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Friday, 22 July 2011

1986 Chernobyl: Jane and Louise Wilson, John Hansard Gallery, Southampton.


Jane and Louise Wilson were born in Newcastle and currently live and work in London. Using film, photography and sculpture, the Wilsons have created a series of internationally acclaimed, highly theatrical and atmospheric installations that investigate the darker side of human experience. They first began working together in 1989 and have since been fascinated by institutional architecture and the power of the unconscious mind, creating a body of work which probes collective anxieties and phobias, arouses unwanted memories and reveals things which are usually repressed.

In summer 2010, Jane and Louise Wilson made their first visit to the deserted city of Pripyat, Ukraine, inside the 30km Exclusion Zone around the site of the disaster, arguable the greatest ecological catastrophe humankind has every seen. This summer a series of large-scale photographs from their ongoing investigation into the 1986 Chernobyl nuclear disaster premieres at the John Hansard Gallery, alongside a number of other works, many previously unseen in the UK.

Shortly after the accident at the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant in 1986, 135,000 people were evacuated from an area extending 30 kilometres around the damaged reactor. Pripyat, known as The Atomic City, was the ninth nuclear city (atomograd) in the former Soviet Union and considered one of the finest places to live. There were all the amenities of a modern Soviet city, with schools, shops, hospital, recreational and cultural facilities. At the time of the accident Pripyat had a population of 45,000 people. It is now uninhabitable and will never be lived in again.

Atomgrad (Nature Abhors a Vacuum) (2010) is a suite of eight photographic prints depicting deserted interiors from the abandoned town of Pripyat. Books remain on shelves and desks, bed frames remain intact and once-exquisite parquet floor lies on the ground like rubble. A yardstick appears within each image and is a recurring motif throughout the exhibition. These objects of measurement - functional yet obsolete - act as a marker of scale and order, alluding to the tensions between association and analysis, memory and material fact.

Other works featured include two from the photographic series The Oddments Room (2008-9) made in an antiquarian bookshop in London which functions as a book 'hospital' for incomplete first and second edition books, creating a link with the historical past. Books are stacked claustrophobically, floor to ceiling, categorised by subject. Faulty, dysfunctional or ruined, yet still of great value, whilst they lie in waiting there is an assumption that someday they will still be cared for. The yardstick against the shelf of Oddments Room IV (A Canoe Voyage up the Minnay Sotor) (2008) acts a measure of space and scale, and suggests too a measure of time. In the accompanying photograph Oddments Room V (Atlas) (2009), the yardstick is replaced by a lone female figure in ‘40s black and white checked dress, standing in the doorway with her back to the viewer, as though on the threshold between past and present.

Further yardstick sculptures are mounted along the wall and floor of Gallery Two. Altogether (2010), constructed from multiple yardsticks questions the nature and limits of measurement and Measure Obsolescere (2010) acts as a register of scale between three-dimensional and photographic space. New photographs from a recent work Face Scripting: What Did the Building See? (2011) investigate the algorithmic technology of face recognition where unique individuals are identified from the blankness of crowds.

Jane and Louise Wilson continues at John Hansard Gallery until 10 September.

hansardgallery.org.uk

Aesthetica Magazine
We hope you enjoying reading the Aesthetica Blog, if you want to explore more of the best in contemporary arts and culture you should read us in print too. In the spirit of celebration, Issue 41 includes a piece on Guggenheimn Bilbao where the Luminous Interval features internationally acclaimed artists such as Louise Bourgeois, Kiki Smith and Damien Hirst, ArtAngel's new commission at MIF, Bruce Nauman's retrospective at The Kunsthalle Mannheim and Cory Arcangel's Pro Tools at the Whitney in NYC. You can buy it today by calling +44(0)1904 479 168. Even better, subscribe to Aesthetica and save 20%. Go on, enjoy!

Image:
Jane and Louise Wilson, Untitled (Nature Abhors a Vacuum) 2010
© the artists. Courtesy 303 Gallery and Helga de Alvear Gallery.

Thursday, 21 July 2011

Urban Pagan - Kid Acne: Kill Your Darlings, Millennium Gallery, Sheffield.





Kill Your Darlings is Kid Acne’s (b.1978) first solo exhibition in Sheffield, where he has lived and works for the last 15 years. Kid Acne has exhibited widely, both in the UK and internationally, including StolenSpace, London, Iguapop, Barcelona, Spain, Myymälä 2, Helsinki, Finland, Perth Institute of Contemporary Arts, Western Australia, and Fredericks & Freiser Gallery, New York, USA. His latest exhibition, opening at Millennium Gallery on the 21 July, Kill Your Darlings will feature work from throughout Kid Acne’s career alongside a series of new commissions.

Kill Your Darlings is a motto used by writers to describe the painful process of cutting cherished characters or scenes which don’t serve their overall story. Revisiting some of the iconic creations which have helped to establish Kid Acne’s international reputation, the show will celebrate the DIY ethic and often transitory approach he has refined over the years. Murals, illustrations and sculpture will trace the development of his work and show how he has carried the wit and subversion from his days as a graffiti artist and fanzine creator through into adult life as a designer, artist and musician.

Showcasing the sheer diversity of Kid Acne’s work, Kill Your Darlings will feature comic books, record sleeves, flyers, fanzines, sketch books and screen prints, as well commercial commissions such as skateboard graphics, vinyl toys and porcelain figures. The exhibition will also debut a series of new work, including large scale sculptures, paintings and a live-action short film.

Kid Acne’s art career began with an appearance on Rolf’s Cartoon Club at the age of twelve. Within a year, he’d started writing graffiti inspired by its infinite scale, colour and immediacy. Alongside a small group of friends, he spent his teenage years making underground fanzines and releasing limited run 7”s on their Invisible Spies imprint. Applying the same DIY ethos to the rest of his output, his work can be seen throughout the globe – in wheatpastes and rap-sprays from New York to Azerbaijan. His signature style of illustrations has adorned products for the world’s leading brands, while the man himself continues to paint epic slogans in sub zero temperatures.

Kid Acne: Kill Your Darlings opens today and continues until 23 October.

A programme of events will accompany the exhibition.
For further information visit www.museums-sheffield.org.uk

Aesthetica Magazine
We hope you enjoying reading the Aesthetica Blog, if you want to explore more of the best in contemporary arts and culture you should read us in print too. In the spirit of celebration, Issue 41 includes a piece on Guggenheimn Bilbao where the Luminous Interval features internationally acclaimed artists such as Louise Bourgeois, Kiki Smith and Damien Hirst, ArtAngel's new commission at MIF, Bruce Nauman's retrospective at The Kunsthalle Mannheim and Cory Arcangel's Pro Tools at the Whitney in NYC. You can buy it today by calling +44(0)1904 479 168. Even better, subscribe to Aesthetica and save 20%. Go on, enjoy!

Images:
All courtesy the artist

Call for Entries: Aesthetica Creative Works Competition


The Aesthetica Creative Works Competition is open for entries! With categories for artwork, poetry and short fiction, the Creative Works Competition provides a great opportunity for artists and writers from a range of disciplines to showcase their work to a wider audience and nurture their reputations on an international scale.

Previous finalists have achieved success and recognition with accolades including: writing commissions from Channel 4, selection to represent Australia in the Florence Biennale and exhibitions at various galleries including DACS (London) and Flores Fine Art Gallery (New York). Our most recent Artwork winner, Marcus Jansen, was selected by Absolut Vodka as one of only 18 international artists to participate in their Absolut Blank series. Read our Q&A with the 2010 Artwork winner, Marcus Jansen, here.

Now in its fourth year, the competition is dedicated to celebrating and championing creative talent across the disciplines and welcomes entries from poets and short story writers as well as artists working in all art forms, including digital art, sculpture, painting, ceramics, glass, metal, textiles and more!

•The Competition has three categories, Artwork & Photography, Poetry and Fiction.
•Winners and finalists are published in the Aesthetica Creative Works Annual.
•Winners of each category receive £500 prize money (apx. €566/$800) plus other prizes.
•Entry to the Creative Works Competition is £10 (apx. €11/$15).
•The entry fee allows the submission of 2 images, 2 poems or 2 short stories.

The deadline for submissions is the 31st August 2011.

For more information and guidelines on how to submit, please visit www.aestheticamagazine.com/creativeworks

Wednesday, 20 July 2011

Heather Ross: Constants in Practice, Royal Scottish Academy, Edinburgh.


Review by Colin Herd

In July 2010, the painter Heather Ross (b.1983) won the Alastair Salvesen Travel Scholarship, a funding opportunity aimed at young artists who have recently made the transition from studying in college to working as an artist. The award enabled Ross to embark on a three-month study/research trip, visiting many contrasting locations in Japan, including Tokyo, Hakone, Kamakura, Beppu, Hiroshima and Kyoto. The work she produced resulting from the trip currently forms a small but densely-packed exhibition at the Royal Scottish Academy.

As the title of the show suggests, Ross’s work complicates and blurs the idea that there are specific periods of research and study as opposed to periods of practice. Research is a part of practice and practice a form of research, each activity inseparable from the other. In the introductory text to the exhibition, she writes: “I’m in a constant state of practice, each piece of work contributing to the next, sated momentarily, until a new curiosity emerges.” It’s fitting and very effective, then, that the paintings that make up this exhibition are displayed alongside a wealth of research material: dog-eared travel guides, pages torn from advertisements and articles in magazines (including surreal and eerie images of Japanese girls on chopping boards and a blender filled with what look like maggots but which up close are female figures, slowly churning reddish from the base up), sketch books, her Japan Rail ticket, a copy of The Tale of Genji, postcards, fabric and textiles, and texts exerted from books about Japanese bathing rituals. These materials, which sit in vitrines alongside more ‘finished’ works, are fascinating collages or assemblages in their own right, providing an insight into Ross’s responsiveness and playfulness as an artist, her interests in the implications of technology and feminism. Above all else, they’re a testament to her extraordinarily deft and thoughtful visual alertness.

A central metaphor runs through the paintings in Constants in Practice of painting as akin to Japanese bathhouse bathing rituals. Ross is fascinated and compelled by the lengthy ritualistic process of washing and scrubbing, paying heed to the body in sections, prior to soaking. In her paintings, this process is reflected in the heavy use of skin-tones, a technique in some works of top-layering with thick soap-like resin and most of all a kind of physical attention to the layers and surfaces of paint. There’s a strong effect in some areas of the canvases of being scrubbed back, reworked and rubbed off towards a level of purity. In Exorcising the Impure, Hakone, 18th July 2010, a gushing torrent of blue and white to look like water splits the canvas down the middle, in the manner of the waterfalls in Classical Japanese paintings. Either side of the torrent are dark, muddy coloured wing-like sections in which small masks or faces (presumably the impure elements- they look like muscles or oysters) drift off as though in the steam from the torrent, mingling with red strips (the bureaucratic red-tape of working lives?).

Similarly, in Bathing Practice, a thick layer of resin makes fossilizes the image, gives it the impression of being out-of-reach and precious. The painting is dominated by amber shapes, like limbs or human forms bent over double. Beside them, there are darker versions, like shadows, or spirits. The painting is distinguished by its impressive use of layering, at the base, and only discernible when peering close, is the trace of a leaf-pattern as you’d find on tile floors. You get a strong sense of preservation, almost of archaeology; the painting speaks the decline of bathhouse culture but its importance too. (The number of Japanese bathhouses has dramatically declined but they still have an important place in society with over 12,000 still in existence.)

The watercolour Takegawara Refuge, Beppu features a central grid made up of straight lines like an architectural plan. These are softened and opposed with generous splashes of watery pink, thin and soggy so the paper waves a little in its frame. The painting presents two complementary forms of purity: geometric and aquatic. Plans and maps are a recurring feature of the show, from “Time Out Tokyo” in the vitrines to beautiful sketchy hand-drawn maps. The most striking use of a plan is The Story of the Little Boy, 6th August, 8.15 am, a large painting, the centre of which is based on the plan of the circular Hall of Remembrance at Hiroshima. The edges of the painting are filled with criss-crossing shards. Moving inwards there’s a kind of thin atmosphere around the central portion of the painting, flecks of coloured paint and shiny sparkles, like dust particles being drawn inwards. Next there are what look like little floppy altars, fabric finger puppets, some as if they’re bending down and some as if they’re rising. They intermingle with flat spongy discs (the sort you’d use to remove make up), caked in powdery paint. The base of the painting is pink, but a rich pink made up of many different pinks, silvers and white. The specific time given in the title makes it look a little like a clock. It’s an extremely impressive painting, difficult to talk about without simply describing its elements, its layers.

The image conveys a strong sense of patience and reverence, a dreamlike strangeness, a sense of being in the space, speechlessness and awe. It shares with the other paintings in Constants in Practice a seamless and delicate blend of the contemplative and the physical, the body and the ritual, through which the exhibition fascinatingly opens for exploration many of the contrasts and balances in Japanese culture between tradition and modernization, gender roles, city and countryside.

Heather Ross: Constants in Practice is on display at the Royal Scottish Academy, Edinburgh until 26 July.

royalscottishacademy.org

Aesthetica Magazine
We hope you enjoying reading the Aesthetica Blog, if you want to explore more of the best in contemporary arts and culture you should read us in print too. In the spirit of celebration, Issue 41 includes a piece on Guggenheimn Bilbao where the Luminous Interval features internationally acclaimed artists such as Louise Bourgeois, Kiki Smith and Damien Hirst, ArtAngel's new commission at MIF, Bruce Nauman's retrospective at The Kunsthalle Mannheim and Cory Arcangel's Pro Tools at the Whitney in NYC. You can buy it today by calling +44(0)1904 479 168. Even better, subscribe to Aesthetica and save 20%. Go on, enjoy!

Image: Courtesy the artist Photography: Chris Park

Challenging Perception: René Magritte: The Pleasure Principle, Tate Liverpool.

Review by Kenn Taylor

The imagery of Belgian surrealist René Magritte has long become a part of popular culture. More importantly than that though, he can be said to be one of the artists who has had the most profound effect on how we perceive the world, his pioneering vision in painting expanding our capacity for what could be visually possible. This large retrospective at Tate Liverpool, the biggest in the UK since the 1980s, takes a thematic approach, split into sections that look at Magritte’s key preoccupations and the compositional and conceptual devices he used throughout his work.

Despite its thematic nature, the show starts chronologically with his early works such as The Menaced Assassin (1927), which depicts a scene of the aftermath of a murder, influenced by Magritte’s love of pulp fiction. It’s referential, uncanny nature and pale palette being features that would be seen throughout Magritte’s career. For all of his surrealism, there's a definite humanity to Magritte’s work. The Flavour of Tears (1948) shown in duplicate, believed to have been made twice so a cash-poor Magritte could supply two interested collectors, shows a bird which is also a leaf being eaten by a caterpillar. It's a striking piece of surrealism, but seems to touch on wider notions of life, death and the cycles of nature. Magritte also clearly had a sense of humour, and there is an element of mockery in some of his works, specifically from his Période Vache. In La Famine (1948) the Eiffel Tower is reduced to garish daubs and a French Policeman to a comic figure, apparently an attack on his alienation from the Paris surrealists.

It's often been said that Magritte’s work wasn't technically brilliant. Indeed there are finer hands to be seen, and admittedly only a few pieces look particularly more impressive in their original form than reproductions. But it is clear to see here that perhaps it is his easily reproduced graphic style that has aided his work in permeating visual culture so much.

The section Idiotic Works shows the rarely seen commercial work that over many decades helped keep Magritte afloat financially. Obviously by its nature this work is compromised from his vision, he apparently deeply resented having to do it, but hints of his surreal vision can be seen, such as in the advert for Distillerie Luxor Bruxelles Elixir Sus Advocaat (1935) where his sun and moon with faces dominate the space much more than the drink itself. There is also an adjacent selection of his photography and film. Some of this reflects many of his ideas in a different medium, showing a similar interest in perception and mystery, but the majority of it is quite forgettable.

At the heart of Magritte’s work was a challenge to conventional perception. This varied from visual tricks and puns, like the giraffe sitting in a wine glass in The Cut-Glass Bath (1949) to the more fundamental questioning of language and human communication, the flexibility of perception and reality and, ultimately the ‘freedom of mind', a title of one his works.

Particularly resonant pieces include Panorama for the Populace (1926), its layers, a key concern for Magritte, revealing buildings beneath trees which themselves are beneath a beach. In The Key to the Fields (1936) meanwhile, perception is literally shattered, as a landscape painted on a window is seen broken into fragments, identical of course to the scene outside in ‘reality’.

A section called Fractured Nude examines Magritte’s work with the female form. It’s clear that, to him, the human body was just another object to be played with and manipulated, not to mention de-personalised. This is highlighted by Representation (1937) where the midriff of a woman, minus head and limbs is shown, the work’s frame tracing the outline of the body. The shape and line and our perception of it is everything for Magritte, even at the cost of the person.

The Dominion of Light (1952) featured in one of the final sections is powerful and simple as night and day are show co-existing and merging. Quiet, considered, crisp, surreal, funny, uncanny, making us examine what we perceive to be real; it seems to sum up Magritte. It’s more subtle than his well-known ‘Bowler Hat’ images, but perhaps more powerful and a good ending to the show.

Rather than appreciating the fine quality of viewing original works, it is rather seeing so much of his output gathered together that draws you deeper into the man and his work and the overriding impression you get is of his constant drive to question the bounds of perception and convention. We take such things for granted now, they're common even in advertising, but Magritte was a pioneer in challenging was we perceive to be real.

This extensive and thoughtful show is well worth seeing for anyone who wants to look deeper into works that have perhaps been taken for granted, and into the life and work of a man who helped change what was possible in how we see the world.

René Magritte The Pleasure Principle runs until 16 October.

tate.org.uk/liverpool

Aesthetica Magazine
We hope you enjoying reading the Aesthetica Blog, if you want to explore more of the best in contemporary arts and culture you should read us in print too. In the spirit of celebration, Issue 41 includes a piece on Guggenheimn Bilbao where the Luminous Interval features internationally acclaimed artists such as Louise Bourgeois, Kiki Smith and Damien Hirst, ArtAngel's new commission at MIF, Bruce Nauman's retrospective at The Kunsthalle Mannheim and Cory Arcangel's Pro Tools at the Whitney in NYC. You can buy it today by calling +44(0)1904 479 168. Even better, subscribe to Aesthetica and save 20%. Go on, enjoy!

Image:
René Magritte
Golconda (1953)
The Menil Collection, Houston © HERSCOVICI, Brussels - 2011

Tuesday, 19 July 2011

Once Upon a Time: Fantastic Narratives in Contemporary Video, Guggenheim Museum Berlin.


Review by Katerina Valdivia Bruch

The Guggenheim Museum Berlin presents in Once Upon a Time: Fantastic Narratives in Contemporary Video, six artists from its collection that address possible or fictional realities through video. Reading the title, one might think that fairytales or myths will be the topic of the exhibition. Instead, the videos are critical reflections about society using a symbolic narrative.

The meditative video of Chinese artist Cao Fei, who was a resident artist at the Osram factory in China thanks to a bursary from the Siemens Art Program, gives a hint about this. During six months, she had the opportunity to talk to the employees and ask them questions about their daily lives, their dreams and how they motivate themselves to leave their homes in order work in a factory. From these regular meetings and talks, she created the video Whose Utopia (2006), divided in three parts –Imagination of Product, Factory Fairytale and My Future Is Not a Dream. Whose Utopia pays attention to the individual wishes and dreams of the employees, who are performing their dreams, either dancing or playing music, while working. Almost simultaneously, a girl is dancing wearing an angel’s dress and some seconds later we see her in her normal working clothes. Another moment of the video shows a young man playing an electric guitar to an absorbed and non stopping working audience. The song, My Future is not a Dream evokes a melancholic resignation of dreams that might not come true.

In a similar way, Argentinean artist Mika Rottenberg presents a claustrophobic and absurd working atmosphere in her video installation Dough (2006). A group of women with exaggerated bodily proportions - either extremely fat, with long fingers or flexible extremities - are working in a small and warm place cutting, extending, turning and packing a big piece of pastry, that is sent to the other women colleagues by an obese employee, who is constantly kneading the dough. This claustrophobic atmosphere is augmented by a wooden installation, giving the audience a little frame to see what is happening in this environment, in which flowers create allergic reactions, and tears and sweat help to enlarge the dough. In some way, both videos are reflections on modes of exploitation of labourers in factories, generally organised by foreign businesses from rich industrial nations.

Francis Alÿs’ When Faith Moves Mountains (2002) is a utopian look at inclusive cultures. In a slum in the outskirts of Lima, Peru, the artist asked 500 people to literally 'move' a dune, scooping it some centimetres above its level. The artist created this piece for the third Lima Biennial (2002), motivated by the political situation of Peru during the corrupt government of former president Alberto Fujimori (1990-2000). The symbolic movement of the mountain by the group is almost an act of faith, pointing out that every single individual is important in order to reach a common goal. The geological displacement is a 'social allegory' and, as the artist says: “When Faith Moves Mountains attempts to translate social tensions into narratives that in turn intervene in the imagined landscape of a place. The action is meant to infiltrate the local history and mythology of Peruvian society (including its art history), to insert another rumour into its narratives. If the script meets the expectations and addresses the anxieties of that society at this time and place, it may become a story that survives the event itself. At that moment, it has the potential to become a fable or an urban myth.”

What if the landing on the moon would have been done by women? This question is answered by Aleksandra Mir in her video First Woman on the Moon (1999). Commemorating the 30th anniversary of landing on the moon by the troupe of Apollo 11, the artist recreates a fake moon landing on a beach in the Netherlands. Parodying the historical moment, the episode is recorded by the press, including the creation of sand craters by huge caterpillar bulldozers. The epic and almost magic moment is when the US American flag is planted on the ground by a woman, mocking a moment that some people consider part of a conspiracy theory.

Another moon landing is the one presented in One Million Kingdoms (2001) by French artist Pierre Huyghe. The protagonist of this animated story is the Japanese manga character Annlee, purchased by Pierre Huyghe and Philippe Parreno in 1999, 'rescuing' it from being condemned to be buried in oblivion. In this video, Huyghe gives Annlee a new role as a solitary girl walking on the moon. A landscape of mountains appears, when the girl starts to speak. However, her voice is an electronic version with excerpts of talks by astronaut Neil Armstrong during the landing on the moon in 1969, interrupted by extracts of Jules Verne´s novel A Journey to the Center of the Earth (1864), as if the girl is remembering passages of fictional and real stories, and overall about mass-mediated myths.

In this exhibition, myths and fables are presented as actual reflections on society, veiled with symbols and allegories about reality, for instance gender inequality and inhuman working conditions. The concept of creating a utopian world in contemporary art expresses that, once upon a time, another world was possible.

Once Upon A Time runs until 9 October.

deutsche-guggenheim-berlin.de

Aesthetica Magazine
We hope you enjoying reading the Aesthetica Blog, if you want to explore more of the best in contemporary arts and culture you should read us in print too. In the spirit of celebration, Issue 41 includes a piece on Guggenheimn Bilbao where the Luminous Interval features internationally acclaimed artists such as Louise Bourgeois, Kiki Smith and Damien Hirst, ArtAngel's new commission at MIF, Bruce Nauman's retrospective at The Kunsthalle Mannheim and Cory Arcangel's Pro Tools at the Whitney in NYC. You can buy it today by calling +44(0)1904 479 168. Even better, subscribe to Aesthetica and save 20%. Go on, enjoy!

Image:
© 2011 Cao Fei, Vitamin Creative Space, Guangzhou

Monday, 18 July 2011

Thomas Struth: Photographs 1978-2010, Whitechapel Gallery, London.


Review by Paul Hardman

There is a moment in the film that accompanies the Thomas Struth: Photographs 1978-2010 exhibition, when the artist seems momentarily irritated with the interviewer. The subject of the influence of his former tutors, Bernd and Hilla Becher, has come up, and it is apparent that the comparison of their work to his is something that Struth has become a little tired of.

It is impossible though, not to address the influence of the Bechers, when considering Struth, or any other of the alumni of the Düsseldorf School of Photography (Kunstakademie Düsseldorf) who were taught by the Bechers in the 1970s. The rigorous consistency of the Bechers’ work, along with their teaching of the New Objectivity (Neue Sachlichkeit) must have made a deep impression on all of their students. In the film, Struth recalls the intimacy of the teaching at that time, when just a few students formed the group and would be taught intensely, socialising with their tutors outside of the academy as well as in class.

Bernd and Hilla Becher, of course, had an incredibly consistent body of work that is completely peerless, they stuck to their subject of documenting industrial buildings from when they first collaborated in 1959, for over 40 years. These images of cooling towers, gas towers, oil refineries and so on, record entire typologies of structures, in an approach that is exhaustive. Their compositions were always formally straight forward, and completely dispassionate, nothing is emphasised or exaggerated, and each building was recorded in exactly the same way.

The Bechers’ rigorous approach clearly has had an influence on Struth, but unlike that other great Düsseldorf alumni Andreas Gursky, whose compositions simplify subject matter into flat rectangular strips on a vast scale, Struth’s photography is willing to include complexity, and in many of the images in this exhibition he fills the frame with intersecting lines and forms. This is shown whether in the oblique aerial views of Korea, intensely detailed pictures that include whole landscapes of forests, streets, and tower blocks – photographs of the insides of labs and space technology, in which wires and gadgets provide a baffling tangle – or the huge images of forests and jungles, the Heaven series, in which almost the entire floor to ceiling frame is filled with interwoven foliage.

Struth continues the tradition of objective and dispassionate work, championed by the Bechers, and he maintains a clear fascination with technological and urban development. In many of his photographs the buildings are presented in such a way that people can be seen to scale with their surroundings, dwarfed by the vastness of the built environment. Tower blocks are revealed to be something slightly monstrous as they tower above or oppressively crowd around the more human scale buildings. In the accompanying film Struth himself compares an oil rig, in one of this exhibitions most striking images, to a chained bear. His photograph shows a rig in a dock, with chains coming from the foreground of the image right up to the higher parts of the structure, so that it appears that it is indeed some kind of beast to be restrained and feared. In this image then, it is possible to detect a clear break with the style of the New Objectivity, although subtly, Struth does allow himself to make a comment and take a point of view, rather than simply taking the role of the observer, the documenter. He allows his subjective ideas to make their mark on the image.

Struth’s work is also characterised by a diversity of subjects, he does work in sequences or ‘typologies’, but even within these sets he allows himself substantial movement. A case in point is the photographs of visitors to galleries and museums. In some of these he has photographed the visitors as they are, bustling around the paintings of the Prado, in others he has replaced the real visitors with extras and the images take on a more epic quality, so that huge panoramas are created. The opening exhibition of the show is from these series, a group of gallery visitors are viewed from the perspective of the painting, or slightly below it, so that we find ourselves looking up at the rapt faces of the visitors. Of course, since there is some ambiguity over whether these people are genuine, or are in fact posed by Struth, this photograph sets up a kind of reflexive dilemma creating a self examination as one explores this exhibition, ‘how do we act in the gallery space, how genuine are we ourselves in this role?’.

The exhibition moves from the gigantic scale of the tower blocks and museums to a much more comfortable scale in Struth’s series of family portraits. This change of scale and pace provide a different dimension to the exhibition that affects how the other images are seen. These again are global in reach, from Japan to Germany to the U.S., but instead of marvelling at the complexities of urban development, the subject becomes the subtleties of family relationships, the balance of power in these relationships, family resemblances, vernacular interiors and so on. But on another level the subject is similarly to the urban panoramas, how an individual finds their place in a wider group, in a wider context, and again, this becomes a reflexive situation. The question arises as to what these family portraits of (mostly) anonymous sitters reveal, and what they hide. A viewer must find themselves considering their own families and in turn the vastness of humanity in general – something that may not have been the case if these photographs were not preceded and followed by the other more macro scenes of modern cities.

It is in setting up these tensions that this exhibition raises itself to another level, above the technical expertise and spectacular imagery that is on display. In both the arrangement and placing of the pictures in the gallery, and in the complexities inherent in the ideas of each series, the exhibition builds and builds, and Struth’s work proves itself as a subtle but masterly oeuvre.

Thomas Struth: Photographs 1978-2010 runs until 16 September.

whitechapelgallery.org

Aesthetica Magazine
We hope you enjoying reading the Aesthetica Blog, if you want to explore more of the best in contemporary arts and culture you should read us in print too. In the spirit of celebration, Issue 41 includes a piece on Guggenheimn Bilbao where the Luminous Interval features internationally acclaimed artists such as Louise Bourgeois, Kiki Smith and Damien Hirst, ArtAngel's new commission at MIF, Bruce Nauman's retrospective at The Kunsthalle Mannheim and Cory Arcangel's Pro Tools at the Whitney in NYC. You can buy it today by calling +44(0)1904 479 168. Even better, subscribe to Aesthetica and save 20%. Go on, enjoy!

Image:
Semi Submersible Rig (2007)
Courtesy the artist

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