Ruth Erdt – The Liars

2 October to 13 February 2011


Ruth Erdt is not very interested in the documentary, she regards photography as a kind of fiction. Because she believes that her images only convey a vague hint of reality, she strives to overthrow established seeing conventions by presenting different, not easily accessible images which are difficult to decipher, that is, using the usual codes. She puts her faith in the immediacy of the image, an image whose emotional content is communicated directly to the body through the eyes, without being diverted through the intellect. Her photographs provide us with views of her private life, the people who are closest to her, and of her surroundings. Yet they were not taken with any intention of exposing life in the family, be it real or fictional, but rather to gain another view of the world. Right from the very start, Ruth Erdt has been preoccupied with a “counter-world”, a parallel world which is worth making perceptible without actually laying it bare.

E., 2003
© Ruth Erdt

P., 2008
© Ruth Erdt

The Zurich artist and photographer Ruth Erdt began recording images at an early age, but these will never be included in an archive. Totally unnoticed, she photographed for several years solely with the help of her imagination, her main motivation being not to let herself be too hemmed in by reality: “I was around 12 years old when I imagined a camera. This camera I conceived was attached to my head, could be used any time and ‘took pictures’ when I wanted it to, and from the angle I chose. The focus of that apparatus was outside me. I myself was often depicted in those first pictures. My aim was not so much to see, as to ‘feel’ an image. Somehow the moment when I pressed the release was extraordinary, a faltering in the course of the day, a deceleration, a dead point that engraved the image on my brain. These initial self-portraits were then joined by new images of objects bathed in a mysterious light, or images of people I wanted to get in contact with, to whom I felt somehow bound. There were no restrictions, just the compilation of a huge archive of imaginary images.” That extensive store of immaterial images engendered a second reality that was more authentic than everyday life with all is constraints. That fictional album provided proof, so to speak, of the existence of that other world, which was always more tangible, and which she experienced more intensely than the real world. The young woman did not say a single word to anyone about that parallel universe, fearing that it would immediately disappear. Premises under the seal of secrecy and rebellion.

Krokodil (Crocodile), undated
© Ruth Erdt

At the age of 18, and now with a real camera in her hand, Ruth Erdt put an end to the secrecy. The rhythm of the takes then slowed down, because of having to handle the camera. Instead, the photographer experienced the satisfaction of seeing reality and her own pictorial worlds meet inside the camera body. The album continued to grow, now taking the concrete form of strips of negatives and prints. But the photographer still tried to take her pictures inconspicuously. She captured her subjects the moment their actions coincided with her inner concept. The admission she made regarding the work Aus der Welt des Schlafs (From the World of Sleep, 2009) is therefore hardly surprising: “I was 17 when I photographed my first person sleeping. Like a thief, I stole up to his bed in the middle of the night and pointed my flash directly at his face. Somehow it gave me a feeling of power. I possessed a secret, saw a side of him which not even he himself knew. What I think fascinated and attracted me about the sleeping persons was the abandon and fragility, that being lost, absent.” Ruth Erdt’s photographic procedure involves not only the depiction of fragility, but also the exercise of power and the crossing of limits.

Paris, 2007
© Ruth Erdt

A first publication entitled The Gang was published in 2001. The book contains about one hundred images of Erdt’s children and their friends, her friends, strangers, animals and sometimes the photographer herself. Although the protagonists of the saga may be the main motif of this work, they are not the actual theme, according to the artist. Nonetheless The Gang is usually considered to be an autobiographical work, and not much attention has been given to the defiant title, or else it was been interpreted in this context as an amusing exaggeration, at most. Obviously most people quickly pushed aside, even ignored the notion of a criminal gang. It was left un-defused, like a small ticking time bomb, a latent source of violence. The theme turned up again in an installation which Ruth Erdt created as her final project for her Master of Fine Arts degree at the Hochschule der Künste in Zurich. The main feature of that installation, Kinderbett (Cot), operates in keeping with the principle of an unnatural hybrid: 14 semi-automatic rifles are set up in the shape of a cot. So the theme of violence raised by The Gang is not just a harmless game. On the contrary, it still leaves a lasting impression on Ruth Erdt’s work to this day, or better: on her view of her photographs.

Studie (Study), 2008
© Ruth Erdt

Similar to The Gang, The Liars – “a group of people (and things) linked by my gaze” – initially came together in the photographer’s mind. That gaze made a selection from the diffuse store of photographs she has taken over the past 25 years – from different standpoints, but with the same thrust. It lets individual images appear that had long remained hidden as if still non-existent, and brings other, more recent ones to light. The images thus attain their significance and topicality not when they are taken, but when the artist retrieves them from her store and integrates them into a larger work context.

The Liars include several defectors from The Gang; others are total new-comers. In the exhibition, a dozen freely-arranged colour and black-and-white photographs form a prologue which is simultaneously a counter-accent to the main installation, a dual projection of images accompanied y an acoustic environment composed by Marc Zeier (*1954) that harks back to the fleeting aspect of Erdt’s first “takes”. The 10-minute flow of images, with neither beginning nor end, conflates photographs from different periods, several drawings and more recent photograms. Thanks to subtle combinations, Ruth Erdt creates a complex sequence laden with allusions and cross-references. She is clearly much more interested in what is left out or concealed, the unsaid, than in what is directly shown. Yet she has an obvious will to communicate, which may seem to contradict this preference. Every revelation entails an obscurity, a concealing, and the expected insight escapes.

Victoria, undated
© Ruth Erdt

Seen in this light, Ruth Erdt is part of a trend in art in which concealment is the main strategy. Its representatives are more interested in staging the secret than in disclosing it. Opacity is what counts and beckons, the impenetrable aspect of a situation. In an era when state and religion are no longer mysteries, but rather increasingly public matters, the mysterious becomes insistently manifest in art. Or as literary scholar Günter Oesterle puts it: “The more modern society became marked by enlightenment, transparency and omnipresent communication, the more it needed a place where it could foster its ‘sense of possibility’. For only the secret holds out the possibility of a second world alongside the manifest world.”

Sylvie Henguely

Translated from German by Pauline Cumbers

Supported by the Friends of the Fotostiftung Schweiz