If it hadn’t been for the recommendation of a friend via Twitter, I would have been completely unaware of this exhibition of photographs on the fifth floor of the Tate Modern – the museum doesn’t seem too interested in promoting this display and I couldn’t even find it on the building’s floor signs.
It’s an interesting idea in which photographs that themselves are not intended to be ‘artistic’ per se are given greater value and indeed beauty by being part of a wider set with common characteristics. There is a large set of black and white high quality vintage portrait photos of various German citizens taken over decades, from rural brides to Grand Dukes; shots of Palestinians, many posing with their guns in a pose chillingly similar to the famous photo of Lee Harvey Oswald; shots of buildings all digitally altered to remove doors and windows; and most interestingly of all, shots of random living rooms in homes across Malaysia using only the available natural light. The artist knocked on doors at random and asked if they could come in and take a picture; amazingly most people said yes. Wouldn’t happen in London, you suspect.
Quite apart from delivering a delicious kick of voyeurism, the living room photos show ‘typologies’ at their best and most interesting. Individually they are just shots of empty rooms; but the repetition allows us to see both what is common (sofas, religious icons; depressingly, big screen TVs more often than not) and what is individualistic (the grand piano, or the massive record collection.) The same is true of the German portrait photos – the pictures are usually posed and lit the same way, and yet each person retains their own character. The attempt to impose a uniformity on the subjects ultimately only succeeds in showing how each person, and each picture, is indelibly unique and different in a myriad number of ways.
One artist, Thomas Ruff, has two works on display that he intends should prove his thesis that photography can only ever depict the surface of its subject and never any underlying ‘truth’, contrary to the sort of pretentious guff artists have spouted over the centuries. His photographs of two blank-faced friends have all the personality of passport photos, albeit blow up to six feet high. And yet as you look at the photos, the observer can’t help but start to fill the information vacuum with thoughts and guesses about the personalities of the subjects anyway, whether accurate or wild inventions driven by their own internal preconceptions. In other words, all this artist has demonstrated is a universal truth that artists have known for centuries: that a piece of art can only ever display the result of a complex function comprised of what the subject chooses to reveal, with what the artist chooses to depict, ultimately filtered by the viewer’s own perception. Reality is rarely as ‘real’, as fixed, or as knowable as we like to think, but is instead as varied and as disparate as the number of subjects, artists and onlookers as there are in the world.