A large exhibition of Andreas Gursky’s photographs dazzles in Denmark
The German photographer Andreas Gursky has had scores of exhibitions during the last two decades, including a copious retrospective at New York’s Museum of Modern Art (MoMA), but one of the most focused of them was in 2008 at the Mathildenhöhe in Darmstadt. In that Jugendstil sanctum, Gursky’s show was simply titled Architecture, acknowledging that more than half the works he had made since the late 1980s had taken architecture as their theme.
The organisers presented Gursky as ‘an iconographer of the dramatic transformations taking place in our consummately urban age’, and he clearly goes along with that, saying: ‘I am interested in the ideal typical approximation of everyday phenomena − in creating the essence of reality. In fact, I always seek to create the ultimate image.’
As at the Mathildenhöhe, Gursky’s latest exhibition is at a destination for architects − Jørgen Bo and Wilhelm Wohlert’s Louisiana Museum on the Danish coast. It serves as a retrospective of more than 20 years’ activity and fills four big rooms, a staircase and a lengthy corridor. Gursky’s works are often very large in size − one photograph here is 5m wide − but they have enough space to breathe in a well-judged installation. It is a shame that the reflections they attract can make it difficult to study them, for these are certainly not photographs that reveal themselves in a moment: they are dense with sharp detail and you need to take time. And because you can find so much in them, their size is justified − they are not simply grandiose.
In making his inventory of ‘everyday phenomena’, Gursky ranges widely: from antiquity at its most monumental in the Pyramid of Cheops in Egypt to the present at its tackiest in the piles of gaudy merchandise in a 99-cent store. He relishes a crowd scene, whether at the Tokyo Stock Exchange, a concert by Madonna, or a furniture factory in Nha Trang, Vietnam, where rows of workers weave cane in what could only be called a sweatshop. But he also has a taste for the sublime, in a former mine in Japan, where the chamber is studded with gleaming eye-like hemispheres reflected in a pool below.
All these scenes are presented with scrupulous detachment, as if Gursky is a distant observer with an Olympian gaze. But just as the gods sometimes descended from Olympus to meddle in human affairs, so Gursky interferes with the scenes he documents, digitally manipulating them to achieve his effects. This may just be a matter of removing unwanted elements or adjusting the colour but can extend to making a composite from multiple exposures. Ever since photography was invented, its fidelity to reality has been suspect, but Gursky introduces a new level of doubt. Paradoxically he would argue that only in this way can he reach ‘the essence of reality’ and make the definitive image of a subject.
It is presumably through some sort of manipulation that Gursky’s photographs retain their pinpoint sharpness over such a depth of field, inviting you to scrutinise every centimetre of their surface. One stunning example at Louisiana is a scene from the Tour de France cycle race, where Gursky has found a way to present, face-on, the whole of a mountainside on which the participants make their zig-zag climb. As with several of his large portrait-format photos, you tend to scan it from bottom to top, following the route of the strenuous climb (the cyclists are at two distinct points) and registering all the roadside incident.
Yet you could mentally erase all the paraphernalia of the race and see this as an immensely detailed survey of the mountain itself: the sparse conifers, the scree, the paths, the weathering and the underlying rock. You are prompted to examine the world with unusual inclusiveness and precision, and in this case Gursky has undoubtedly succeeded in his quest for a quintessential image.Given that Gursky avoids a single focus in his photos and makes you look at them in their entirety, you can see why he is drawn to a large Jackson Pollock painting at MoMA, but his shot of it adds nothing and seems superfluous to the show.
There are further allusions to art in a Rhineland scene reduced to horizontal bands of colour and some recent close-ups of reflections on a river in Bangkok, though these luminous abstractions are less gorgeous than they first appear, for the river is awash with detritus.Compelling though these Bangkok works are, one of the strongest images in the show is the most explicitly architectural: Gursky’s relatively early (1993) panorama of a huge apartment block in Paris.
Again it must have taken some manipulation to present this building absolutely flat-on for the 4m-width of the photo, which poises it midway between an intricate abstraction and a record of inhabitation. At a distance it looks like an elaborate mosaic, with the coloured blinds of the apartments reading as tesserae in the encompassing grid; but, close to, you glimpse decor, furniture and lifestyles as you move from one miniaturised window to another.
If Gursky shares the detachment of his teachers, Bernd and Hilla Becher, and also their concern with typology, this sense that every corner of the image requires attention may seem at odds with their photographs, whose industrial subjects were always central. In this respect it is well worth seeing another current show at Louisiana: Plant Drawings by the veteran American artist Ellsworth Kelly. Mostly executed in pencil and highly economical, they capture the essence of, say, a sunflower or a chrysanthemum with just a few lines. They bring to mind Matisse but also the plant studies of photographer Karl Blossfeldt − an influence on the Bechers.
This isolation of detail in Kelly’s austere drawings is in marked contrast to the plenitude of detail in Gursky’s glamorous photographs, but they are equally valid ways of conceptualising the world. Given how empty Kelly’s rooms were on the day I visited, but how busy the Gursky ones were, it seems clear which approach draws the crowds.
Where: Louisiana Museum of Modern Art
When: 13th January - 13th May 2012