Depicting 30 years of global capitalism and mass consumerism, the photographs of Andreas Gursky sometimes make for uncomfortable viewing
In many ways, the photographs of Andreas Gursky are a mirror for the modern globalised world. At times the reflection which stares back at us is not flattering: an uncompromising representation of consumerist greed and its detrimental impact on the natural world. You rarely forget your first encounter with a Gursky photograph, stretching to up to 13 feet long, crammed with hyper-real detail and saturated in vivid colour. His images are typically densely filled, populated with hundreds of faceless people or depicting limitless quantities of stuff.
Likened to the dynamic drip paintings of Jackson Pollock, Gursky’s images are often evenly covered in an ‘all-over composition’, entirely in focus and without any apparent structure. ‘What I create is a world without hierarchy, in which all the pictorial elements are as important as each other’, the artist explains: the democratisation of every pixel.
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These images require a kind of ‘double vision’, a simultaneous engagement with the scale of the whole and the minutiae of individual details. Paris, Montparnasse (1993) presents the facade of a vast 18-storey slab block, stretching suggestively beyond the edge of the frame. From afar, the image speaks of mass housing, anonymity, dense urban inhabitation, a machine for living in. It is almost a monumental abstract Mondrian painting in itself. But within the building’s rigid Modernist structure, we are allowed an insight into hundreds of unique human lives: a snapshot into 750 frozen narratives.Walking along its 10-foot length, the eye picks out the bold interior design decisions, the hoarders, the shelves of books, bicycles and house plants.
Along with images such as Tokyo, Stock Exchange (1990), and his voyeuristic depiction of a rave in Dortmund, Germany, in May Day IV (2001), Gursky captures hundreds of stilled moments in a single photograph. It is a dizzying and addictive experience, endlessly scanning the images for funny or poignant little details you might have first missed (a raver’s hilarious dance move, an unfortunate Photoshop fail). Like a Hieronymus Bosch painting teeming with titillating detail and subplots, everything is happening, all over the planet, all at the same time.
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This globalised world of hyperbole, simultaneity and immediacy is omnipresent in Gursky’s work. In his images of frenetic stock exchange trading floors, factories, farms, shops and airports, he has documented the last 30 years of global capitalism. His photograph of a busy Italian port in Salerno I (1990) encapsulates a diagram of the global capitalist economic system almost in its entirety. Cranes continuously transfer candy-coloured containers of consumer goods to and from the colossal cargo ships ready to be distributed along their implied network of international trade routes. The foreground is carpeted with rows of vehicles awaiting transit while high-rise blocks of offices and housing glower in the background, fuelled by the economic activity visibly enacted in the foreground.
‘Like a Hieronymus Bosch painting teeming with titillating detail and subplots, everything is happening, all over the planet, all at the same time’
This depiction of what Gursky calls an ‘aggregate state’ – a whole comprising multiple small constituent parts – marked a change in direction for the artist. In the same way that Salerno I evokes networks and ideas implied but not directly captured, the images that followed coagulate multiple layers of meaning from an abstracted and distant viewpoint. 99 Cent II (1991) is a particularly iconic example, assuming a raised perspective that affords a clear view across the rows and rows of cheap, gaudy consumables, all yours for less than a dollar. Ironically, the photograph was the most expensive ever sold when it was auctioned in 2007 for the price of $3.34 million (since exceeded not least by Gursky’s Rhein II (1999)). This image has most recently been reincarnated in Amazon (2016), an immense depiction of the inside of Amazon’s warehouse in Phoenix, Arizona. While 99 Cent II is striated in neat lines of consumer goods organised for your shopping pleasure, the shelves of the Amazon warehouse are a chaotic jumble with no legible logic. Books, bags of compost, lampshades, and soft toys jostle for space, findable only via the co-ordinates displayed on employees’ scanner guns. In Amazon, Gursky records the changing face of consumerism in the 25 years separating the two photographs. Online commerce has transformed the global economy: in the year Gursky created 99 Cent II, Amazon didn’t even exist.
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Constantly on the quest for the ultimate capitalist hyperbole, reality often does not prove to be real enough for Gursky. The artist makes no secret of the digital manipulation of his images, paradoxically in order to better reflect the extremes and excesses of the world we live in. Clearly doctored images such as Les Mées (2016), which presents a man-made landscape of relentless rolling hills of solar panels, intimates that the environment is a construction in itself and that the photograph is also inherently merely a representation of ‘the essence of reality’. In Gursky’s words, an image can ‘develop a life of its own on a two-dimensional surface, which doesn’t exactly reflect the real object’.
Gursky’s most recent work betrays a new fascination with the mobile phone image. Utah (2017) indicates a new direction for his work: blurry, out of focus, a smeary portrait of the sleepy American West inspired by a photo he took on his phone from the window of a moving train. The image resembles a snap many of us would instantly delete, except here it is blown up to outsized proportions. Out of view is the enormous cloud of online image traffic, the billions of phone snaps shared on social media daily and the ubiquity and democratisation of image-making. Gursky confronts head on this challenge to the validity and value of the medium of photography in a world saturated with disposable images, immediately available for global dissemination, and with it the very future of photography itself.
Andreas Gursky’s first major retrospective in the UK is at the Hayward Gallery until 22 April 2018. It is also the first exhibition to take place in the gallery following its two-year renovation overseen by FCBStudios, along with the restoration of the Queen Elizabeth Hall and Purcell Room.
All images © Andreas Gursky/DACS, 2017. Courtesy: Sprüth Magers