Thomas Ruff is one of the key figures of photography in the postmodern era, and his retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art, Tokyo, will probably already be pencilled into your calendar if you have any interest in contemporary art.

His work, along with that of other notable alumni of the Dusseldorf School of photography who were mentored by Bernd and Hilla Becher, has been crucial in visually representing postwar, and post-Soviet Union philosophical concerns about truth, authenticity and historical narrative. Ruff has more recently experimented with the process of photography without using a camera, producing extraordinary images that are visually pleasurable on a more visceral level.

The extensive collection of works in this exhibition — progressing from his strict, formal “Portraits” series from the 1980s through experimentation with 3-D stereoscopy to large semi-abstract photograms — is without fault in showing us the diversity of Ruff’s travails. The artist was personally involved in the design of the show, and created “Press ++,” a new series of scanned and enlarged newspaper photos combined with the scribbled and printed text from their reverse sides.

Like many of Ruff’s projects, the idea is both simple and brilliant, in a way that can leave you thinking that you could have done it yourself, or that it must have been done already. Either of which may be true, but to some degree this is an aspect of how Ruff has tapped into visual experiences that are mundane and common to many of us, and manipulates or recontextualizes them so that we are pushed into questioning the nature of art and knowledge.

Let’s say, though, for the sake of argument, that you don’t see the point of giant passport-style portraits that are over two meters tall, or the value of oversize pixelated porn images taken from the internet. Ruff’s early work, of ordinary suburban houses, banal residential interiors and office buildings, may seem irredeemably boring, and his later abstract and semi-abstract work of colored shapes and curved lines perhaps still too punctilious.

On the scale that describes photographs being more like windows to being more like mirrors — devised by John Szarkowski when he was curator of The Museum of Modern Art, New York between 1962 and 1991— Ruff has described his work as being on the window side of things. That is to say, he is more interested in what’s outside, than presenting us with reflections of his inner life.

There is no hand-wringing; no emotive depictions of human drama, pleas for compassion, or moral finger-wagging. This can be unsettling if you look to art for empathy or catharsis. His recent “Cassini” and “MA.R.S” projects, from 2008 and 2011, use images taken by unmanned space probes. Co-opting the robotic automated gaze of a machine, what French theorist Paul Virilio has termed “sightless vision,” these images are another iteration of Ruff’s sustained critical assault on the idea of creative authorship.

The photographs of Saturn and the surface of Mars that he uses are already accessible to the public in one form or another. More than other projects, such as his “JPEG” series of well-known found images that are ostentatiously reduced in pixel resolution, Ruff’s astronomy-based projects will be challenging to viewers who like to see that artists do some “work.” And yet they are so sublime. To view star fields and the rings of Saturn in the context of an art museum, as impeccably produced prints, is a very different experience to scrolling through a website or dipping into a science magazine. Ruff’s work often relies on scale for effect, and there is no substitute for seeing his images displayed full-size with other examples from the same series.

From beginning to end, the exhibition shows a career that seems to be passionately dedicated to dispassion. This is one interesting contradiction among many in Ruff’s work.

We are seduced into feeling awe in front of reproducible images of crumby screen grabs. We are warned not to believe in the objectivity of photographs with the most objective-looking photographs. Images of the future are presented with pathetic signs of obsolescence — typewritten notes, date stamps and scribbles in biro. His colorful and graphic “Substrats” and “Zycles” series seem to be playful and random, but are calculated and determined. His work moves forward in a very modernist process of innovation and experimentation. But in a postmodern way it also circles back through archives of historical images and dead-end photographic processes to produce hybrid compositions that seem familiar, but which we have not seen before. The upscaling of the vernacular and low-brow to grand tableau proportions mocks discrimination between high and low culture, and yet his work is conceived for and eminently suited to the austere environment of the museum.

The technical bravura, invention and visual impact of Ruff’s works are immediately engaging, but it is the tantalizing, difficult-to resolve problems that make the images worth thinking about in the longer term.

“Thomas Ruff” at the Museum of Modern Art, Tokyo, runs until Nov. 13; 10 a.m.-5 p.m. (Fri. until 8 p.m.). ¥1,600. Closed Mon. www.momat.go.jp/english/am
he exhibition then moves to the 21st Century Museum Of Contemporary Art, Kanazawa, Dec. 10-Jan. 15.


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