Saint Louis Art Museum Curator Talks New Thomas Struth Photography Exhibit

From Disneyland to vacated spaces in the Al-Ram Quarry in Kafr ‘Aqab, German photographer Thomas Struth has spent the past decade traveling the world, aiming his lens at what normally goes unexplored. The series of photographs have culminated into an exhibition titled “Nature & Politics,” which consists of large-scale prints that oblige the viewer’s gaze, ushering them into spaces to consider how nature and humanity intersect. The Saint Louis Art Museum (SLAM) will be the last stop on the exhibition’s U.S. tour before returning to Germany.

Ahead of its opening on Nov. 5, Eric Lutz, the museum’s associate curator of prints, drawings and photographs, shares insight into Struth’s photographs; the politics behind the spaces captured; and upcoming programming organized around the exhibition.

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“Mountain, Anaheim 2013,” chromogenic print by Thomas Struth

I’m curious about the title, “Nature & Politics.” My mind immediately went to the political and cultural climate that we’re in right now, and all of these forces of nature that are shaking the U.S. What’s your take on it? 
This is a very charged time, in many ways. The title, as I interpret it from Struth, is meant to be a little provocative in order to get the viewer to think more deeply—not just on the specific subject matter of each image, but how it ties into the world more broadly. How does it get us to think about our relationship to nature and the political frameworks that shape how technology is pursued?

Many of the images are showing these spaces that most people can’t access in order to encourage a broader dialogue on the place they have in our lives, and how that is shaping our future. So, you’re not seeing a lot of conventional landscapes we’ve seen in the history of art. But in much of the work, nature is the subject of the image in that many scientists, engineers and technologists are often trying to understand nature at its most fundamental level.

It’s really about trying to get nature to do what we would like it to do. And, of course, that has a political framework to it, whether it’s governments or corporations or universities—whoever’s allocating the resources and saying, ‘This is the direction we should take.’ Struth himself, if you read or see his interviews, has political viewpoints—but he’s not trying to sway the viewer. His work leaves these questions as open-ended.

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“Tokamak Asdex Upgrade Interior 2, Max Planck IPP, Garching 2009″ chromogenic print by Thomas Struth

What is the background of this exhibition, and how did it find its way to SLAM?
We are the last of five venues [on the tour]. It started with Thomas Struth himself, along with a museum in Germany that originated the tour. Michael Shapiro, a former curator from the Saint Louis Art Museum, who went on to become the director of the High Museum in Atlanta, said, ‘We really need to bring the show over to America.’ It came to the High first and then to another venue,the Moody Center for the Arts at Rice University in Houston. I think being the last venue, we’ve had some time to really think our plan for the exhibition. I wrote a long essay to go along with the works that will be handed out in a brochure at the show. It’s going to be a beautiful installation here.

Are the photographs large-scale, like in previous installations?
Yes. He’s really known as one of the pioneers of larger-scale photography in the mid-1980s. The largest print in this exhibition is 13-feet wide, which is the biggest I’ve ever seen.That’s one of the reasons why this show is so special, because his work is done on such an awe-inspiring scale that you can’t really get a sense of it just by looking at an image on a computer. It really is an enveloping environment that has a real physical impact on the viewer. Because they’re so large, this kind of show probably won’t be coming to America for a long time, so this is a rare opportunity to see this work before it leaves America.

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“Aquarium, Atlanta, Georgia 2013,” chromogenic print by Thomas Struth

It appears that the exhibition is about Struth going to places that are normally closed off to the public and exploring those places through photography. Can you tell me about some of them?
It’s an impressive diversity of locations he photographed, places that are difficult to gain access. He’s one of the best-known photographers working today, so his name itself can open doors. He often will go to a city to work on an installation of an exhibition, and then explore what that city has to offer. He’s worked in places as diverse as South Korea, Peru, the Middle East, North Dakota, Southern California, Florida, etc. So, I see the show as being very ambitious and global in the narrative that he wants to tell about where we are with technology today, which very few other photographers have the resources or the stamina to do. One of the really special things–which I probably shouldn’t jinx by saying right now–is that I’m trying to get him into a couple places in St. Louis to document his time here.

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“Hot Rolling Mill, Thyssenkrupp Steel, Duisburg 2010,” chromogenic print by Thomas Struth

You mentioned that SLAM had some time to think about this exhibition before it came here. Is there anything that’s going to have the SLAM watermark on it that didn’t appear in prior installations?
There’s some interesting programming that we’ve thought of around the show. The first thing, which I think will be a really interesting event, is a panel with Struth himself. I’ve pulled in two other people to talk with him. One is a physicist from the Large Hadron Collider, in Switzerland–one of the biggest research spaces ever created–who will talk about the enormity of some of these scientific spaces. Also, a cultural anthropologist from Washington University, Talia Dan-Cohen, will talk about the exhibition from a variety of different perspectives—not just an art-historical one. Struth really wanted that.

There are going to be a couple of classes offered in conjunction with the show to put Struth in context and to explore his career more broadly. And, we’re doing a film series showing some great science-fiction films. We’ll be showing “Blade Runner,” “Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory”—which is largely about a secretive invention—and “Metropolis.” I see Struth’s work resonating with a lot of science-fiction films because they often express our hopes and desires about technology, but also our fears and anxieties about it. And, it seems like it’s more of our fears and anxieties that are coming forward these days.

Thomas Struth: Nature & Politics” will be on view from Nov. 5 – Jan 21 in Saint Louis Art Museum’s Main Exhibition Galleries. Visit slam.org/struth for information on ticket prices and dates for programming.

Cover image:“Al Ram Quarry, Kafr ‘Aqab 2011” detail, inkjet print by Thomas Struth

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