I took the opportunity of a trip to London to slip into the Hayward Gallery to have a look at the Andreas Gursky retrospective. I’ve been interested in Gursky for some time as, like fellow German Anselm Kiefer, he is someone who uses his art to ask big questions (see “The fine art of asking big questions” and “Anselm Kiefer and the art of algae”). Gursky is principally a photographer rather than painter or sculptor though, like Kiefer, he works at large scales. The Rhine II, the picture at the top of this post, is 3.5 m long and 2 metres high, for example. Taking a picture on a mobile phone doesn’t really do it justice, particularly as Gursky’s works, though they look naturalistic, are the result of extensive digital manipulation. In this case, he has turned a landscape of the River Rhine near Dusseldorf into a near-abstract composition. This involved digital manipulation to remove all evidence of buildings on the far side of the river.
The next picture I’ve included is the type of image for which Gursky is best-known: monumental images taken from a high viewpoint and teeming with activities associated with global capitalism. In this case, he has photographed a factory in Vietnam that is making cane furniture for IKEA. I look at this work as a descendent of Bruegel’s busy pictures from the sixteenth century except that Gursky’s narrative is very different to anything that Bruegel tried to portray. Here, the sea of identically-attired individuals all performing variations of the same basic processes merge into a repetitive abstract pattern. It is the antithesis of Cartier-Bresson’s “decisive moment” not just because there is no single “moment” that is being captured but also because the impression of spontaneity is also false: these large images are, in fact, composed from many different images. It is not always apparent on first viewing but close examination reveals the images to be uniformly in focus from front to back and, in the case of the panoramic views, to have no issues with distortion at the edges. So Gursky also takes us to that ambiguous territory where images look like they are depicting an actual point in space and time but they are not yet, at the same time, they are conveying truths about the modern world. We approach his work with an expectation that photographs represent reality. But they don’t. Or do they?
Andreas Gursky, 2004, Nha Trang. 295 x 207 cm
Les Mées is another example of a superficially simple image of an enormous solar farm in southern France, with the Alps as a backdrop. Once again, however, there is post-production manipulation of the image but also, in part a consequence of scale, the invitation for the viewer to contemplate and meditate on what is portrayed. Here we have the juxtaposition between the regular, angular solar panels completely covering the hillsides in the foreground, and the natural beauty of the Alps behind. The manmade looks that much more artificial through the juxtaposition with the grandeur of the mountains. One of the ironies of the image is that solar panels represent a sustainable future yet are, in this location, as much of a visual pollutant as an oil refinery. This solar farm covers 200 hectares and generates enough electricity to power 12,000 households. How many more of these would be needed to break the West’s dependence on oil and how many more landscapes would be changed as a result? Energy always has comes at a price.
Gursky’s talent is to simultaneously draw viewers in to inspect the details whilst forcing them to step back and absorb the whole. As you realise from the details that the image may not be exactly what first impressions suggest, so your mind is opened to other readings. We look at these images both as technical creations in their own right but also as commentaries on the state of the world. Gursky manages to simultaneously challenge our eyes and our thinking.
Andreas Gursky (2016) Les Mées. 221 x 367 cm.
Coda: A week after visiting the Gursky retrospective, I saw The Square at the Tyneside cinema. If you have not heard of this film, it is a film about a contemporary art gallery directed by Ruben Őstland. The plot focuses on the curator of a contemporary art gallery who is trying to present high-minded conceptual art with a moral message relevant to our times so it was hard not to escape the parallels with the Gursky retrospective. Much of the dark humour in the film arises from the curator’s inability to reconcile these high ideals with his own private life (one of the key sequences involves a one night stand with a journalist – played by Elisabeth Moss – whose name he subsequently cannot remember). One gets a sense when seeing art in the hushed sepulchres that are contemporary art galleries that these have a quasi-spiritual role in a largely secular age. I have no problem with this, especially if the art makes people think about their place in the modern world. But that does place a great responsibility on the artists and curators, in turn creating the potential for storylines such as that in The Square. Ruben Őstland has done for contemporary art what Graham Greene was so good at doing for the Roman Catholic church: highlighting the paradoxes that are inevitable when fallible humans struggle to address the biggest questions of all.