Perhaps the woman lying on the bed is sated, post-coital, in love. Or perhaps she is alone, or traumatized, or dead, or sick – or merely sleeping. And perhaps the older woman standing half-turned towards the camera in black knickers and stockings is posing for a picture or waiting for her lover – or client. Perhaps she was caught unawares just getting dressed. Perhaps the girl with the odd open eye is beyond seeing or perhaps it’s a trick or an injury. Perhaps, perhaps, perhaps. Shadowed or revealed in relief, Ruth Erdt’s images describe a space of ambiguity, seemingly detached from temporal fixings.
The images both invite and resist interpretation. Any inclination to decipher the image as a chronicle or account of subjectivity is ultimately rebuffed. As Emmanuel Lévinas writes, the other person ‘escapes my grasp by an essential dimension, even if I have him at my disposal.’ This fact of ungraspability, that a person can never be completely known, that in encountering another we encounter the limits of our power, is at the heart of these images. Untouchable, their subjects held in fleshy isolation, the images heighten and reflect our solipsism. The figures are wholly mysterious, outside and beyond ourselves. We encounter the truth of unknowing both the other and the self.
With the impossibility of any kind of knowing or absolute contact, any gaze must be distorted, as in these images – held in check by sunglasses or positioning or the presence of light, they are always mediated, never entire, always in shadow. This is the necessary condition of the image, and this condition unsettles and insinuates some kind of trauma. Erdt’s images invoke pity, a sympathy for those whom we can’t ever know. Nursing a trauma across the flat plane of the image. We can only conjecture at meaning, cut loose from narrative, when looking at these classical compositions in which flesh is both fragile and monumental.
Ruth Erdt presents the unpresentable. She produces the folds, drapes and planes of matter, of a subject, reformed and defiant of absolute interpretation. The viewer’s search for a narrative gives rise to a hermeneutic pause, a moment in which an intimate relationship between what is seen and who sees thrives, a moment in which the viewer is invited to ask – who, what, where, and why? Both prosaic and transcendent, this is the works’ captivating strength. Engaged in these photographs, entranced by intimations of a secret that you, an unwitting voyeur, may discover by your patient scrutiny, you transcend mere image into a hopeful possibility of knowing another self.