New York

Thomas Struth

Whether old and lined with decaying, war-ravaged buildings, as in Scherlstraße, Leipzig, 1991, 1991, or new and lined with the latest apartment houses—tenements in functional disguise—as in Ferdinand-von-Schüll-Straße, Dessau, 1991, 1991, or middle-aged and a partial archaeological record of Wilhelminian architecture, as in Schlosstraße, Wittenberg, 1991, 1991, Thomas Struth’s streets are as gray, deadpan, and uniform as his photographs of them. Even in the three photographs that add a flash of color to this extensive exhibition of the East German scene, the streets are empty and unhaunted—literal voids that bespeak the barrenness of East German life.

All of Struth’s photographs are stark, noncommital, and self-effacing, in the best tradition of straight photography: apparently matter-of-fact documentation. All the scenes are simply structured: usually a central street flanked by buildings, or sometimes a central building flanked by streets. But looked at closely, this systematicity falls into self-contradiction; it becomes a frame that holds together what would otherwise fly apart. What is new in the scene grows old rapidly: the modern sidewalk tiles on Ferdinand-von-Schüll-Straße are already broken and decrepit, the balconies of the new apartment buildings are already polluted with gray, suggesting that the worker’s paradise has its problems, evident even in its Potemkin-village facade. And what is old seems peculiarly vibrant, if grave, like the classic lintels above the windows of the 19th-century buildings on Schlosstraße. Thus what counts in these photographs is what remains behind the scenes, even if this is already implicit in certain seemingly superficial details: behind Struth’s declarative flatness lies a nightmare.

Struth shows how by pushing photographs to the limit of their claim to being “mere” records—by extending the idea of observational objectivity to the point of no apparent return to subjective meaning—the photograph unexpectedly reverses itself and becomes a radically subjective statement: the subliminal but unmistakable, if laconic, trace of a collective state of mind. His psychosocial photographs reflect his unconscious horror at entering that time warp once called East Germany, where the bankruptcy of a society is visible in the flesh and bones of its buildings and streets. The buildings are especially horrific because they echo the totalitarian tyranny that once ruled Germany—one expects a ghostly parade of soldiers to come around a blind corner—and the streets bear vestigial evidence of the last World War in the form of bullet and bomb blemishes. East Germany was too poor to start fresh. History remains inscribed in its surfaces, sedimented in its emptiness.

These photographs are Struth’s voyage back into the time before he was born in an effort to understand the German past and his relationship to it. Profoundly historical, the very reasonableness and orderliness of their structure suggests something normative in German life and in German identity. Their repetitiveness also signals Struth’s obsession with his Germanness: repetition is typically an attempt to master trauma and former East Germany is a living symbol of the traumatic character of German history. Struth’s visit to it must have been unconsciously traumatic, as his catatonic photographs—his catatonic stare at a catatonic society—suggest.

Donald Kuspit