimistic investigation of the power that mediated experience holds over individuals has been considered synonymous with certain views of postmodernism (all experience is mediated) and modernism (the death of the self and curiosity). Theorists who would like nothing more than to verify that they are perfectly right have pressed Richter’s work into their service and, all too predictably, have tailored it to suit their needs. It is a fate that befell Jackson Pollock, Jasper Johns, and others before him.
Perhaps the long-running, repressive critical atmosphere—with its deep hatred of intellectual pleasure, curiosity and the imagination—that has dominated much of the art world’s attention for the past quarter century has finally and even predictably resulted in rebellion. The view that everything is mediated seems to me to have been played out, become exhausted. Certainly, this model of image making is under serious assault by both photographers and painters. Here I am thinking of Justine Kurland, Dana Hoey, Katy Grannan and others who studied with Gregory Crewdson at Yale, and, in Germany, painters such as Neo Rauch, Matthias Weischer, David Schnell, and Tim Eitel who are considered part of the Leipzig School. In both groups, the staging isn’t tied to an overarching theoretical narrative or to the ideal of the transparent story or its poor cousin, anecdote. In the best work of both groups, the opacity cannot be easily deconstructed; the pleasure this work has to offer owes something to its resistance to translation. It is within this shifting situation that Ruff’s project, and his ongoing series, jpegs, ought to be considered. (Who among us still thinks about The Starn Twins, Robert Longo, or Annette Lemieux, all of whom use photography and readymades in their practice?)
Ruff’s project is predicated on the encyclopedia, and, in that regard, owes something to the Bechers and Richter. The other guiding spirit is Marcel Duchamp and the ubiquity of the readymade. While Ruff has been one of the first to incorporate new technology (surveillance cameras, the Internet) into his practice, he almost always uses this expertise at its most basic level, like a beginner. (This isn’t a knock against Ruff because, historically, the incorporation of a new technology in art seems to develop slowly, until subsequent generations can build upon what is known.) The fourth guiding spirit is process art, and the idea that through the deployment of a particular, mechanically applied method, something interesting will repeatedly happen. In the latter two instances, the readymade and process art, the artist is afforded the ability to become an art-producing machine, a la Warhol, without committing himself to developing or further exploring a particular image or idea. (How many nudes did Ruff really need in order to make his intentions known?)
Ruff jazzes up his readymade jpegs by exploiting the algorithmic compression of visual data into pixels, the abstract units that are an inherent optical feature of all computer images. The low resolution of the images transmitted over the World Wide Web allows for their speedy download but costs them clarity of detail. Ruff blows up these compressed files or condensed images in order to reveal how much is lost. Call it low-grade computer pointillism, which is to say there is no subtlety. His jpegs manifest themselves in three ways depending on the proximity of the viewer. Close up, one sees a grid of interlocking, right-angled, geometric shapes based on tonal shifts and changes from light to dark. From a few feet away, the image is blurred, somewhere between legibility and illegibility. Stand a few feet further back, and the geometric shapes click into an image that is often familiar, but is removed from the context or moment in which it was first seen. In a room full of jpegs, the shift seems kitschy, like a commercially produced icon that follows your movements with its eyes.
In his jpegs of the ruins of the World Trade Center and of mushroom clouds just before they blossom, Ruff picks images that cannot be seen neutrally and, in effect, exploits their manipulative power. The jpegs are digital sampling, and his interventions are a minor, mechanical application of the strategies of both Duchamp and Warhol. In nudes, Ruff never aimed for clarity, and the viewer had to develop the image in his or her mind’s eye, thus becoming unavoidably implicated. In jpegs, the transitions are smoother; we see the image and, as we move closer, it becomes degraded and frustrating. Information and revelation, it seems, are impossible. I think that Kenji Nagai, the Japanese video journalist, who kept filming the government crackdown of the Buddhist monks in Myanamar, while he lay dying in the street, and Brad Will, an American poet, anarchist, and Indie-media journalist, who filmed his own death by local policemen while documenting a teachers’ strike in Oaxaca, Mexico, would disagree. Nagai and Will were not recording these events for aesthetic reasons, and they weren’t trying to advance the argument that all experience is mediated.
As it is, the jpegs are manifestly part of a received attitude that claims all experience is not only mediated, but it takes place at a distance that cannot be traversed. Intimacy of any kind, it implies, is impossible, which also argues that community of any kind is no longer possible. In place of vulnerability and exposure, we have become lumpen cousins to the replicants in Blade Runner. This brand of pessimism seems too easily arrived at, and too easily settled for. Ultimately, it says that you can exist above such messy human conditions as feelings and anxieties, and that a cool demeanor is all one needs to navigate the shoals of this perilous world. I just don’t believe it.