June 11, 2009
Critical Fragments: Content
“The seemingly strict separation of the photographic series – buildings not people, or individuals in private not public spaces – thus belies [Thomas] Struth’s larger project of separation. By dissociating the various elements of knowledge produced within each archive and reassociating them in a newly formed complex matrix structure, Struth’s matrix multiplies the important piece of information within each image. Multiplied, those bits of information that had once been used to define the subject of the archive can now be reassembled and contradicted to form other constructs of knowledge. This process of reassociation exposes the inseparability of these constructs both within and between images and archives, questioning the archival categories themselves. […] Acted out by the museum and defined and depicted by these photographs are the operations of archive construction and collecting themselves, and with them, the complex mechanisms behind the construction of knowledge, boundaries, and spaces.”(1)
In contemporary art practice, at least since the pioneering directions of conceptualism and minimal art, there has been a shift in content. Rather than the content being about what is visible or visually obvious in images, sculptural objects or installations, the locus of meaning of an artwork now lies outside these images and objects and instead concerns the social and cultural construction of art. Moreover, the content of a work of art becomes a cipher, a riddle that requires deducing through exterior, supplemental materials and research.
This is the unavoidable conclusion drawn by Nana Last in her astute assessment of Thomas Struth’s photographic practice. The surface content of Struth’s photographs manifest multiple “bits of information” which occupy a position of temporary visual observation. This contemporary avoidance of simple aesthetic pursuits has precedence in conceptual art’s insistence that an artwork’s meaning exists independently of the object and, indeed, even the objects themselves are secondary to the content.
This poses intriguing problems for art criticism. Discernment now is summoned through an understanding of contemporary art history and theory, plus a particular comprehension of the various social and cultural constructions that govern the making and address of art. Apt critics approach images and objects carefully, with a view to their placement within the dominant sociological and cultural narratives. More importantly, critical readings of artworks are influenced by the visual first, yet critics must be wary of the fact that the superficial, surface aspects of the work might misdirect their interpretation. The potential for misapprehension is especially challenging in photography where the “look” of the camera purports to not only embody the “eye” of the artist but to encourage the passivity of the viewing subject. The object photographed can never be assumed to be its content.(2)
Last’s perception of Struth’s “matrix” correctly reads the content of Struth’s art to extend beyond those objects and figures contained with the photographic frame. The essence of his ultimate content remains outside the image but is manifested textually by the information within each of the photographs. Struth’s body of work becomes less about the documentation, less about the archives, than it is about his grasp of the manipulation of visual, archival knowledge by the caretakers of our social and cultural world, the museums. Thus, control of the address of art, how it is presented and represented institutionally, is paramount to its ultimate reception, to its historic validation, and positions it for successful marketing to determine its value, both artistically and commercially.
I would propose that all of the best art encourages a self-reflexivity by both artist and viewing public to consider its presentation and to critique its control by those institutions of visual address. That the nature of contemporary art practice has evolved outside of the image to encompass investigations of art’s construction within the social and cultural spheres is a testament to the issues and concerns of conceptualism.
Image: “Musée du Louvre IV, Paris” (1989); © Copyright by Thomas Struth.
1. Last, Nana. “Thomas Struth: From Image to Archive to Matrix,” Praxis 7, 2005, 86.
2. “The characteristics of the photographic apparatus position the subject in such a way that the object photographed serves to conceal the textuality of the photograph itself – substituting passive receptivity for active (critical) reading.” From Victor Burgin’s “Looking at Photographs”, in Theories and Documents of Contemporary Art, Berkeley, 1996, 856.