Celebrated contemporary German photographer Thomas Struth is renowned for his wide-ranging documentation of urban and natural landscapes, portraits, museums and places of worship. In his latest exhibition, ‘Nature & Politics’ at Martin Gropius Bau, Struth explores the transformative spaces where technology has allowed the creations of the human imagination to materialise into reality. The sites of complex technologies are a central focus for Struth. His highly detailed photographs offer a glimpse into the complex structures that govern and maintain the world we live in, which the public seldom has the opportunity to access or even fully comprehend.
Large-scale photographs depicting the hidden inner-workings of industrial production plants, research laboratories, operating rooms, nuclear facilities and space stations reveal the complexity and surprising beauty of the machine world. As the viewer is largely unfamiliar with the complex technologies displayed, the scenes appear more like the fantasies of science fiction than accurate documentations of current technological structures. However, all the technologies depicted have long since emerged from the intangible realms of the human imagination and, as the photographs show, have materialised with great effect into reality. The tiny details of human presence, such as discarded backpacks, laptops, ladders, tools, crumpled notes and pens, ensure that the viewer reconnects these advanced technologies with their origin in the human imagination and their production by human hands.
While many of the technological advancements Struth has captured are concerned with the external world, his work also explores the increasing instance of technological intervention in the human body. The scenes depicting operating theatres and advanced medical technologies are eerily devoid of human presence, suggestive of mankind’s growing dependence on machines to sustain and prolong life. Pictured without evidence of human operators or assistants, the machines appear almost as sentient creatures with skills far superior to those of the humble human surgeon. Patients lie unconscious, hooked up to the machine via a complex network of cables, almost as though they have become an extension of the machine itself. Another scene depicts the recently launched Humanoid robot Golem Hubo standing in the laboratory amongst his creators’ personal effects. While the creation of artificial intelligence is certainly not new, the launch of Golem Hubo raises significant questions concerning the emotional capabilities of robots and their function as human companions. These kinds of images pose interesting ethical questions about whether human beings are the next frontier for technological intervention and artificial enhancement.
The photograph ‘Aquarium, Atlanta’ depicts a group of school children on an excursion to the city aquarium. Surrounded by a plethora of colourful fish and coral, the children are completely immersed in the otherworldly beauty of the ocean scene. Compared to the complex scientific machinery of previous scenes, the supporting technologies of the aquarium may seem somewhat ordinary and unimpressive. And yet, even the ‘simple’ technologies such as those employed in the creation of the aquarium are inherently awe-inspiring in their defiance of the natural order of the universe. The very notion that mankind has the technologies to recreate the ocean in an indoor facility, located in an inland American city far from the coast where underwater life can be observed on land, is in itself a great feat of the imagination. While the saturation and fast pace of technological advancement has made many of us jaded, the children’s unbridled glee reconnects the viewer with a past wonder at the actual incredibility of the aquarium and what its very existence symbolises in the broader scheme of things.
The ‘Disneyland’ series depicts the fantastical landscape and architecture of the iconic Californian theme park and offers a different framing of the wonders of modern technology and the mysterious realms of the human imagination. In these works, Struth has photographed the artificial snow-topped mountain ranges, theatrical ancient ruins and carefully constructed desert canyons that form the different rides and amusements within the park. Saturated with colour and almost overwhelmingly bright, the hyperrealism of Struth’s photographs exploit the artificiality of these sites and heighten the peculiar otherworldliness of these man-made constructions. Created with specific reference to Walt Disney’s personal memories of vacations throughout Europe, ‘Disneyland’ poignantly illustrates the way in which technology facilitates the physical manifestation of a world created in the imagination. When paired with Struth’s representations of technological sites, these images reinforce the simple truth that despite the (at times) frightening complexity of the future and its advancements, nothing is created in reality without it first being conceived in the imagination. In the end, human beings are at the centre of these advancements and are in control of their future development and application.
Caitlin Eyre is an Australian freelance arts writer living and working in Berlin.