If we look at an image titled South LaSalle Street (Chicago Board of Trade), Chicago 1992, by the German photographer Thomas Struth, we see what appears to be a typical form from the artist’s opus. Positioned in the dead center of the street, a vantage point the artist took for a vast series of street scenes made over several decades, we see two structures with pillared facades adjacent to each other, both guarded by a row of parked cars. Framed by these two buildings, the Chicago Board of Trade sits paramount in the center of the street. There is not a soul in sight, yet beyond the walls of this edifice, open outcry trading takes place, thus shaping the rise and fall of our world markets. In fact, established in 1848, the Chicago Board of Trade is the world’s oldest futures and options exchange. As your eyes navigate through the black & white picture everything is doubled, as though one half of the image is looking into a mirror. Even the light spills with a soft equity and the faint shadows casted on the twin buildings guide your eyes to the highlighted glass windows in the middle, which leads invariably to the picture’s centerpiece, the clock.
In the opening pages of Austerlitz, by W.G. Sebald, we find ourselves in Antwerp Central Station looking up at the “mighty clock, the dominating feature of the buffet,” which not only oversees all of the comings and goings of travellers, but also “reigns supreme” above a grand display of symbolic imagery and exquisitely detailed architecture. The protagonist, Austerlitz, observes that even in a splendid station such as this, with so much to take in, like the enormous dome meant to evoke the Pantheon in Rome, the station itself “a cathedral consecrated to international traffic and trade,” it is the clock that sits above the “only baroque element in the entire ensemble,” thus governing the space and activities of all those within it. The clock torments the two characters in Sebald’s novel as they sit in the restaurant near the station’s waiting room:
During the pauses in our conversation we both noticed what an
endless length of time went by before another minute had passed,
and how alarming seemed the movement of that hand, which resembled a sword of justice, even though we were expecting it every time it jerked forward, slicing off the next one-‐sixtieth of an hour from the future and coming to a halt with such a menacing quiver that one’s heart almost stopped. (p 8)
One may have the exact same response when discovering that the hands on the clock in Struth’s photograph rest precisely at twelve o’clock on the dot, at once becoming another perfect line in unison with the others in the picture, which brings the viewer to a halt when realizing how Time also reigns supreme throughout Struth’s work. While the freezing of time is the very nature of photography itself, Struth has doubly stopped time, not only by making the picture when the clock struck twelve, but by what he has pointed the camera at throughout his life as a photographer; symbolic structures of commerce, politics, religion, and bastions of art, which span the centuries and the globe in an attempt to apprehend the past and future. Likewise, Sebald brings to mind the structure of the Antwerp railway station as Austerlitz explains to the narrator how the architect of the station, Delacenserie, was “uniting past and future” by basing the station on the Pantheon in Rome. While Sebald uses the observations and historical knowledge of his character on the structures surrounding him in order to conjure up the clash of the past and present, Struth achieves this by sequencing his photographs, not by their original project oriented context, but by his own conceptual design, so that when we turn the page in his retrospective book Thomas Struth 1977-‐2002, to the picture preceding South LaSalle Street (Chicago Board of Trade), Chicago 1992, with its ominous clock forever fixed in time, we are confronted by the large-‐scale color photograph Pantheon, Rome 1990. By bringing to mind the Pantheon both Struth and Sebald have gone as far back as possible in the history of symbolic architecture to face us with the past.