A Visual Autobiography: Thomas Ruff at Whitechapel Gallery

Whitechapel Gallery is white-walled, trendy and modern. Despite being a gallery with lengthy history, having opened in 1901 for the residents of the East End, and possessing a façade in the Arts and Crafts style - the environment inside feels very studious and youthful. The institution’s reopening in 2009 brought spaces such as the research centre and archive room. Its renovation along with its ongoing community ethos has made Whitechapel Gallery one of the cornerstones of the increasingly fashionable East End as a cultural hotspot in recent years.

Until the 21st January 2018, it is home to German photographer Thomas Ruff’s thirty-eight-year creative journey. An artist who has self-evolved alongside his changing media, this collection asserts Ruff’s fascinating personal narrative.

The viewer is greeted by Ruff himself in the opening gallery. The exhibition commences with the first snapshot of his artistic voyage as L’Empereur [featured image above], an ambitious art student starting at Cité Internationale des Arts, Paris. An ironic series, the creatively stagnant art student turns his subject into his own boredom, as he drapes over the modernist furniture of his room like an oversized cat.

In a recent interview, Ruff revealed that he views his photography as a survey of specific moments that provoked a feeling he wanted to capture. Here, Ruff had found feeling amidst his chair and lampshade, as he absurdly wove himself around their ridged forms, which seemed to pity Ruff’s predicament in their austere uprightness. An empathetic scene of human frustration, Ruff as a yellowed-socked lounger warms and amuses the onlooker from the exhibition’s outset.

The series of inflated passport photographs, Porträts, certainly project Ruff’s persistent experimentation with scale. The giant portraits stare with confidence, but as passport photos, their presence feels self-assured. They are removed from the commercial and impersonal use of oversized portraits in popular culture.

This crisp, uniform portrait series on one wall appears aesthetically distressed by the neighbouring photos of constellations and cosmos. Whilst Ruff’s photography is eclectic in subject matter, the curation of this exhibition fails to sufficiently emphasise the distinctiveness of Ruff’s photographic series that capture particular moments during his life. It would have perhaps been more appropriate to position these portraits alongside Zeitungsfotos (newspaper photographs.) Having created this series, which focuses on the media’s distortion of an individual through verbal and visual editing, an interesting shift in subject-power could have been identified and compared.

However, there is something pleasing and perhaps necessary about the fact Ruff’s boyhood obsession creeps into this retrospective though Sterne (Stars). Whilst much of his later work can seem withdrawn from fantasy and cemented in the domestic and the banal, draped in concrete, off shades of brown and overcast days, the exotic and abstract interstellar surfaces demonstrate his active imagination and fascination with the sublime.

Ruff’s expertise is present in his documentation of oppressed domesticity in both the Interieurs and Hauser series that are set in post-war Germany. I found this series particularly moving. His use of angles, which often capture snippets of rooms and household furniture certainly project the sense of foreboding and sombreness still resonant from the war. Whilst dawning with modernity and utility, these humble rooms show a definitive sense of loss, especially in the piece depicting family photographs. This personal touches jar with these bleak showroom houses, creating an awkward poignancy.

Whilst the series may seem sporadic and sometimes inconsistent, this retrospective illuminates Ruff’s varied experiences within the ever-changing media of photography. Whitechapel Gallery has succeeded in opposing the polished and thematic collections that photography exhibitions often attempt to adhere to, and it's a refreshingly raw and uncensored journey...

'Thomas Ruff: Photographs 1979 – 2017' is on display at Whitechapel Gallery until 21 January 2018.

Jessica Jenkinson

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