Biography

Thomas Struth (born 1954 in Geldern) lives and works in Berlin and New York. He is regarded as one of the world’s foremost contemporary artists.

Comprehensive exhibitions of Struth’s works have been mounted at institutions such as the Kunsthalle Bern (1987), the Institute of Contemporary Art, Boston (1994), the Carré d’Art – Musée d’Art Contemporain de Nîmes (1998), the National Museum of Modern Art, Tokyo and Kyoto (2000), the Dallas Museum of Art (2002), the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York (2003), and the Museo del Prado, Madrid (2007). A major retrospective has toured from the Kunsthaus Zürich (2010) via the Kunstsammlung Nordrhein-Westfalen K20 in Düsseldorf to the Whitechapel Gallery London (2011), and the Museu Serralves in Porto (2011–2012).

“My interest, or hope, or intent is to address something which has a larger scale, a larger value, than the specific details or locations shown. The photographs must ultimately be driven by interests on a more general level.”

Biography

Thomas Struth (born 1954 in Geldern) lives and works in Berlin and New York. He is regarded as one of the world’s foremost contemporary artists.

Comprehensive exhibitions of Struth’s works have been mounted at institutions such as the Kunsthalle Bern (1987), the Institute of Contemporary Art, Boston (1994), the Carré d’Art – Musée d’Art Contemporain de Nîmes (1998), the National Museum of Modern Art, Tokyo and Kyoto (2000), the Dallas Museum of Art (2002), the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York (2003), and the Museo del Prado, Madrid (2007). A major retrospective has toured from the Kunsthaus Zürich (2010) via the Kunstsammlung Nordrhein-Westfalen K20 in Düsseldorf to the Whitechapel Gallery London (2011), and the Museu Serralves in Porto (2011–2012).

Thomas Struth

Thomas Struth

Thomas Struth travelled to Israel and the West Bank six times between 2009 and 2014. He was often accompanied by Dan Hirsch, an Israeli photographic assistant from his studio in Berlin and also worked with several local assistants.
Struth made images in a variety of locations, including Tel Aviv, the Golan Heights, Ramallah and Nazareth.
Struth continued his ongoing pursuit of universal themes and visualisations of the human condition. Struth found family portraits, landscapes, architecture, and sites of new technology – the range of genres for which he is well known – in the region. His monographic book represents the sixteen photographs that constitute his project and from which this exhibition installation has been selected.

Thomas Struth in conversation with Charlotte Cotton

CC: I’d like to start by asking you why you decided to spend time in Israel and the West Bank making photographs?
TS: Marian Goodman, my New York gallerist, had called me in 2008 to say that a person by the name of Frédéric Brenner had visited the gallery to invite me to participate in a project in Israel and the West Bank. He later came to my Düsseldorf studio and we had a long conversation. I was interested, I had not been to Israel, and agreed to come for an exploratory trip.

During those two weeks, I travelled widely – between the Negev and Golan Heights and several urban sites, including Jerusalem, Hebron, Ramallah, Tel Aviv, and Nazareth. I looked at a lot of places, listened to the stories of my guides and other people I met, which intermingled with what I already knew or had heard about Israel and Palestine. My exploration was about observing the human theatre and what seemed to touch me most.

In essence, it was about the reading of the signifiers and the pictorial possibilities of the place.

CC: Were you thinking about what it meant to be an artist working in Israel and the West Bank? What your role is in such a situation?
TS: As an artist you generally have to be slightly megalomaniac and gamble that it is possible to create something meaningful, maybe incredible, and not shy away from possible failure, particularly with a subject like this. I was not afraid to be working in the context of a group of other artists. It can be an opportunity and a different challenge to develop vocabularies in comparison, competition and complementation with others. There are examples in history where it has created exceptional results.

The classical idea of the artist as a solitary figure is at times an old fashioned romantic cliché and less interesting than a collection of individual points of view on the same range of subjects. As an artist who has always been politically conscious and interested in the organisation of society, I was not sure what it meant to work in a conflict zone, or if you can do justice to it at all. It was clear that it was not my calling to make propagandistic pictures of the conflict but then, on the other hand, I felt this was a chance to try to see if I could make something telling. Moral and ethical questions are impossible to avoid; you have to acknowledge social and political injustices in this area, having been born in post-war Germany and lived through its terrible, unforgettable recent history and having witnessed, if only via the news media, the painful process between Israel and Palestine. These are the two preconditions I felt strongly aware of. I am not really a religious believer anymore, and religious fanaticism is most often destructive, but neither would I call myself a non-believer.

Artistic practice is a constructive activity in which you need a belief in – or even see it as an active belief in – the afterlife. One creates the work certainly with a more general thought, not only from personal incentives.

“The classical idea of the artist as a solitary figure is at times an old fashioned romantic cliché and less interesting than a collection of individual points of view on the same range of subjects.”

CC: You are making the afterlife?
TS: I mean that I want to create something that makes a difference and actively participates in history.

CC: Were there particular pictures that you went to Israel intending to make?
TS: Not really, only in the most general sense – imagining the types of pictures which are related to my former practices, such as architecture, religious sites, the family portrait, landscapes, and the science and technology pictures that I’ve been making since 2007. But the work I made in Israel really was more about listening to what the situation imparted; recognising something that I already knew because it conveyed a general sense of human experience. For example, the picture with a Palestinian woman walking on a road in Silwan. It is likely that she was angry that I waited on the side of the road to photograph her. For me, it is a picture that represents a particle of the conflict of the region. I was interested in the inner realm and what you feel, hear and see, and the impact of what is around you. This was an important picture for me because it seemed to typify something of the Israeli and Palestinian conflict.

CC: It’s interesting that you describe this picture as a portrait with a context rather than a landscape with a figure.
TS: I have become less interested in being a landscape photographer. You can only look at landscape as a potential location for human experience. A landscape doesn’t need me, you or anybody. It becomes interesting if it can be the ground plan for human experience, projection or desire. That photograph made in Silwan was made near to a site where excavations suggest it is highly likely that it is on the border of the City of David. In the picture, it looks like a normal city; you would not fully know that its location is on the border of these ancient energies and religious claims. There is an undramatic and friendly sky with the cascading forms of the urban landscape. In this context, however, Silwan looks like a place with an underlying dramatic narrative; unspectacular on the surface but you know that something tense is happening here. The road surface in the foreground makes the city look like a model, it looks like a theatre that people have built. And in the middle of it is the woman marching along with her shopping bag surrounded by this tension, most likely regarding me suspiciously as an intruder. The picture lives through these different levels of tension – the tension within the solitary person and also the community, represented by the city.

“A landscape doesn’t need me, you or anybody. It becomes interesting if it can be the ground plan for human experience, projection or desire.”

CC: How would you find the places that you photographed?
TS: The location scouting is crucial. It is really about analysing the narrative that the place tells me – and possibly you – what could become the ingredients for a composition, an arresting picture that can reveal something narrative. That’s the calculation I am making and my responsibility. You have to be audacious and say, ‘okay, I’ll make this statement, and that will be my statement’. But Israel and the West Bank were very uncomfortable for me and a particular challenge.

The geographical characteristics of the place are not dramatic, it’s not incredibly beautiful per se. In a way, I was not surprised that religions were invented there because it’s such a blank slate for people to go into their imaginations. The character is so much in the detail, in the poverty and the extreme weather conditions; it’s crude and harsh. It was painful for me to come to a land with so much conflict, where two groups principally don’t want the other group to be there.

CC: And that pervades everything?
TS: Yes it does, you don’t feel relaxed. It’s hard for me to judge the photographs I made with any detachment but I find certain pictures more direct than others. I look at this picture and I find it provocative, the houses looking like they are aggressively eating up the land, the gesture is unpleasant. I identify it as something that has a greater meaning, something that documents something specific to the here and now, but that is also representative in the palette of human behaviour. I’m looking for that combination.

CC: That sounds like quite a forensic way of looking at what exists and what has happened in a place; what does this combination of registers in this situation mean? Do you think that is one of the characteristics of your practice?
TS: Yes, I think that is one of my characteristics. I’ve been consciously looking at art and listening to music since I was twelve years old. If something excites me, I question it; I ask myself why I think some pictures are brilliant and others aren’t. I think that’s why certain artworks survive and inspire people over decades, centuries or even longer.

In my teens, I was interested in jazz and I recorded a lot of things from the radio. Aside from what I liked anyhow, I would be equally excited by something that I didn’t understand at first. Free jazz, some of the music of Eric Dolphy or John Coltrane, for example. I’m really drawn to such intensity; the credibility of every nuance that they offer in their playing. These are role models for me, for thinking about what the ingredients are – the conditions that are needed – for strong expression.

In Israel and the West Bank, I was driving and walking around, scouting for places with those conditions, using the memory bank of all the pictures I have already seen and looking for what might go beyond that. For instance, I was driving with my assistant in Ramallah, we stopped the car to look at an empty-looking place. The Palestinian police arrived and we had to go to have our passports checked in their office, because what we looked at was the Palestinian Ministry of Justice building. We leave thirty minutes later and head out on a small road and then suddenly I see something quite amazing. It’s a dump with water or something like that, creating the shape of a heart. The city is in the background and I saw the incredible potential of the combination of details and a possible composition. There are certain components that are archaic – the rocks and the benign looking grass, it reads as a biblical situation. I think maybe it is the modesty of the place and a certain hopelessness that makes it resonate.

As I’ve said before, it does not seem surprising that religions evolved there. My desire for accuracy and definition in my photographs is obviously part of a German artistic tradition; this striving for inner reflection and the sense that a picture should only be exactly what it should be, with nothing else and not too much of any one thing that doesn’t belong in the picture frame and confuses or distorts the narrative. The way that this fragile little tree is reflected in the pond – the tree with the city beyond it – creates a narrative of something that is not thriving and is in difficulty.

In the end, I strive to make pictures that are arresting, that you have to keep looking at. Homi Bhabha said something that resonated with me. He was talking about works of art that you cannot forget but don’t remember in detail. The drive to not forget emerges when the artwork touches your core, when it has a central narrative that is understood generally through its specificity. You cannot forget it because you cannot manage to completely ‘un-puzzle’ it. You cannot remember its details because the innate composition of all its elements does not fully disclose the entirety of its narrative and thus keeps you puzzled.

“In the end, I strive to make pictures that are arresting, that you have to keep looking at.”

CC: I wonder if the way you are describing your curiosity getting sparked has a connection with what happens for the viewer of your photographs.
TS: The potential pulsation of energy of a situation is what I see. I am its first audience, the first viewer. If I’m not excited by what I am seeing, why would anyone else be? For example, the picture of the Tel Aviv city hall where Yitzhak Rabin was assassinated in 1995. I saw the building and in a way it is a piece of international style, slightly brutalist architecture that could exist anywhere, but it had a very specific atmosphere. It’s partly because Rabin was murdered on its entrance steps but even if you don’t know that there is something non corporate and more on a human scale, especially because of the differences between the windows. I was fascinated with the possibility of photographing the city hall at twilight. It is a very particular time of day to photograph – it’s more emotional and mournful. It is sunset not sunrise but with the possibilities of the dawning of a new day, of some transformation.

CC: Tell me about your selection of just one family portrait.
TS: Well, to work with families remains part of my work because they’re always interesting. It doesn’t cease to fascinate me what happens in a setting when I make a family portrait. It is impossible to predict how a particular family group behaves and what they express. I didn’t want to make a big group of family portraits in Israel, but I wanted to make two or three family portraits. The portrait that I selected in the final edit is of a family who were friends of Frédéric Brenner.

Frédéric photographed the father in the family when he was a young boy with his grandfather, and then again as a couple when he was thirteen and his wife was twelve years of age, with their first child. They are both from Yemen and Frédéric took me to meet them. After lunch, we went outside to the front of their house and made this picture. For me, the picture has a lot of interesting elements; one more formal detail is how the plant on the left corresponds with the curve of the body of the second eldest daughter; the mother and her young daughter are embracing, and the two eldest daughters bracket the family in a triangular situation. I found it very interesting to see the modality of the daughters, in relation to their parents but also with their slightly Westernised clothing, and that within one family, culture gradually transitions, if not the family is in constant transition.

CC: Do the photographs that you have made in Israel and the West Bank surprise you in any way?
TS: It was less a surprise but a challenge to develop my work here, making a small number of pictures that ‘test each other’ by being each one of a different pictorial family, but within the bracket of one region, Israel and the West Bank. I would say that this experience has made me aware of the real goal at stake: making individual pictures that – wherever I go and whatever the subject matter – can obtain even an element of speaking of the general human condition.