By Rosie Shorten, MFA Fine Art Student
Reopening after a two year refurbishment, just in time for its 50th anniversary, the Hayward Gallery on the Southbank is host to a spectacular retrospective of the German photographer Andreas Gursky.
The exhibition begins with works from the 1980s which focus on the interaction between humans and nature. By showing the wider surroundings, he believed that then he could portray man’s true position in, and interaction with, nature. For example in Dolomites 1987 (image above), the mist covers the mountains, and then emerging, as if floating in mid air, is a tiny red cable car. The huge scale of these photographs emphasises the vastness of the landscape, and the power of nature. This contrasted with a small figure or man made object serves to show how small we really are, though we may sometimes feel that we are in control. Our power is diminished and in turn perhaps our impact on the natural world is diminished.
In Turner Collection 1995 (image below), Gursky photographs three framed Turner paintings in their gallery setting, giving equal attention to the artworks, the wall, the skirting board, floor and labels. He explores the relationship between painting and photography, as well as the contrast between the romanticism of the paintings and the formality of the gallery setting. In contrast, Untitled 1 1993, an abstract piece, depicts an extreme close up of a square of grey carpet in a contemporary art gallery in Dusseldorf. The technique immediately makes the familiar utterly unfamiliar. Indeed a discussion between two viewers next to me illustrated their confusion as to what it could be – perhaps mist, a forest from far above, or could it even be a graphite drawing? – and it was only when they read the gallery label that they could recognise it as carpet, an object which we feel we know well and come across repeatedly in our daily lives.
During the 1990s Gursky travelled, broadening his subject matter, stating ‘I’m not interested in the particular place, but what it says about the world today.’ He chose complex sites, which required precision and detail and demands attention and time from the viewer. For example, Tokyo Stock Exchange 1990 (image below) is a sea of traders dressed in black and white, filling the frame with no central focus. Karlsruhe, Siemens 1991 depicts a factory floor and is a mass of workers, machinery, power cables and other factory paraphernalia the apparent chaos of which takes time to digest. As with many of the pieces in this exhibition, the viewer’s gaze floats back and forth, up and down. With the gaze moving all over each picture, taking in the many different features, we can find comfort in the cohesiveness brought by the repetitious nature of certain features. For example inTokyo Stock Exchange the similarity in appearance of each person’s attire, and in Karlsruhe, Siemens, the shapes of machinery and factory paraphernalia unifies the works.
The exhibition continues upstairs documenting Gursky’s move into digital post production, which allowed him to combine different shots of the same location, creating images with uniform focus. Vast solar panel farms in one, a huge block of flats in another. In 99 Cent 1999, remastered 2009, the multicoloured, jam-packed shop floor is striking. The longer the photograph holds the viewer’s gaze the more detail there is to see. There are customers at the till, shoppers browsing, an eery masked figure, more brands than one could count and a fully reflective ceiling. Something about this picture didn’t ring true to me, and when I read that the ceiling reflection had been entirely added in post production, the impressiveness of the shot lost something for me. I had the same reaction to Nha Trang 2004, in which the workers are shown in cramped conditions making whicker Ikea furniture, this time not using machines as in Karlsruhe, Siemens 1991 but using craft skills. However, this again feels manipulated as it becomes apparent Gursky requested the workers all wear orange shirts for the shoot to provide a unifying feature. He has moved on from capturing what is there to creating a reality he wants to portray.
His works featuring North Korean festivals in which colourfully dressed figures numbering in their tens of thousands participate in huge coordinated dances and displays in honor of their leader are stunning, increasing in impact as the viewer approaches the image of a vast lotus flower and realise each colourful speck is a person. These scenes of apparent devotion to the North Korean cause by its citizens fully chimes with the West’s understanding of North Korea and Gursky succeeds in informing us not just about the place but also the world today.
Possibly his most famous work Amazon 2006, depicts heavily laden chaotic shelves in the Amazon distribution warehouse in Phoenix, Arizona. Gursky highlights the impact digital technology has had on organisational systems. The viewer glances over the shelves and sees a cuddly toy next to a book about golf, a sleeping bag filed next to iPad covers. It is chaotic, confusing, unsettling. It’s unlikely any human would have ordered these shelves in such a way, and yet workers must navigate these shelves being dictated to by technology as to what to pick, where the item is and where it needs to go next. This provokes thoughts of technology takeover, robots, a future where jobs are not available to humans, and indeed a time when perhaps humans will be no longer of any importance. This piece ends the exhibition along with composite satellite images of the Earth’s oceans, bringing us full circle and again prompting thoughts of the human race’s interaction with nature.
This greatly enjoyable exhibition open until 22 April will be a huge draw, and there were queues out of the doors when I visited. For me his earlier work had the greatest impact, and I thoroughly recommend you visit and seize the opportunity to experience these vast photographs up close for yourself.
Visit the Exhibition
Andreas Gursky at the Hayward Gallery
25 Jan 2018 – 22 Apr 2018
About the Author:
Rosie is studing on the MFA Fine Art course at Wimbledon College of Arts. Her practice explores the concepts of powerlessness and resistance. She uses found objects which have been discarded and/or appear to have lost significance. She then create assemblages, intending to bring new meaning to these objects while maintaining some sense of their intrinsic memories or qualities. Rosie’s practice also includes the use of video to create moving images. Using the sculptures as a subject, She animates inanimate objects, and place them in new worlds to orchestrate new narratives.