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Paradise in the shade: Thomas Ruff's Nudes

Some of Ruff's blurred Nudes, gleaned from pornographic websites, impart a lyricism to the images. Others lay bare the nastiness of the industry

In the mid-1960s when Philip Larkin saw a couple of kids and guessed "he's fucking her and she's / Taking pills or wearing a diaphragm", he knew this was the "paradise / Everyone old has dreamed of all their lives". It was a paradise that turned out – isn't that the way with any paradise? – to be transitory, from which we were expelled with the advent of Aids and the comeback of the presumed-obsolete condom. Then a substitute paradise came along, one in which the idea of expulsion and exclusion was not imminent but immanent: online porn.

I didn't see real porn of any kind until I was 34, when I stumbled on it by accident on TV in a hotel in Belgrade. I'd been told that porn was woman-hatred, but it didn't seem hateful or hate-filled. What it looked like was people having sex. Camerawork and lighting were devoid of subtlety but the fact that the film showed people actually having sex rather than resorting to cloying visual euphemisms and discreet elisions gave it the quality of a revelation. Despite the aesthetic shortcomings it was a glimpse of crudely illuminated bliss. This was in 1992; nowadays it is almost inconceivable that a man could have reached that ripe old age without having encountered porn via its latest online mode of distribution and consumption.

Porn can be all things to all men. Whatever one's desires, porn will already be alert to them, will pander to them – and, by pandering, shape, mould and form. In some ways it is better than real life – an essential characteristic of any kind of paradise. In a well-known essay Martin Amis asks John Stagliano, a pornographer, about "the truly incredible emphasis on anal sex" in his work. Good question – the key question, in fact, since in some ways anal sex can be seen a metonym for porn itself.

Anal sex tends to be better or, at the very least, less hassle in porn than it is in real life (didn't Amis's friend the late Christopher Hitchens include anal sex – along with champagne and a couple of other things I can no longer recall – among life's four most over-rated pleasures?). At the risk of sounding like a killjoy, it bears emphasising that the anus is designed primarily for shitting. Not that you would ever guess this from porn; the asshole, in the overwhelming mass of pornography, is hairless, odourless and shitless. Whereas DH Lawrence famously took exception to Swift's appalled realisation about Celia – "Oh! Celia, Celia, Celia shits!" – porn takes the modern Swift as its ideal client and delivers numerous and gorgeous anti-Celias. In similar fashion, male teenagers today, whose sexual expectations have been formed by the waxed, depilated and shaved horny angels of porn, might turn out to be as devastated as Ruskin by the discovery that women have pubic hair. Or do they? I ran this little Ruskin comparison by a 25-year-old, who pointed out that increasing numbers of young women are hairless, shaved, waxed and so forth because – to repeat – porn does not just respond to the world, it shapes it; it creates demand in the process of satisfying desire; it doesn't just read our minds, it washes them too.

Except as a spurious and implausible inducement or plot device, the idea of shame is anathema to porn. In The Unbearable Lightness of Being Milan Kundera considers the theological debate as to whether Adam and Eve had sexual intercourse or defecated in paradise. He concludes that without shit (and the attendant sense of shame) there would be no excitement and "no sexual love", that the three things – shit, shame and sex – were all products of the fall. That may be true in the real world – but not in the shameless and shitless (and loveless?) free-for-all that is porno-paradise regained.

Porn is overwhelmingly visual. People in pornoland do the things they do, in the demanding positions they assume, for one reason only: so that we can see what they're up to. Even as we acknowledge that shadows and glimpses, the unseen and unseeable, are key components of any erotic narrative, that narrative is propelled, in part, by the desire to see more and more: with less shadow, in closer close-up, in sharper focus, in HD. At some point, however, it can all get too close and clear, whereupon, as Slavoj Žižek points out, "erotic fascination turns into disgust at the Real of the bare flesh". (Swift comes to mind again, when Gulliver is exposed to the gigantic blackheads and gaping pores of women's bodies in Brobdingnag.)

Taken from porn sites, Thomas Ruff's ongoing series Nudes thwarts the urge to see more and more – and by so doing brings us back to our senses. I mean that literally – to the blurry imprecision of the senses. Several contradictory things go on depending on which photographs you are looking at (or even while looking at the same picture). Porn takes the universal desire to have sex and delivers it and improves on it: perfect bodies, no disease or impotence (as suffered by the porn-addicted Michael Fassbender in Steve McQueen's film Shame), no heartbreak, no regrets, no consequences. But by blurring these images Ruff improves them in the opposite direction. They acquire the uncertainty of memory, the imprecision of unenacted fantasy, the unfocusable swirl of the unconscious, of dreams. Or nightmares in which the idyll becomes either leeringly horrible or ludicrous and laughable. Though they are arranged with only one thing in mind, the original lighting is coaxed into gorgeous subtleties; colours become nuanced, delicate, or expressionistically garish. Acts and actors become more intimate than – and more remote from – the way they appeared on screen. The photographs impart a lyricism to the source material; or, particularly in the recent work, they lay bare the ghastliness and vulgarity of an industry that aims to service desire so thoroughly, so instantly. Hence the poignancy of the moment in Amis's Money when John Self wonders why, with all the hookers and porn available, he still feels the compulsion to jerk off. It's because, he concludes, he needs the human touch.

When I was a teenager masturbation was always and only a substitute for sex with someone. Porn aims to make us forget this, to convince us that masturbation is sex. In the past withdrawing prior to ejaculation was an inefficient and entirely frustrating form of birth control. Now withdrawing and coming over the woman's face – stemming, again, from the pornographic obligation for everything to be on view – is the climactic part of the sex act. A few years back the Guardian columnist Marina Hyde observed that some young men do this – without so much as a by-your-leave – because they think this is how sex is supposed to end. Even the most basic biological urges, it turns out, are extraordinarily susceptible to cultural modification. The line between natural and unnatural behaviour is constantly shifting and changing.

I am ignorant of the process by which Ruff makes his Nudes but more than a few of them – particularly older ones from the series – are reminiscent of paintings Gerhard Richter derived from photographs. Given the shared smudge and smear and a similarly slurred palette, this is hardly surprising. What was surprising, as I looked at some of these nudes, was that I found myself thinking not just of Richter's pictures of people but of his landscapes. And then I remembered Alberto Moravia's suggestion that a woman's body might be all that modern man any longer possesses of nature. (Perhaps there is a link here with Flaubert's astonished observation about "the horror of nature" in Sade: "There isn't a single tree in Sade, or a single animal.") Ruff's pictures seem both to endorse Moravia's idea and to take it a step further: what if the woman's body is itself so divorced from nature (from shit) that it becomes entirely non-corporeal and untouchable, nothing but image?

Ruff's decision to call these pictures Nudes encourages us to see them as part of – conceivably as culmination of and commentary on – a major tradition in western art that has cloaked itself in any number of religious, mythological, aesthetic and moral guises. As John Berger pointed out in Ways of Seeing in 1972, you paint a naked woman looking in a mirror so that you can see her tits and ass – and then you call it "Vanity". So, from a feminist perspective, these pictures are a final insult and injury, which perhaps has the redeeming virtue of honesty. On the other hand, let's not forget that when Berger left school and went to art college he was possessed by a single idea: "I wanted to draw naked women. All day long." In this light the long history of the changing pictorial conventions of the representation of the nude expresses an unchangeable desire of men to look at naked woman and – extrapolating from there – to have sex with them. Berger is looking back to what he felt as a teenager but, as you get older and wiser, you realise that the times when these desires were realised were the very best moments in your life. (John Updike's late novel Villages was a prolonged meditation on and recapitulation of exactly these moments.) Ruff's Nudes show part of the process by which these most intimate moments – longed for, remembered or imagined – are preserved and warped. But it's more complicated than that. Remember the scene in Blade Runner when Rachael the replicant shows Deckard her little collection of snaps which authenticate her memories and prove that she's human? They're not your memories, Deckard tells her. They're just … implants. Something similar happens here. These are not our memories – or if they are they are entirely impersonal ones. And at some level – one inscribed in the process of their creation – these images are not Ruff's either. That's what makes them instantly recognisable as his, and his alone.

The same could be said of the photographs in this exhibition derived from data beamed back from Mars. And there is perhaps another connection between images of flesh and shots of the surface of another planet. I remember an episode from the sci fi series UFO, back in the 1970s, when an unmanned probe sent back images of the planet from which an alien threat was thought to emanate. These images provided vital information in unprecedented detail. But an oversight meant that there was no scale and this, a technician claimed, rendered them useless. To illustrate his point, he projected a picture of what seemed to be a horizon. Except when he zoomed outwards it was revealed that this planet was in fact the gentle curve of a young woman's thigh. So could these views of whorls, craters and meteorite-pocked surface actually be extreme, Gulliveresque close-ups of skin, flesh? Either way, the challenge of these photographs is that we don't know quite what we are looking at – or for.

The history of painting seems to move logically and inevitably towards abstraction; with photography there is, at the very least, something counterintuitive or even illogical about abstraction. But another world – Mars in this instance – represents the possibility of indexical abstraction. As such, these pictures depict radically new topography: a new and distant frontier in landscape photography, broadening our idea of what to expect – what to look for – in photographs. In 1830 the astronomer John Herschel advised someone who was unable to decipher the solar images projected through his prism that a distinction should be made between "not knowing how to see" things and "any deficiency in the organ of vision". In this regard Ruff is offering training of a kind similar to that of Herschel when he reassured his frustrated companion that he could "instruct you how to see them".

Another connection between the two halves of this exhibition is, of course, that Mars has long been the default site of sci-fi fantasy. Our ideas, desires and hopes for what another life-supporting planet might be like have been projected on to Mars, the red planet, which, in these false-colour images tends to be anything but red. Ruff, in these pictures, seems to be setting Mars free from a long history of earthy extrapolation. There are echoes and suggestions of some of the more inhospitable realms of our own planet – Siberia? Sahara? South Pole? – but perhaps the pictures' success is measured by the extent to which their serene, translucent and milky beauty manages to distance itself from earthly notions of the sublime and beautiful.

• Thomas Ruff's ma.r.s is showing at the Gagosian Gallery, Britannia St, London WC1X 9JD from 8 March-14 April © 2012 Guardian News and Media Limited or its affiliated companies. All rights reserved. | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

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