New York

Thomas Struth

Marian Goodman Gallery | New York

Thomas Struth’s exhibition of new photographs opened with a C-print of a rocky coastline under a cloudy sky. A streak of bottle green marks the horizon in Donghae City, South Korea, 2007; in the foreground, outcrops of ancient-looking stone align to form orthogonals that plunge through foam to a romantic distance. It takes a while to notice the cast-concrete barrier units stockpiled at the picture’s far left edge. Fake reef? Military emplacement? Dump? We never discover, but in the fifteen images that follow, a related man-made plethora expands to fill every frame. Since 2007, Struth has been photographing inside pharmaceutical and nuclear laboratories; in the Max Planck Institute and Kennedy Space Center; at a Daewoo shipyard; among the towers of Hong Kong. Resolved with his usual preternatural depth of field, the images survey the skins and guts of technoglobalism. Donghae City is the only scene with breathable air inside it. Elsewhere, zooming perspectives promise depth, only to flatten into sealed abyss; our view is barricaded by snarls of tubes and wires, glass-and-steel grids, and the curved flanks of rockets and reactors too big to fit even these history-painting-size prints. People appear occasionally, yet seem mere excrescences of the machinery. What’s weird, then, is that one leaves without feeling queasy, enraged, or terrified.

Struth, through his nonjudgmental precision, does not exactly reinstate a humanist subject who can conquer sinister sublimity. But he doesn’t mock or erase that subject either. Instead, standing in uncertain meat-space outside the images (which may include digitally enhanced color, but are not composited or stretched), we muse on details. What is Bubble Wrap doing covering protuberances in the Stellarator Wendelstein 7-X Detail, Max Planck IPP, Greifswald, Germany, 2009? The ostensibly more important question—what is a Stellarator Wendelstein 7-X?—doesn’t arise, because this contraption looks so similar to the Distillation Column, Ineos Phenol, Gladbeck, Germany, 2009, whose insulation is tufting from its sheath; or to the components in Seamless Tube Production, Tenaris Siderca, Campana/Buenos Aires, Argentina, 2009, which look awfully grimy for ultratech. Shrink-wrap swathes a blue plastic barrel in Pharmaceutical Packaging, Laboratorios Phoenix, Buenos Aires, Argentina, 2009; beside the behemoth in Semi Submersible Rig, DSME Shipyard, Geoje Island, South Korea, 2007, two guys are parking their bicycles.

In presenting such minutiae, Struth does not proffer bromides about how, the world over, human ingenuity builds the same way. The crazed proliferation, though visually and conceptually enticing, is coated in ontological Teflon (or whatever replaces Teflon in nanochemistry). There is no entry, and no exit; what one feels, instead of mastery, is the movement of one puny set of eyes and a mind trying to grapple with the slippery surfaces. Bright primary hues—blue tape, red handles, yellow railings—play against an infinite scale of stony and metallic silvers, browns, and grays; so many shiny, tessellated, and coiled things emerge that one is reminded of a Dutch still life, in which the painter renders fifty luscious textures on a table, all to remind us that we are going to die.

Therein, perhaps, lies Struth’s tenderness. He doesn’t believe in salvation or agitprop, or deny that the camera is a machine, kin to the Stellarator and its ilk. He does sanction the slow and always incomplete effort of attention, and he accepts the hint of a thought that the dwarfed shipbuilders with their bikes—or the shadowy Calvin Klein underwear model on a billboard beside the pavilion in Mobile Art 2, Hong Kong, China, 2008, or the very stones in Acropolis Museum, Athens, Greece, 2008—might be, in a paradoxically soulless way, sacred. I wish that Struth’s next project would be to document the oil spill in the Gulf.

Frances Richard