Post-truth has been declared ‘word of the year’ by the Oxford English dictionary. It’s not exactly clear what this means but in the wake of the ‘shock’ election which allowed Donald Trump to become America’s 45th president earlier this year, is it any wonder that people are questioning what they know and how they learn what they do?
Thomas Ruff’s latest show at David Zwirner in London is a timely exhibition of American nostalgia. It focuses on a period when the country was famous for its technological innovation and products of the American Dream: rockets, saloon cars and Hollywood starlets, rather than presidents who like to grab women by the pussy.
Over the past few years Ruff has collected press photographs, mostly from the 40’s through to the 60’s via online archives and laboriously sifted through in order to find common motifs. He then edits the originals by scanning the back of the photograph and places the scribbles, stamps and cropping marks on the front of the image before re-producing them large-scale highlighting the tangible nature of these documents. The fact that they were printed, held and written on seems archaic in comparison to their digitally manipulated counterparts today, where photo-shopped enhancements are taken for granted.
In press+++70,01.2016, two men stand in the corner each pointing a gun to a figure out of shot. The typed font written along the side reads, ‘robberies bank’s Baltimore and Maryland,’ but the content of the photograph remains unimportant. Around the two men a red-pencilled oblong has been drawn – marks to indicate that the bins, shelves and anything else that’s superfluous to the action, should be cropped out. There are unintelligible scrawls, circles and stamps set across the image, obscuring the action within the frame. Ruff renders the subjects of the image secondary to the revisions, allowing the editing process to become the primary focus.
As a result, there is a disturbing undercurrent to the exhibition: photographs of fighter jets hang next to Hollywood stars whose portraits have been defaced – their faces scribbled out. Images of car crashes evoke JG Ballard’s infamous novel, ‘Crash,’ where by the public’s thirst for gore and destruction is combined with the erotic allure of crushed metal and melding materials.
Yet, the most compelling works of the series are the strange and incongruous artist conceptions used to illustrate real events which often blur the distinctions between fact and fiction, particularly within the media. In press++08.30.2015 the text reads, ‘some scientists have voiced belief that man can survive on mars if given moderate protection.’ This by-line (which in hindsight, now seems absurd) accompanies a drawing depicting a scene from ‘Mars and Beyond’: a former Disneyland television show. Three transparent pods containing vast futuristic cities, joined together via metal piping sit within desert-like terrain. The image is bizarre; almost a childlike representation of what life on mars would look like.
Ruff re-evaluates photographs within new contexts, forcing us to question how we should perceive. In a world where major events are regularly recorded on handheld devices such as smart phones and uploaded to social media platforms without being filtered, these archives become all the more relevant. Photographs taken by amateurs are frequently culled by press agencies and presented as factual evidence regardless of the source, altering not only the news content but how we engage and consume it. Ruff’s photographs are an honest, raw and a clever way to document a historic process forever lost to the digital realm.
By Wilhemina Madeley
Thomas Ruff – New Works, at David Zwirner, November 18 2016 – January 5 2017, 24 Grafton Street, London W1S 4EZ.