‘jpegs‘, a 2008 exhibition and book by Thomas Ruff was reviewed online by David Campany (2008) and Joerg Colberg (2009). The Colberg review is the shorter of the two and concentrates on the work itself. Campany uses the exhibition as a starting point to discuss found images, archives and the difference between grain and pixels in image structure.
According to Colberg, Ruff’s interest in the nature of digital images started with the WTC attack on 11 September 2001. He had taken film images which were blank when returned from the lab, and had to rely on downloaded low-resolution visual images which he describes as ‘terribly beautiful’. Whatever processes he subsequently applies to bring out the JPEG artefacts, the results have their own beauty. They force us to pay attention to the image structure as well as the image content.
Colberg admires the beauty but wonders if the concept relies too much on the technique, “What else is there?”. In part, this questioning arises because of outside influences attempting to persuade him that there is something more significant, which is not fully explained. Ultimately, he appears to accept that being ‘just beautiful’ is sufficient.
Campany starts with a discussion on the nature of found images and the way they are arranged in archives (although he seems to have a wider definition of ‘archive’ than my understanding) which is becoming more chaotic as the amount of information and speed of gathering increases (“… there is always something wild and unpredictable about the behaviour of images …”) becoming more strained as archives are digitised and redistributed through the internet.
At this point, he introduces the concept of an ‘art of the pixel’ noting that images now exist as a mass of electronic information that takes visual form as pixels. Although pixels have replaced the grain of photographic film, Campany sees a difference between them. Grain suggests authenticity, with the photographer and equipment stretched to the limit by circumstances, while pixels are seen more as a defect (although our response is changing, presumably as a result of growing familiarity with digital images). He sees Ruff’s pixels as representing the character of modern life, switching between figuration and abstraction.
Both agree that the images in this series work better in print (book or gallery wall) than on screen. I speculate that this may be because we are used to seeing JPEG artefacts in poor images online and regard them as mistakes, whereas there is an element of surprise or abstraction when seeing them in print.
Campany, D. (2008) Thomas Ruff: Aesthetic of the Pixel [online] at: http://davidcampany.com/thomas-ruff-the-aesthetics-of-the-pixel/ (accessed 21 March 2016)
Colberg, J. (2009) Review: jpegs by Thomas Ruff [online] at: http://jmcolberg.com/weblog/2009/04/review_jpegs_by_thomas_ruff/ (accessed 21 March 2016)