Exhibition notes – Thomas Ruff

The following notes are in connection with the exhibition of Thomas Ruff photographs at the Whitechapel Gallery in London (link). Comments are organized by series.

L’Empereur – 1982

  • This work includes a series of small self portraits done by Ruff while he was studying in Paris.
  • The images include Ruff in various implausible positions around a set of props (two chairs and a lamp). The poses change for every image, but if one looks carefully, there are only two basic settings for the props (see images below): straight and upside down; with Ruff creating variety by just moving his body around them. This is an interesting visual trick, creating the illusion of great variation where actually very little change.
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Thomas Ruff – L’Empereur (1982) – A sample of the “upside down” props setting. Photograph of the original taken with permission from the Whitechapel Gallery
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Thomas Ruff – L’Empereur (1982) – A sample of the “straight” props setting. Photograph of the original taken with permission from the Whitechapel Gallery

M.N.O.P and W.G.L

  • These two series involve an intervention by Ruff in old photographs of art exhibits held at the Museum of Non-Objective Painting in New York (now the Guggenheim) in the early 1930s and at the Whitechapel Gallery in London in the 1970s.
  • Ruff digitalized and then partially coloured the original black and white images, transforming the experience of the viewer and making the images look contemporary, particularly in the case of the M.N.O.P. series, where the colouration has been quite extensive (the W.G.L. series is more akin to what is described today as “colour popping” in camera club vernacular). In the case of M.N.O.P., particularly, it is interesting how Ruff leaves a small portion of the pictures in black and white (including, for instance, the paintings exhibited). Reflecting upon Barthes’s idea of photography having a “having-been-there” quality to them (see my blog entry on this here), Ruff treatment of these images had a “transposing” effect on my, and somehow placed me close to the rooms and galleries depicted, which at no point appear to have existed as remotely as over 80 years ago. But that proximity, which is given more by the colour added than by the shapes and forms that support them, and which are more likely to be faithful reproductions, is immediately overcome by doubt: does the colourful palette used by Ruff have a historical base? Is there any record describing the tonality of the galleries carpets, for instance? Most likely, no, and it does not seem that Ruff cares much about faithfulness in this respect (see my comment below on W.G.L.). I am left to wonder if that feeling of proximity I had when viewing the M.N.O.P. images would have been any different would have Ruff decided to use a less vibrant palette or more faded colours.
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Thomas Ruff – M.N.O.P – Photograph of the original taken with permission from the Whitechapel Gallery
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Thomas Ruff – M.N.O.P – Photograph of the original taken with permission from the Whitechapel Gallery
  • The W.G.L. series demonstrates a bit more clearly the issue with fidelity I mentioned above. The images appear to show a single large gallery from a variety of angles. Only the ceiling and a carpet have been coloured, but the hues used for these are changed / swapped across the series, giving the impression that Ruff had no clear idea (or did not care) about what the original colours were and just used some arbitrary, vivid colours instead, as a way of contrasting quite clearly with the black and white of the art work exhibited.
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Thomas Ruff – W.G.L. – Photograph of the original taken with permission from the Whitechapel Gallery
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Thomas Ruff – W.G.L. – Photograph of the original taken with permission from the Whitechapel Gallery

Portraits

  • This includes a series of very large portraits. The images are all frontal and done in a very neutral way, with most subjects being expressionless.
  • The monumental scale of each image forces you to look at the details and imperfections of the subjects’ faces and necks. I am left wondering if an alternative series could be made amplifying the details even more, forcing the viewer to confront the ugly / uncomfortable aspects of the images, without being able to resort to the overall image as a form of escaping.
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Thomas Ruff – Portraits (detail) – Photograph of the original taken with permission from the Whitechapel Gallery

Other portraits

  • Just like the previous series, Ruff here makes very large prints of head and shoulder shots. They are made with special equipment used by the police, which results in a significant loss of fidelity. Upon close inspection, the images appear to be made up of a number of small dots, all together in a harmonious way, similar to the structure of newspaper photographs. In spite of the very large-scale of the images, which seem to invite the spectator to view them from afar, the beauty of them is only apparent on close inspection.
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Thomas Ruff – Other Portraits (detail) – Photograph of the original taken with permission from the Whitechapel Gallery
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Thomas Ruff – Other Portraits (detail of grain structure) – Photograph of the original taken with permission from the Whitechapel Gallery

JPEG

  • This is a series of very large prints of overcharged images of natural and man-made disasters, where the pixel structure of the images is visible.
  • I first encountered the JPEG series as a research topic in a previous OCA course (Expressing your Vision – see my original notes in here), but this is the first time I had the chance of seeing the large prints that Joerg Colberg refered to in his review of the book accompanying the series (see here, also commented in original notes linked above). For me, there is a huge difference between seeing these pictures in real life, in their monumental size, as opposed to seeing them online or reading about them in an article. This perhaps reflects the paradox that Ruff was trying to highlight when he did this work, as we are consuming everyday images online and sometimes believe in them blindingly, when the reality may be completely different. The curator notes accompanying the prints included the following:

Ruff selects and enlarges small images of natural and manmade disasters to a monumental scale, drawing attention to their pixelated structure and the way we view and circulate everyday horrors. 

The large images, when seen close, are nothing like the horrors they depict. They are composed of beautiful mosaics, one little colourful square per pixel, but each one of these are perfectly defined. These images, like those in “Other Portraits” (see above) are a contradiction in themselves because event though they are large-scale prints, they are more enjoyable from near, where we can see their structure, as opposed to seeing them from afar, where the pixelation becomes ugly blotches. They are like billboards to be seen up close.

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Thomas Ruff – JPEG (detail) – Photograph of the original taken with permission from the Whitechapel Gallery
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Thomas Ruff – JPEG (detail) – Photograph of the original taken with permission from the Whitechapel Gallery

Nudes

  • This is a series of large-scale prints made from images taken from pornographic sites. The technique used by Ruff to transform the images is not clear, but unlike “JPEG” and “Other Portraits”, the images in this series are fuzzy when seen either close up or from afar. The pixel structure is too fine and disturbing, while the images contain large swathes of highlights which are unpleasant to watch for long. I wonder if this is a reflection of how uncomfortable Ruff feels towards the subject or maybe he just wants us to feel uncomfortable about it.
  • Something else that I noted at the show is that there is essentially no nudity as such in the images shown, which mostly include dressed models and others with their genitals obscured by the post processing treatment used by Ruff. This in itself is interesting in consideration of the titled used, but I believe that this is the result of the curation process for this exhibition, as looking at other images of the series online there are many examples of very explicitly imagery. I wonder, given my previous experience with JPEG (in the online images ended up being very different from seeing them in full size prints) if my perception of the other, more explicit images from this series available online will match the feeling that I had when seeing the large prints exhibited in the show: that somehow Ruff treatment of these images amounts to a kind of subtle, perhaps unconscious, form of censorship.
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Thomas Ruff – Nudes – Photograph of the original taken with permission from the Whitechapel Gallery
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Thomas Ruff – Nudes – Photograph of the original taken with permission from the Whitechapel Gallery

Substrate

  • For this series Ruff takes images from adult-oriented Japanese manga and anime and distorts them extremely, until they become highly stylized abstracts which are dominated by colour, in itself presented as very vivid blotches.
  • Just like in the case of Nudes, I can help but feel, given the original subject matter of these images (which we do not get to see, but can only imagine) that Ruff is attempting to sanitize our view of the world, taking something potentially embarrassing (japanese adult mangas can be quite explicit) and somewhat transform it into something innocuous, safe and beautiful. Perhaps this time around the end result is so distinguishable from its origin that Ruff’s intention was to instill the opposite sensation of Nudes or Jpeg, where beauty could be found from something horrific or embarrassing, and instead is trying to make us doubt if something that is as seemingly innocent as the blotches in Substrate can have in reality more sinister origins.
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Thomas Ruff – Substrate (details) – Photograph of the original taken with permission from the Whitechapel Gallery

 

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