Looking at the world through different eyes is something that German photographer Andreas Gursky excels at. His hyper-realistic views of global landscapes and landmarks propel photography onto a higher plane.
Whether it’s a swathe of solar panels in a French village or the vast trading floor of the Tokyo Stock Exchange, his photographic work is big on abstraction and visual impact.
Now you can see modern life through his camera lens at the retrospective show at London’s newly revamped Hayward Gallery in London. It’s the perfect space for his large format photographic canvases which have a big ‘wow’ factor.
This exhibition features 68 of the artist’s ground-breaking photographs covering four decades as well as new works displayed for the first time. I went along for a sneak preview…
New Ways of Seeing
Gursky is famous for his large-scale, striking images which provide an insight into the world’s global economy and modern life. As soon as you enter his London show, you know that you’re in for a visual rollercoaster ride.
His photography is perhaps best described as ‘panoramic’ and includes images of massive man-made structures and huge gatherings of people in clubs, factories, arenas and landscapes. All modern life is captured on an epic scale.
Gursky could never be accused of making photographic images that are underwhelming. From Korea and South America to Europe and Japan, Gursky’s images are filled with massive man-made structures, vast landscapes and iconic places.
“I only pursue one goal – the encyclopedia of life,” says Gursky. There’s no better description of his work, if you’re unsure what to expect.
Two new works in the exhibition provide the perfect example of Gursky’s philosophy at work. A pair of images called ‘Pyongyang VI’ and ‘Pyongyang VII’ depict North Korea’s Mass Games, a carefully choreographed display of dancers and acrobats held in honour of the country’s former dictator Kim Il-Sung.
There is a beauty to the symmetry of the imagery and its vibrant colours but, as ever with Gursky, there’s an underlying uneasiness, perhaps with the philosophy and politics behind the events. People have become less human and more abstract, part of the colour and theatrical presentation of the Games by the state.
There’s also a feeling of ambiguity in much of Gursky’s works. On the face of it, ‘Dusseldorf Airport, Sunday Walkers’ is a relatively bland photograph of a family on bicycles looking across a German air field on a day out.
It raises all sorts of questions about the purpose of their visit… and why Gursky has chosen to photograph them from behind as if they are being watched by surveillance cameras.
Perhaps it’s a comment about their dislocation from the sprawling landscape which they’re staring at? They seem strangely at odds with their environment. But Gursky leaves us guessing about the meaning of the imagery and we have to draw our own conclusions.
Andreas Gursky produces big urban imagery on a giant scale. One of his best known works, ‘Paris, Montparnasse’, features a huge block of flats which fills the whole of the photographic canvas.
Is it a reflection on how humans have been swept up by their environment – or is it simply an abstract landscape?
The block of flats become an amorphous mass with a repetition of lines, colours and shapes. Its residents have been lost in the immense building block which they inhabit. We are left as bystanders, questioning this urban ‘dream’.
Gursky plays a different trick in ‘Amazon’, a large-scale photograph of the company’s vast online shopping distribution centre in Phoenix, Arizona.
The juxtapositon of toys, teddies, books and bathroom bling is overwhelming and becomes strangely surreal. The absence of any human life is even more disturbing.
Even more mind-boggling is Gursky’s hyper-active image of the Stock Exchange in ‘Chicago Board of Trade III’ which resembles an American abstract expressionist painting. All human life seems to have been annihilated amidst the swirling colours and vibrant energy of trading floor. You have to stare long and hard to pick up the individual details.
Gursky focuses on the superficial world of mass consumption in ’99 Cent II’, a candy-coloured budget supermarket with products bursting with e-numbers.
There’s something even more alarming when you study the detail in close-up. Just who is that person in the white face mask?
Another strangely disturbing photograph is ‘Prada II’, once again photographed on a giant scale, featuring empty display shelves, providing a sweeping visual record of our age. But what are we to think? Is Gursky critiquing the vacuous nature of consumerism and global capitalism?
Architecture is a big feature in Gursky’s photography – there are stadiums, airports, hotels, business interiors and apartment buildings. But these images reveal a very different vision from most photographers tackling the same subjects.
The first thing that strikes you is how flat and abstract they look, best illustrated in Gursky’s photo of the Kodak building in Hong Kong. It is imposing but also blank and characterless.
Gursky is fascinated by the ways in which we’re dwarfed increasingly by large buildings. There’s a feeling of awe – almost of the sublime – when we look at these huge structures. We seem to have lost ourselves in these landscapes.
Gursky makes use of computer post-production techniques to expand the artistic possibilities of the photographic medium. His photographs are presented on a huge scale and there’s a strong sense of their composition and complexity.
He doesn’t simply focus on the obvious features of the buildings, choosing to create highly patterned, semi-abstract image of individual features such as ceilings, floors, lights and cables.
This is well illustrated by a work called ‘Paris, PCF’ where the photograph is dominated by the ceiling lights of an underground conference room. The effect on the viewer is both mesmerizing and disorienting.
Gursky is keen on making super large format pictures, often taken from a bird’s-eye perspective or elevated viewpoint.
Some critics have compared them with monumental paintings. Perhaps they are the equivalent of the vast expanses of Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel ceiling – but for the techno age?
One of my favourite examples from Gursky’s London show is a geometric aerial shot of a Formula One circuit called ‘F1 Pit Stop’ which turns the race circuit’s sinuous bends into a piece of abstract art.
Another dizzying view of a mountainous stage of the Tour de France reduces the professional cyclists to a train of ants dwarfed by the enormity of the Alpine landscape.
Man and machine are no rival to the overwhelming power of nature and the landscape.
Experiments in Photography
Gursky’s latest photographic experiment are very much inspired by the mobile phone generation and the casual, throwaway nature of instant snaps.
His epic ‘Utah’ looks almost cinematic in style but has the feel of a photograph taken on a mobile phone. Gone are the precise lines and sharp focus of his previous works. Here the artist has taken a photo of this dusty landscape and pre-fabricated houses from a moving car window, capturing the transience of the road trip.
The image has a real immediacy with its blurry lines and lack of focus and precision. All modern life is here with its random glitches and smudginess.
Gursky explains how he took the Utah photograph in two stages: “I took a photograph with my iPhone and when I looked later it interested me, so we went back and I used my professional camera and photographed the way I did with the iPhone but at a very high resolution”.
The result is unnerving but instantaneous… and comes as a shock after Gursky’s high precision photographs.
Politics and Power
Gursky is also fascinated by the state of our nations and the wielding of power. One of my favourite works in the show features a giant globe dwarfing two men in the reception area of a corporate or government building. It has a strange, ominous quality.
It’s almost as if the over-sized globe is intent on regaining world domination from the hands of the politicians and bureaucrats.
I also love Gursky’s experiments in manipulating images and his ‘fictional photography’ which fit brilliantly into the current ‘fake news’ debate.
Many works have an implicit questioning of our faith in the veracity of images. Even Gursky has said that “reality can only be shown by constructing it”.
A fantastic work called ‘Review’ shows a fictional scene in which German Chancellor Angela Merkel and her three predecessors gaze at a painting by the American abstract expressionist, Barnett Newman. We are allowed to draw our own conclusions about what the juxtaposition of the painting and the politicians means.
Gursky’s work is constantly full of visual surprises and ‘wow’ moments like this. Fiction and reality blur together to create images that make us think and sometimes baffle logical explanation. There are designed to test the limits of human perception.
He tries to look at how the world is put together and you’ll often find yourself bemused and wrong-footed by his vision.
My lasting memory of this show are Gursky’s vast panoramas – his crammed supermarket shelves, packed trading floors, overwhelming landscapes, anonymous corporate buildings and dehumanised sporting events.
The Hayward Gallery has scored a fantastic coup with the Gursky show which also makes great use of the refurbished gallery spaces. It’s the ideal place for this major show by one of the world’s greatest living photographers.
Art, architecture, nature and technology come together in one spellbinding retrospective. It is truly awesome.
Tammy Tour Guide: Gursky at The Hayward Gallery, London
The Andreas Gursky exhibition runs from 25 January – 22 April 2018 at the Hayward Gallery @ the Southbank Centre in London.
Opening times: Monday, Wednesday, Friday, Saturday & Sunday 11-6pm, Tuesday closed, Thursday 11-8pm
Prices: £16.00 – £7.25. Members – free.