Thomas Struth, GREAT, Armstrong Hangar 703, Palmdale 2014, chromogenic print, 6' 1 3/4“ × 10' 10”.

Thomas Struth, GREAT, Armstrong Hangar 703, Palmdale 2014, chromogenic print, 6' 1 3/4“ × 10' 10”.

Thomas Struth

Thomas Struth, GREAT, Armstrong Hangar 703, Palmdale 2014, chromogenic print, 6' 1 3/4“ × 10' 10”.

In 1964, Stanley Kubrick penned a letter to writer and futurist Arthur C. Clarke suggesting they join forces to produce “the proverbial ‘really good’ science fiction movie.” A former chairman of the British Interplanetary Society and the author of many books on space travel, Clarke aided Kubrick in recruiting the experts who helped ensure that the resulting film, 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), would be as technically accurate as possible for a story set more than thirty years in the future. The advances predicted included artificial intelligence, satellite communications, video conferencing, and personal entertainment tablets. But even as Kubrick and Clarke achieved an extraordinary technological precision, they were less accurate when it came to aesthetics; the film’s interiors were highly stylized, with streamlined halls and sleek white walls accented by color-blocked panels of reds, yellows, blues, and blacks.

Nearly half a century later, the physical environs of advanced technology are rarely so pristine. Thomas Struth’s most recent photographs penetrate the inner sanctums of innovation, among them the Max Planck Institute for Plasma Physics near Munich, the Weizmann Institute of Science outside Tel Aviv, and NASA’s Armstrong Flight Research Center at Edwards Air Force Base in Southern California. Conceptually, these photographs resemble Struth’s earlier images of museums and churches, temples to human aspiration. Aesthetically, however, the new photographs have more in common with the jungle scenes of the artist’s ongoing “Paradise” series, begun in 1998. In contrast to Kubrick and Clarke’s sleek interiors, the environments Struth shoots are overrun with extension cords, dangling like vines from the unruly foliage of monitors and valves.

GREAT, Armstrong Hangar 703, Palmdale 2014 fixes on the German Receiver for Astronomy at Terahertz Frequencies (GREAT), a spectrometer capable of identifying the “fingerprints” of molecules millions of light-years away from its position on board the Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy (SOFIA), a flying observatory jointly maintained by NASA and the German Aerospace Center. Struth’s photograph is constructed according to classical perspective, with the composition framed around a blue mount supporting two control panels: one in the center, the other slightly removed and cocked at a diagonal. The surrounding walls are swaddled in diaphanous insulation materials patched with masking tape, while blue and yellow wires bundle together the thick veins of electrical cords. Stray wires graze the central control unit, where a kitschy placard boasts, YOU CAN ALWAYS TELL A GERMAN, BUT YOU CAN’T TELL ’EM MUCH.

It is these telltale traces of human presence that give these photographs their real interest. Chemistry Fume Cabinet, The University of Edinburgh 2010 shows a transparent screen pulled over the fume cabinet, so that the markered-in molecular models, unfinished formulas, and half-erased hypotheses seem to float over a scene littered with electric burners, balloons presumably filled with fumes, and emptied syringes. While the human hand may be evident throughout, the only people to actually enter into Struth’s spaces do so in Figure, Charité, Berlin 2012, which captures a urological surgery conducted through robotic oncology. The chiaroscuro lighting draws attention to a swath of pale-peach skin peeking out from the blue sheets of an operating table. A second figure, face obscured but swathed in scrubs the same shade of blue as the sheets, lurks in the shadows, as if only incidental to the primal scene of the polymelic robot, poised above the table like a predator savoring a fresh kill.

In Kubrick and Clarke’s film, the computer’s emulation of the human drive for self-preservation paradoxically leads to its downfall. Struth’s ambivalence is not so much about technology as it is a matter of aesthetic strategy. A simple comparison of his images of GREAT with NASA’s own, for instance, reveals the extent of Struth’s staging, his deliberately cooler tones cultivating a sense of mystery befitting an alien encounter. By muddling the sacrosanct with the slipshod, Struth ultimately reminds the viewer that the totems in which we place our faith—be it religion, culture, or science—have been wrought by all-too-fallible human hands.

Kate Sutton