Andreas Gursky: Werke/Works 80-08 at The Vancouver Art Gallery
750 Hornby Street
Vancouver, British Columbia
May 30 through September 20, 2009
In the early 80's Andreas Gursky was a student of iconic photographers Bernd and Hilla Becher. By 2008, he held the world's record for most expensive photograph sold at auction. For Works 80-08, he has selected 150 images to represent the trajectory of these three decades. It is a groundbreaking and maybe pivotal exhibition for the artist, who is best known for breathtakingly-large format, digitally manipulated iamges that depict complex social systems rather than individuals. Here, these prints—aside from a handful of his most recent works—have been reproduced in small format. The rationale is practical at least as much as it is conceptual: very few institutions would have enough room to hang thirty years of Gursky’s photographs in their original dimensions. The Vancouver Art Gallery is currently showing over 70 pieces from the original selection exhibited in Krefeld and Stockholm. While leading the media preview tour, Gursky seemed as intrigued as anyone else by the impact of showing these smaller versions. He spoke to journalists with a quiet authority that was thoughtful rather than pedantic; although at times he was obviously covering well-worn territory, his ideas seemed to develop as he spoke and his responses never sounded pat or rehearsed. Reacting to the works in front of him he mused:
The experience with small format makes me rethink the big format which I have used without exception over the recent years. Maybe because I had so many museum shows in big spaces, in a way I was accustomed to the space. When you are always under pressure to do an exhibition, you have to fill the space. But now because I'm not doing any shows in the next two years, I have freedom/time to experiment. Even new pictures I will maybe do in different sizes.
An exhibition spanning an artist’s career would usually be considered a retrospective but in the case of Works, neither the VAG press release nor the exhibition catalogue refer to it as such. As seems to be implicit in the aversion, the shift in physical scale renders the word inaccurate. In sculptural terms it might be akin to attending a Koons retrospective populated with knee-high chrome balloon puppies. The experience of viewing an artwork is deeply impacted by its size relative to yours, and this is particularly true with Gursky's images, where teeming, minute detail is so often powerfully contrasted with vast territorial coverage. This show, then, is essentially full of new works—some more successful than others. 99 Cent (1999), for example, is not the same piece of art at forty by sixty centimetres that it is at two by three metres. In large format, the kaleidoscopic array of colours is overwhelming; the sheer volume of individual products is presented as a daunting yet mesmerising monstrosity. In small format, microscopic figures wander through tiny aisles that are stuffed almost comically full of homogenous product. Rather than imposing, the scene is rendered trivial. This is still interesting, emphasising, as it does, the pointless end to so many long and invasive chains of global manufacturing, but such a conclusion must be thought out rather than immediately felt, and so the image is likely to be less effective either as an aesthetic experience or as a social critique. Gursky himself reflected that photographs with complex detail suffered with resizing simply because many elements became unrecognisable. However, he felt others retained their effectiveness. "There are examples here in the show," he stated, "for instance, the Prada shelves... if the pictures are not so narrative, if they are more emblematic, I think maybe they don't need the big size."
In differentiating between narrative and emblematic, Gursky highlights ongoing concerns with notions of truth in photography. Some mediums are vulnerable to questions around authenticity of the object; photography is susceptible to interrogation regarding authenticity of the subject. Culturally, the power of photographs is not attributed to an idiomatic mechanism but to an ability document universal reality. This statement is a quite a generalisation, but its relevance was more than evident during the media preview. For every photograph discussed it seemed there was at least one inquiry regarding whether, where and how post-production manipulation had been used. In terms of the narrative element, people may as well be have been asking, "Is this a true story or a fairytale?"
While Gursky was open and fully descriptive about his techniques, there seemed to be some almost imperceptible traces of frustration regarding the persistence of such questions. Beyond the technical details, it is not a straightforward matter and, indeed, there were times when he seemed to outright contradict himself. Regarding Bahrain I (2005) he stated at one point, "...it is the real world. This is important to me in all my pictures." Some minutes later, after describing where he had edited the image, he insisted, "What is of course important, in the end, we are talking about the picture. It doesn't matter what it shows, the main thing is that it works as a picture." These notions are not, however, incompatible. Their common ground might be best described as verisimilitude. Gursky used an analogy that journalists could relate to:
I compare my work to that of a writer. He writes from what he remembers and his different impressions. In a way, a writer has the freedom to connect different thoughts, and this is the way I work with photography. It is not a straight documentary but the details that are going together, they come from the real world and they exist.
To return to 99 Cent as an example, the subject is an actual business in Los Angeles, but the final image has been altered such that the perspective we are offered would not be available were we physically on location. We wouldn’t be able to confront that conglomerated mass of products with one sweeping, reflective glance, nor—and this is the heart of the work’s power—would it necessarily occur to us to try. In so much of North America a delirious smorgasbord of ‘things to buy’ is par for the course; we accept the multitude of familiar parts without considering the whole. As Gursky explained, "99 Cent was the first time I came to Los Angeles. I drove my car on the Santa Monica boulevard at night. This [dollar store] is very extraordinary—you can see it from the street because it has very big windows, and I was directly fascinated by this view." That moment of amazement is intrinsic to the image that was ultimately created with post-production manipulation. Through his memories we see an accepted entity as something disconcertingly new, and we are given substantial reason to pause and consider our world.
Given the cultural significance inherent in Gursky's photographs, if their impact has in some cases been reduced in conjunction with their scale it is worth questioning whether or not the curatorial concept behind Works is sound. In this case, weakness in one respect in compensated for by strength in another. Without claiming this to be the case for every piece, in viewing the exhibition one can identify an evolution wherein the more psychologically involved Gursky has become with his subject the more important it has been to express his unique perspective via creative post-production manipulation. A tendency towards closer relationships has, according to the artist, grown stronger over the years:
In former times, I had a long distance from what I was photographing and it didn't matter if I was personally involved. But I think in the last years I have had a very strong relationship [with my subjects.] For example, with Formula 1, it took me four of five years to finish all the pictures, so I was really involved in the world.
His earliest photographs, those from which he felt removed, are unaltered. His most recent work, Untitled XVI (2008) (shown in Works 80-08; in large format) represents the opposite end of this spectrum. In Untitled XVI, under subdued lighting, Gursky himself crouches before a massive, black wall composed of large, organically structured perforations. He contemplates a section of the wall that he is holding in his hands. Minimalist and abstract, there is very little to orient the viewer. Gursky described, "It's a self portrait. It shows me more or less in my studio, thinking about doing a work." The piece was done for an exhibition in Frankfurt last year, and was created as part of a series on the city’s well known Cocoon Club. “I was fascinated by the structure of the wall that existed in the club. [In Untitled XVI] the wall is made in a computer 3D program, but all the details you see were photographed in the studio.” With this photograph, he has distilled the conceptual process of creating an artwork down to one key, inspirational structure. We are party to the artist’s very personal aesthetic motivation; he shows the specific meditative focus that lead to not only the work in front of us, but also to the more overtly contextual Cocoon I & II (2008). Within this exhibition, the subject that is the most personal—his own creative thought process—has been portrayed using the highest degree of post-production work.
Andreas Gursky, Cocoon II, 2008, C-Print, 43.2 x 83.9 cm, copyright Andreas Gursky / SODRAC (2009), Courtesy: Spruth Magers, Berlin / London
It is precisely this—the opportunity to observe patterns and trajectories that run through Gursky’s career—that justifies the decision to reduce the scale of his photographs. Despite any loss of presence they are all direct references to the work he has done over the past thirty years. It’s wonderful to be able to compare the clean, minimal beauty of Gas Cooker (1980), where the only colour is a faint trio of neon blue halos, to the disorienting, multi-couloured expanse of waste in the Mexican garbage dump of Untitled XIII (2002) (wherein, no doubt, a number of gas cookers are passing quietly into disintegration.) Gursky made a point of stopping at Klausen Pass (1984):
This is a very important picture. It shows a mountain in the Swiss Alps. I was still a student and it was more or less taken by chance on a journey... Five or six months later when the film was developed, I recognised the configuration of human beings in the landscape and I realised it's a perfect constellation. [After that] I photographed landscapes with human beings inside.
(When asked specifically what it was about the arrangement of people that appealed to him, his response was fascinating: "It looks as if I painted in the figures later on.") Further to being a conceptual fulcrum of sorts, this image also makes a striking contrast to another of his latest pieces, Hamm, Bergwerk Ost (2008), shown in large format. Hamm, Bergwerk Ost shows scores of the suspended metal cages that hold miners' personal gear. It’s as if, from Klausen Pass, we have panned deep inside the mountain itself. We move from viewing human beings dotted innocuously across a landscape to observing the heavy presence of human beings working inside the land.
Andreas Gursky: Works 80-08 is a powerful exhibition for the same reason the artist's photographs are powerful. By compressing and almagamating thirty years worth of images into one body, the prints become analogous to details in Gursky’s work. Individuals elements are subordinated to the systematic whole, offering viewers entirely new psychological perspectives. Each image retains its ability to stand alone but the show itself is the ultimate new work, and viewing its elements comprehensively affordeds us unique insight into one of the most significant photographic careers of this century. In Works 80-08, Gursky's deeply compelling method of encyclopedic analysis has been turned on himself.
Andreas Gursky, Gas Cooker, 1980, C-Print, 53.4 x 43.2 cm
copyright Andreas Gursky / SODRAC (2009), Courtesy: Spruth Magers, Berlin / London