curated by Carolyn Christov-Bakargiev
In the late 1980s, Thomas Ruff (born in Zell am Harmersbach, Germany, 1958, currently lives and works in Düsseldorf) was among the first artists working with photography as an artistic medium to be fully recognized within the contemporary art world. In 1992 he took part in Documenta Kassel, and in 1995 he represented Germany at the Venice Biennale. Yet Ruff has always treated the medium of photography with skepticism: for him, the photographic surface is a thin foil which tricks the viewer with its illusion of extreme realism and at the same time reveals the fundamental impossibility of experiencing the world in our digital age. Ruff’s images seem emphatically to deny photography’s main attribute – that is, the offer of a reliable record of reality. Instead, through his mute images devoid of all emotion, Ruff presents us with a contemporary subjectivity defined by amnesia. The exhibition in the Manica Lunga gallery opens with the artist’s most recent works, the series zycles (cycles, from 2007), digital inkjet prints on canvas in which Ruff investigates the virtual image of space and the demise of photography, now inseparable from painting. The zycles represent computer-generated subjects created with a 3-D modelling program. The Nächte (Nights, 1992 and 1996), on the other hand, are the artist’s response to the nocturnal images broadcast on television during the first Gulf War. With their characteristic green tinge, Ruff’s shots of ordinary urban locations around Düsseldorf instantly evoke televised war images. In his next series entitled Substrat (Substratum, from 2001), Ruff manipulates images of popular Japanese manga cartoons downloaded from the internet to obtain abstract, almost psychedelic results. Ruff uses images of the night sky for the Sterne (Stars, 1989-1992), while the small photographic portraits of the series Retuschen (Retouched, 1995) derive from color pictures of patients found in medical reference books, which he retouched by hand. The series l.m.v.d.r. (1999-2001) comprises photographs of buildings designed by the German architect Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, whose initials provide the title. Ruff’s next series of architectural photographs is m.d.p.n. (2002-2003) dedicated to the Naples fish market by Luigi Cosenza, two images of which are on display in Room 30 of the Castello.
In 2004 Ruff started working on the series jpegs. In a process which emphasizes the digital origin of the shots, the artist manipulates the pixel structure so that the images are still “legible” from a distance of five metres of more, but become progressively more grid-like and abstract at closer quarters. The resulting visual encyclopaedia is both frightening and compelling. This series also includes images of outstanding natural beauty, an expression of the collective imagination. Photographs of war and natural disasters blunt our sense of loss and pain, engendering a “pornographic” gaze which views the body purely as a surface, a mass of electrical impulses. The series of nudes, begun in 1999, consists of enlargements of low resolution pornographic images which the artist has pulled off the internet and modified. The works represent the extreme mechanistic fantasy of the digital age, in which sexual desire is blurred and ephemeral, constantly stimulated and constantly distracted by other images or details in the pixellated grid, which expands to fill the surface of the screen – an electronic stimulus where the figures meld with the flickering bytes, as if the bodies were connected to electrodes and desire were a mere electrical automatism.
One of the dominant characteristics of Ruff’s art is his use of classification, or more precisely his use of the series in his working methodology. But Ruff does not attempt to categorize his subjects exhaustively, nor does he draw any conclusions. Rather, this is a collection of useless samples without any scope. Each classification creates a form of order, a formal organization, and in Ruff all that remains is this formal organization. His gaze is without quality, ideology, action or consequence, and is cast in all directions. Ruff’s art may not include everything, but it concerns everything, and our need to have everything.