ANDREAS GURSKY, SERPENTINE GALLERY - LONDON, ENGLAND
Andreas Gursky, "bundestag", color photograph
Andreas Gursky's grand oeuvre, as well as raising the sights of contemporary photography, demonstrates that he is as uncompromising in his sense of purpose and direction as he is with the scale of his work and his subjects: he continually surprises and exceeds expectations. To say that Gursky's color photographs are imposing is an understatement; they are, typically, eight or nine feet long or high. The viewer feels dwarfed, even humbled when standing in front of them. This sort of presentation is a tad voguish, of course, but Gursky, along with Jeff Wall with his large light boxes, was one of the initiators of this format, and he is able to carry it off without it seeming too contrived or ostentatious, it fits his subjects. Size is not everything, but it can give a headstart, it elevates agendas and extends parameters, here creating appetites which it can never satisfy, generating that tension of desire which drives the dynamo of consumerism.
In a strange way here, Gursky plays the devil's advocate, as through his grandiloquent, commercially slick and glossy images, his works convey thinly-veiled warnings as to the inherent perils posed by the runaway train of technocracy as it picks up speed. On the surface, his photographs glorify architectural and technological achievement; featuring such high-profile sites as stock exchanges, bank headquarters, hi-tech industrial sites and state-of-the-art hotels, but lurking beneath are insinuations of the presence of a technological tyranny.
Gursky's photographic studies of contemporary buildings and their interiors are awesome, large both physically and conceptually. This scale overwhelms to such a degree that his style has been labeled "Industrial Sublime", subverting the pastoral sublime summoned by such painters as Frederick Church, J.M.W. Turner and Caspar David Friedrich during the Age of Romanticism. In Gursky's images, however, the common man, caught up in the Age of Digitalization, has been reduced to a "microserf" (to borrow the title of Douglas Coupland's definitive book), reduced to inconsequence by his surroundings, his miniscule, faceless, and powerless presence in these scenes generates a feeling of unease in the viewer, things seem to have got out of proportion here. What seem, at first sight, to be rather sumptuous, celebratory documentary photographs are in fact seedbeds of doubt and questioning.
As she or he looks at Andreas Gursky's generously proportioned photographs, a sense of the outsider looking in, creeps up upon the viewer, replete with all the attendant emotively skewed and charged perceptions that this implies, the everyday is transformed into the exotic. In some of his works, such as chicago, board of trade, or bundestag, we could well be peering into one of Italo Calvino's Invisible Cities, where a countless multitude mills around shrine-like edifices dedicated to commerce and progress, moving as if to some subliminal score, comfortable yet subservient minions. One of Calvino's descriptions of his City of Zora fits well here: "Zora's" secret lies in the way your gaze runs over patterns following one another as though in a musical score, where not a note can be altered or displaced. We could equally well be witnessing the materialization of Paul Scheerbart's "Glass City", as envisaged in his essay "Glasarchitektur", written in 1914. It is all awesome, but somehow unreal, the sense of the uncanny gains respectability in these clean, pristine and seemingly innocuous photographs. Gursky eschews narrative, knowing we will feel compelled to create our own anyway, and there is plenty here to fuel and feed those narratives, much of it less than reassuring. The scale here transcends the human, and Gursky is asking us to wonder why.
Karl Marx's famous statement that religion is the opium of the people, is paralleled by Gursky's subliminal themes here, where new opiates have been found. The viewer is detained by these seductive images which he has created, so that they become metonyms for the phenomenon to which they refer to technocratic consumerism. The mesmeric effect of their sleek surfaces, heightened by their bewildering complexity and unashamed beauty, might even defer any questions, which might lurk behind our scopophilic trance. Gursky almost invariably fills the frame of his photographs with detail, ground overwhelms figure, we become sucked into a mise-en-sceneČne wonderland. He transgresses Roland Barthes' theory of the studium and punctum of the photographic image, where the punctum creates a focal resting-place for the viewer's eye. Here, studium obliterates punctum, condemning the viewer's eye to wander to and fro across the tracts of that overwhelming detail in whose matrix Gursky deigns to revel, the enchantment of Zora's secret. These are by no means novel scenes and yet, as if we were viewing an electron micrograph for the first time, the plethora and juxtaposition of forms and details fascinates, absorbing our gaze.
It becomes readily evident, even to the untrained eye, that Gursky favors the grid, seeking it out to give it pride of place, in fact it has become a trademark, characterized by such images as his paris, montparnasse, Hong Kong shanghai bank, and mercedes, rastatt. It is the contention of the American critic and cultural commentator, Hal Foster, that the work created in the '60s by the Minimalists, including Donald Judd, Sol LeWitt, and Robert Morris, acted as a primer for Postmodernism. There is no doubt that Gursky's grids are echoes of the seminal works of Minimalism, perpetuating a fascination for rectilinear geometry which has cascaded down to us from Malevich, Mondrian, De Stijl and the Bauhaus, through Van Doesburg, Gropius and Mies van der Rohe to Philip Johnson, Richard Meier and John Portman. It seems that Gursky's work corroborates Foster's thesis in a very palpable way, and in doing so betrays a painter's eye. The Minimalists were not primarily painters, but their inheritance was, abstract painting pre-empted sculpture, Tatlin, Lissitsky and Vantongerloo following in the wake of the abstract painters. This painter's eye of Gursky's affords an astute awareness of color, not only in informing his decisions on composition, but also on what to digitally edit-out of his images. His recent work, times square, a dizzying view of the atrium of one of John Portman's renowned hotels, is a case in point. The blue end of the spectrum digitally bled out of the image, it has become almost abstract, now dominated by yellows, golds, and ambers which give it the demeanor of cyber-surreality, whose eerie glow makes it more virtual than real, more micro-circuit than edifice, a technological palimpsest leading a painter's sensibilities into the twenty first century.
In these days of digital manipulation and its deceits, the last vestiges of indexicality have been all but wrung out of the photographic image. Closer to painting now, the photograph has come full circle, recalling the days when the motivation behind salon photography was to emulate the hand of the portrait painter with simulated landscapes as backdrops, photography is the enactment of a complex series of negotiations between constructive and deductive strategies. The fictive urge has opened up a "Pandora's Box" of artifice and fantasy, as reality is dissolved and leached away. Andreas Gursky has kept his feet firmly on the ground, and as negotiator par excellence, he is busy lending the photographic image a new legitimacy, while at the same time emphasizing its affective power. Both conceptually taut, and visually arresting, his work, depicting grandiose structures and vertiginous spaces, is leading a field in which other notable European photographers, such as Thomas Struth, Walter Niedermayr, Wolfgang Tillmans, and Rut Blees Luxembourg are producing some outstanding work.