2013.11.26 Tue, by
Glance: Shadows on the Wall Thomas Ruff’s Photograms

Thomas Ruff – photograms

Johnen Galerie (Marienstr. 10, 10117 Berlin, Germany) Nov 8, 2013–Jan 25, 2014

I hurried across Berlin early Friday evening to meet Thomas Ruff, arriving at the gallery late and disorganized. Ruff, along with Andreas Gursky, is sometimes considered the errant pupil of Bernd & Hiller Becher’s school of rigorous formalism and taxonomy (Candida Höfer was possibly teacher’s pet). For me though, Ruff is the most innovative and radical of all the Becher’s many gifted students. Tonight though he seemed bored and a little tired. And then I barged in.

The exhibition presents just six images. The photograms were first shown earlier this year at David Zwirner in New York, alongside Ruff’s “ma.r.s.” series, (referring to the source material, NASA’s “Mars Reconnaissance Survey”). The images of mars seem to have attracted more popular attention but the abstract photograms are quietly intriguing.

THOMAS RUFF “phg.04_II”, C-Print, gerahmt – framed, 240 x 185 cm, 94.5 x 72.8 in., 2013, Edition 1/4 (Image courtesy the artist and Johnen Galerie)

Photograms are effectively monotype still lifes created by putting objects on photographic paper to record their shadows ­– “photographic” images created without a camera. They were hugely popular with the Surrealists and Bauhaus innovators such as Man Ray and Lazló Moholy-Nagy because of the freedom they allowed the artists to experiment with light and form.

THOMAS RUFF,”r.phg.06_I”, C-Print, gerahmt – framed, 240 x 185 cm – 94.5 x 72.8 in., 2013, Edition 1/4 (image courtesy the artist and Johnen Galerie)

Ruff’s images however are generated in a “virtual darkroom,” a 3-D modeling program he developed with programmer Wenzel S. Spingler. In the program various avatars, such as for lenses, sticks, spirals, paper strips, and balls, are formed as virtual 3-D objects and then maneuvered onto or above virtual paper. Ruff then manipulates the image, experimenting for instance with different lighting conditions, transparency, solarization and surfaces (paper, glass, high-gloss chromium). And with color — which was impossible for traditional photograms.

Thomas Ruff and Johnen Galerie, Berlin (image: Jens Ziehe)

The “photogram” is finally captured from the projection of the “shadows” on the virtual floor/paper and then printed in large-scale format and in multiples, both of which were impossible for traditional photograms. Some of the images are treated, Instagram-like, to create effects of solarization or reversal, only there is no possibility of “over-exposure” and there is no original “negative”…or “positive.” These are not copies without originals though — mere simulacra — but confected originals, technological interlopers with super-powers.

THOMAS RUFF “ch.phg.01″, C-Print, framed 240 x 185 cm – 94.5 x 72.8 in., 2013, Edition 1/4 (image courtesy the artist and Johnen Galerie)

The objects are fundamental forms — architectural Chernikhovs — used to design more complicated forms or arrangements of forms. As notions they associate easily with Platonic ideals, which in turn recalls the cave, Plato’s pedagogic paradox for discussing reality — are the images the naïve prisoners see on the wall shadows or reality? – or is the distinction itself false? And in a sense, Ruff’s virtual darkroom might be seen as a type of Platonic cave too. For Ruff, a photograph — as opposed to a mere print, like a monotype — must exist twice. For instance, at least one negative and one print. There must be multiples. It is a truism that draws on Walter Benjamin’s influential 1936 essay “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction.” But Ruff’s photograms may be seen as critiques of Benjamin’s notion of the unique aura of “real” artworks in relation to their mere reproductions. Whatever aura Ruff’s photograms may have is constructed and invested — as with any artwork ­— but without actual light, real or metaphoric, without the “photo-finish.” And the larger-than-life scale of the finished prints — except what scale has data in a computer program, other than gigabytes, the mass of binary code, of zero and one switches? — as we stand before them presents us simultaneously with a lush “photographic” syllabub and a new abstract challenge to the conception of photography and the originality of images.

THOMAS RUFF, “em.phg.03″, C-Print, framed 240 x 185 cm – 94.5 x 72.8 in., 2013, Edition 1/4 (image courtesy the artist and Johnen Galerie)

I took some inadequate photos of Thomas in front of one of the images — three smiling, the fourth bored. On the way home, as the dully-lit U-Bahn carriages rattled through tunnels, I noted my fellow passengers. Most of them were listening to or staring at their phones. Some had their eyes shut.

Thomas Ruff and Johnen Galerie, Berlin (image: Jens Ziehe)

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