Thomas Struth

Carré d’Art / Musée d’Art Contemporain

At the entrance to the Carre d’Art, site through mid June of the first large-scale exhibition devoted to Thomas Struth’s work in Europe, two oversize photographs face one another: an exterior shot of the Buddhist monastery of Todai-Ji in Nara, Japan, and an interior view of the Pantheon. These international tourist destinations were also originally places of worship, so it’s not unexpected to see these images, among seventy-eight other works by Struth, displayed here, a few yards from the Maison Carrée—a Roman temple from the beginning of the Christian era now transformed, naturally, into a museum. Should we see an allegorical agenda in this subtle play of echoes? But if so, an agenda of what? Of the photographer’s work? The spectator’s vision, of contemplation? Perhaps both.

Consider the counterpoint instituted, so to speak, between these two images. The outside shot of Todai-Ji evokes the East, Buddhism (a religion without a god), the taste for emptiness, contingency, a sense of sprawling time, and the sovereignty of appearances. With the inside image of the Pantheon we get the West, the Roman gods and Christian god (as well as the attendant roster of saints), history, art history, and the subject magnified in the person of the great artist (the Pantheon is, after all, the burial site of Raphael). As Struth practices photography, the medium partakes equally of these two universes. Presented in contemporary—art museums and galleries, photography borrows formats as well as themes and compositional procedures from Western painting, which, it so happens, is often the subject matter in these images (rooms in museums, paintings in Italian churches, Gerhard Richter sitting in the middle of one of his exhibitions). Along with Jeff Wall and Cindy Sherman, Struth is the prototypical artist/photographer, of a recent stripe at any rate, with all the conflicts and contradictions that come with such a configuration (which is not to suggest, of course, on my part or Struth’s, that the art of photography is located here and here only). But Struth’s work doesn’t traffic in narrative, theater, or artifice; nor do we find psychological investigation, an attempt to point out deeper meanings at play behind the image. Rather, as Barthes reminds us near the beginning of Camera Lucida, in the photograph “the event is never transcended for the sake of something else”; the individual photo is only an occurrence of “the absolute Particular,” the tathata of the Buddhists (“the fact of being so”). The photograph understood in this way is also—indeed, is above all—what Thomas Struth’s work reveals.

That’s why, when I look at the portrait of Zhou Xing Fa, who is photographed sitting on a chaise lounge in Lanzhou in 1997, or at the one of Anna Grefe, standing against a white wall in Düsseldorf the same year, I’m delighted to know nothing about these two subjects, to be unable to deduce anything at all from these smooth, calm surfaces. Of course, the viewer’s state of mind counts for a lot here, because more than ever pleasure is within a hairbreadth of ennui. A cloud might pass, and I’d find myself cursing these images in which nothing attaches itself to me, suddenly dismissing them as insignificant—the very aspect that makes them precious. If I come to these images with no particular expectation or desire, though, and with the utmost openness and receptiveness, then I find myself able to take great pleasure in their inexhaustible vacuity. These photographs are no doubt some of Struth’s most successful works, precisely because they are his most difficult. His art is, in a manner of speaking, artless, devoid of any effect, of any technical or expressive preening, or of any subjective or collective claim—and all of this in the overdetermined context of the museum and the history of art.

Struth’s group portraits, which most often depict members of the same family, reiterate this experience of a groundless, surface proximity. The portrait of the Okutsu family, photographed in Yamaguchi in 1996, is the most striking in this regard, because it is the most strangely intimate. Daughter, mother, son, and father, sitting on a tatami, look directly at us in a fully frontal manner. I am well aware of four pairs of eyes, four gazes, observing me, each in a distinct, indefinable way. Contemplated for some time, these people truly grow close to me, and this conneetion, mingled with the absence of any link, contains a sort of benevolence that is all the more dear to me because it is not for me (if I could elect a tutelary divinity, I would like it to be the Okutsu family). However, if I were to know the subjects photographed (personally or otherwise), this disinterested empathy would disappear and the image would take on something of the document; it would begin to speak to me. In that case, I’d prefer to turn to Struth’s portraits of flowers, some of which stare at me with an unreasonable insistence.

Jean-Pierre Criqui is editor of Les Cahiers du Musée National d’Art Moderne.

Translated from the French by Jeanine Herman.