Challenging art …

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.

Anselm Kiefer and the art of algae …

My quest for algae in fine art took an unexpected turn at the weekend when I visited the Anselm Kiefer show at Tullie House Museum and Art Gallery in Carlisle.   I have already written about Kiefer following my visit to the major retrospective at the Royal Academy last year (see “The fine art of asking big questions”).   The Tullie House show is much smaller but amongst the exhibits was one vitrine (display cabinet) that immediately caught my eye.

The vitrine contained six clay casts of internal body parts (including heart, spleen and kidney) each covered in gold leaf, along with a frond of dried seaweed.   All the objects are arranged on a lead-covered board; lead is a recurring theme in Kiefer’s work, as he regards it as the only material heavy enough to carry the weight of human history.

Clay casts of internal body parts invokes Biblical metaphors of creation (Isaiah 64: 8: “… We are the clay, you are the potter; we are all the work of your hand.”), reflecting Kiefer’s long standing interest in identity.   Covering rough clay casts with gold leaf echoes mankind’s own exalted view of its place in the world.

But what of the alga? It is a brown alga (Phaeophyta), possibly Undaria pinnatifida (Juliet Brodie of the Natural History Museum suggested this, based on the photograph below). Placed alongside casts of human organs, it evokes a spine and rib cage.   More symbolically, perhaps, we see a juxtaposition of a very early form of life with the highest (in our anthropocentric view).   Kiefer has a long-standing interest in alchemical symbolism, imagery that suggests change and progress.   He has chosen objects here whose symbolism resonates with one another to create a larger story.   I could be pedantic and point out that brown algae and humans represent two distinct branches of the tree of life but perhaps I should just accept this as a visual metaphor for a deeper truth and move on.  Stand in front of any of Kiefer’s art and you find yourself asking questions that go far beyond the nature of the materials that he uses.


Anselm Kiefer’s Untitled (1988): a vitrine containing six gold-plated clay objects along with a frond of dried seaweed, on display at Tullie House, Carlisle, March 2015.


Royal Academy of Arts (2014) Anselm Kiefer. Exhibition Catalogue, Royal Academy of Arts, London.

The fine art of asking big questions.

As someone whose art practice rarely requires a piece of paper larger than A3, I took the opportunity of a trip to London to visit the Anselm Kiefer retrospective at the Royal Academy of Arts to indulge in the opposite extreme. Kiefer is, in my view, one of the most significant living artists; particularly remarkable because much of his art is based around representational oil-on-canvas works with a deep understanding of perspective. At the same time, his work is deeply symbolic and conceptual, often addressing spiritual issues and trying to make sense of recent German history.

I was drawn to Kiefer when studying for my fine art degree largely because I was interested in the way that his work was simultaneously traditional and conceptual. However, having expressed this interest in Kiefer, my tutors then used his work to challenge me, particularly on how I dealt with scale in my own work. Kiefer’s paintings are large and this, combined with his use of perspective means that you feel that you can walk into the pictures which, in turn, draws you into the symbolism that he is addressing (see: “En route to Milan: more musings about Leonardo”). When you walk into a room of his most recent paintings (the Morgenthau series in this exhibition), you get an additional sensation as 100 square metres of the still-drying paint perfume the air with the fragrance of linseed oil.


Anselm Kiefer’s Northung, (1973) on display at the Royal Academy giving some idea of how scale and use of perspective combine to draw you into the image.

I did experiment with scale in response to my tutor’s goading but working at larger scales creates it’s own problems. Apparently, one external examiner commented that he could spot the work of part-time students because it always had to fit into the back of a car. Not for us the luxury of a three metre high canvas.   Some of my final degree show images were painted onto a series of panels in order to to sidestep this problem but, with this behind me, I decided that I was more comfortable working at a smaller scale. It was not just the practicalities of working from home, my subject matter was already so magnified by three or four orders of magnitude and one more made little difference to the story that I wanted to convey.


A work-in-progress of my own, approximately sixty times smaller than Anselm Kiefer’s Northung (which is, itself, half the size of his largest works).

The intellectual heft of Kiefer’s art remains an inspiration, nonetheless. The quality of his work was put into perspective when I walked around the corner to the Allen Jones retrospective in another part of the Royal Academy.   Jones was part of the Pop art movement of the 1960s and has retained many elements of Pop art in his practice ever since. His brightly-coloured paintings and recycled mass-media imagery looked shallow and vacuous to someone still digesting the visual splendours of Kiefer’s show.