Thomas Struth, Figure, Charité, Berlin, 2012, ink-jet print, 54 5/8 × 74 5/8". From the series “Nature & Politics,” 2007–.

Thomas Struth, Figure, Charité, Berlin, 2012, ink-jet print, 54 5/8 × 74 5/8". From the series “Nature & Politics,” 2007–.

Thomas Struth

Thomas Struth, Figure, Charité, Berlin, 2012, ink-jet print, 54 5/8 × 74 5/8". From the series “Nature & Politics,” 2007–.

For his fifth and latest ongoing series, photographer Thomas Struth has been transforming science into art. Over the past ten years, the Berlin-based artist has been traveling to nuclear facilities, biomedical research centers, physics institutes, and robotics laboratories across several continents, photographing them with large-format as well as smaller cameras. Struth is currently making pictures of machines that see things not discernible to the naked eye. From the body of work he has titled “Nature & Politics,” 2007–, two dozen or so riveting prints of varying dimensions inaugurate the exhibition space at Rice University’s new Moody Center for the Arts.

Struth’s photographs are a revelation, especially for those who are not scientifically inclined. The otherworldly, often cavernous spaces glimpsed in these works of art are otherwise seen only by the researchers and technicians who staff them. Most of the sites photographed thus far in the series are dramatic and somewhat eccentric, filled with shapes and forms that boggle the imagination. This isn’t a world populated by pocket calculators and blackboards. Some of the machines Struth depicts are so startling, they seem like the tech industry is actually working with sets appropriated from sci-fi movies.

Because they are replete with details, Struth’s giant-size prints offer much to look at and absorb. You almost feel as if you’ve been transported to the far-flung locations they depict. Then, too, you constantly need to remind yourself that you have not time-traveled into the future. Struth is photographing labs that currently exist, facilities that scientists have “transformed,” the artist suggests, “into sculptural environments.”

A subset of photographs from the series comprises three photos taken at Charité, a teaching hospital in Berlin. These belong to a distinguished lineage of pictures portraying surgical procedures. Two exemplars of this genre are Rembrandt’s 1632 Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Nicolaes Tulp and Thomas Eakins’s 1875 Gross Clinic. There doesn’t seem to be as great a technological difference between these paintings as there is between the surgical procedures of either and those depicted in Figure, Charité, Berlin, 2012, Struth’s scene of an operating theater where robotic arms perform surgery. Not only is there no focal point in several of the photographs, it’s almost impossible to locate the patient. Our period could not be further removed from the past—even the recent past.

There is lots of color in the photographs at the Moody Center. There are also intriguing circles, arcs, and pole-like forms. Some compositions are closed, others open. There are variations in gradient, too, with some images dramatically lit and others awash in grayed-out tones. Struth says he’s always looking for different compositional solutions from picture to picture. But colors and forms are not the generating force behind his work. Instead, he aims to viscerally bewilder. Standing in front of his masterfully crafted prints, we react in astonishment, just as he has, to science as it’s practiced from Cape Canaveral, Florida, to Berlin; from Paris to Rehovot, Israel, and Donghae City, South Korea.

As for the thousands of miles Struth traveled to take these photographs, that was, to some extent, the easy part. Over and over again, the artist had to navigate labyrinthine vetting protocols to gain access to various institutes, centers, and laboratories in order to produce “Nature & Politics.” But through it all, the photographer never lost sight of what he describes as “the joy of picture making.”

Phyllis Tuchman