Lies, camera, action
Thomas Ruff: From 1979 to the Present At Tate Liverpool until 6 July
In 1931, Walter Benjamin claimed that the photograph destroys the aura of the object.
Some 50 years later, Jean Baudrillard wrote about the Evil Demon of Images, stating that we live in a world of simulacra, in which the old order of the physical object preceding its image is no longer valid. For architects, at least since Le Corbusier's manipulation of images of his buildings for publication, the relationship between building and photograph, or object and image, has become an increasingly interesting, if problematic, issue.
The current show at Tate Liverpool on the German photographer Thomas Ruff - best known to architects for his work with Herzog & de Meuron and his recent images of Mies' buildings - is a refreshingly unemotional contribution to current debates about questions of authenticity in art and architecture.
Presenting 10 of Ruff 's 15 series, the exhibited Interiors, Portraits, Houses, Stars, Newspaper Photographs, Nights, Other Portraits, Posters, Nudes and Substratum demonstrate how Ruff has pursued his interest in visual perception by exploring different photographic genres, such as the postcard in the Houses series and the passport photograph in the Portraits series.
Providing the entrance section to the Liverpool show, Portraits, Houses and Interiors form the technically most conventional part of Ruff 's work. Conceptually, however, they are as radical as anything he has done, illustrating his point that photography is about the photograph and not about the object depicted in it - and that a large format portrait, for instance, cannot reveal the emotions of the model. Ruff is opposing Benjamin's theory, and his work suggests that it is the photograph itself that can create an aura. Ruff 's images are not about the here and now of the depicted person, space or building, but about the moment of viewing them.
The Stars and Newspaper Photographs series provide a point of departure from conventional photographic processes. Here, Ruff abandoned the physical model as motif and started using images as models.
For Stars, he edited and reprinted in large format, slides obtained from the European Southern Observatory depicting the sky above the Southern hemisphere; resulting for the viewer in a mixture of familiarity and strangeness, figuration and abstraction. In Newspaper Photographs Ruff used his collection of images from German papers, photographed them individually without their captions, and then printed them in colour, at a scale of 2:1. This series raises issues about the impossibility of maintaining a photographed object's authenticity, and the question of what happens to an image once it is isolated from its original context.
Nights, Other Portraits, Nudes and Substratum reveal Ruff 's fascination with the technology available for image-manipulation.
While Substratum - a series of abstract colour compositions - and Nudes - Ruff 's taboobreaking exploration into the genre - result from computer manipulations of found images, such as portraits from comic strips and internet pornography respectively, Nights and Other Portraits deal with devices to manipulate images at the point of being taken.
For Nights, Ruff employed a light-amplifying device, first used to produce television coverage of the first Gulf War, and took night-time shots of backyards and ordinary streets in Dusseldorf, achieving an ominous sense of anticipation in each image. In Other Portraits Ruff produced screenprints of layered portraits by re-appropriating the Minolta Montage Unit, originally used to produce phantom images of fugitives by German police in the 1970s.
Posters, a satirical view on political propaganda, sadly does not include one of the best and - for contemporary Britain - relevant pieces of the series, a montage based on Richard Hamilton's Just What Is It That Makes Today's Homes So Different, So Appealing? , featuring Tony Blair as the bodybuilder. Interestingly, a poster mocking Jacques Chirac and the French nuclear testing programme is included in the show.
Comprehensively underlining his beliefs that a photograph 'can only capture the surface of things', and that authenticity is contained in the photograph itself rather than the object from which it is taken, Ruff 's explorations of visual perception are highly relevant for architects. In a climate of architectural sensationalism, superstardom and image overload, the show - together with the excellent catalogue - provides a soothing, sobering experience.
Torsten Schmiedeknecht is an architect and director of studies of Liverpool University's BArch course