Reading between the lines: Thomas Struth lets landscape do the talking

Reading between the lines: Thomas Struth lets landscape do the talking

To Thomas Struth, choosing what not to include in each frame is as important as what makes the cut. In his current show at London’s Marian Goodman Gallery, it’s especially important to read between the lines. On six epic expeditions across Israel and Palestine between 2009 and 2014, Struth chose to capture ’the banal, the hopeless, the unheroic’. In a landscape defined by conflict, disenfranchisement and media hyperbole, he let the naked landscape express its own hierarchy.

The Berlin- and New York-based photographer embarks on new territory in this splendid Soho space, both literally and metaphorically. It is his first official foray into a conflict zone and the first instance in which the locale dictated the theme, rather than vice versa. It was as if, he says, ’Israel and Palestine were a geographical container for the scope of the human condition’.

Appearing, at first glance, to want to be taken at face value, Struth’s large-scale colour prints are politically charged. That’s thanks to their scrupulous composition, often conceived over several visits to a particular spot. In ’Har Homa, East Jerusalem’ (2009), a swath of earth levelled for settlement swallows up the cracked earth like a biblical flood. ’The Holy Land is such a desirable place,’ says the artist, ’yet in reality it is so dire, desert-like.’ In ’Silwan, East Jerusalem’ (2009), a mound of rubble looms in the foreground; sculptural clouds weigh on the horizon; a veiled villager emerges on a dusty path, laden with bags. ’The woman noticed me,’ he says. ’She was not happy. It was the perfect example to show the situation of conflict is within everyone.’

Struth has arranged the gallery with the same scrupulous composition, ’like a piece of music, with themes, variations and a quiet denouement’. He has framed bolder pieces between pillars to highlight the interior architecture. The climax is the sun-drenched upstairs loft. He includes some ostensibly unrelated photos, taken during the same period in cable-tangled, high-tech facilities in California. Aesthetically and ideologically, the two themes do intersect. ’Technological research requires the same obsession and tunnel vision of an intractable conflict,’ he says. ’And in the scientific world, different cultures work together to make progress.’

He believes, sadly, that the obsession with technological progress distracts us from the greater need for political progress.

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