In Review: Andreas Gursky
Hayward Gallery, London
25 Jan 2018 – 22 Apr 2018
Among many superlatives, ‘An audacious chronicler of the global economy’ is how Ralph Rugoff, Director of The Hayward Gallery, described Andreas Gursky, whose major retrospective marks the triumphant reopening of the gallery following a lengthy refurb. Despite all the money and elitism washing around the upper echelons of the art world, Gursky is not a corporate darling and the scope of the exhibition reaches far beyond materialism.
Through a kaleidoscopic vision of late 20th and early 21st-century life on earth, Gursky lives up to his career-defining goal of documenting ‘The Encyclopaedia of Life’. From early semi-rural landscapes of his native Germany and more specifically Düsseldorf, the exhibition leads quickly up to Gursky’s epic portrayal of the world. The transition to a wider lens view of humanity, moving away from the individual in favour of our more collectivised endeavours, began with Salerno I, taken in 1990. Whilst driving through the town, he saw the port and there was something in it (he did not know what) that inspired him to capture the moment. When processing the image, he was amazed by the outcome, captivated by something that would later inspire, arguably his most important work. At first, he thought it was the ports themselves but he later pinpointed the idea more generally as being: ‘the balance between great scale and a huge amount of sharp detail.’
These pictorial qualities combined several functions throughout the exhibition; they work abstractedly, as Pollock-like rhythms of dancing colour whilst the detail and scale mean they are interesting both up close and from a distance. They are big, fascinating and exotic objects that display beautifully in the Hayward’s unique multi-level, gallery layout.
There is a distinct element of the hyperreal within images such as Amazon, Chicago Board of Trade II and 99 Cent II, something otherworldly and yet familiar. Technically, Gursky achieves the effect of scale and immense detail, by using several lenses to capture multiple points of the vast landscape. The outcome is one that is not compromised by the form of a single lens and is richer in detail than our eyes could naturally perceive. Some images are aided by digital manipulation, the colours intensified and changed, things removed, added and distorted. This is an important distinction to Gursky’s approach that separates him from a photojournalist and positions him as an artist pushing the boundaries of his medium.
The work feels objective enough to be neither damning or praising of globalisation. It does, in its sheer scale, provide enough distance and visual stimuli to see these fundamentals of the global economy in a different way. The most transformative aspect of Gursky’s work is his ability to show nature in what is widely considered unnatural - the material world. In Gursky’s ‘Encyclopedia of Life’, we have reminded of the strange behaviours unique our species, a bizarre animal that would evolve to act out and facilitate these ever expanded and increasingly complex systems - a microcosm of the universe. AG