The Hayward Gallery in London recently reopened, after extensive renovations, with a retrospective of the work of Andreas Gursky. Running alongside this exhibition was a series of lectures, entitled Gursky In Depth, which I was fortunate enough to attend yesterday.
The day started with a talk by Ralph Rugoff, Director of the Hayward Gallery and Curator of the exhibition. He gave fascinating insights into the great consideration that goes into selecting and arranging a body of work for a show. In addition we learnt of the physical challenges in bringing together such a collection, where many of the works are immense in size and extremely awkward to move around.
We were led through the evolution of Gursky’s photography, starting with his 1984 work, Klausenpass. At this time, still a student at the Dusseldorf School of Bernd and Hilla Becher, Gursky finds that what interests him is not the mountain itself, but the people climbing it. They seem to him to be awkward and out of place in the environment in which they find themselves.
Thus begins a series of works exploring man’s relationship to nature. Usually shot from a distant perspective, they show the grandeur of the natural environment with its tiny inhabitants looking, more often than not, at odds with their surroundings.
By the 1990’s Gursky has developed an interest in the urban environment, depicting more man-made structures and interior spaces in his work. He often looks at how industrial features frame a landscape, for example in Schiphol (1994).
He also begins addressing the issue of the global economy in his works, for example in Tokyo, Stock Exchange (1990). There is no centre to this image (it rather puts one in mind of a Jackson Pollock painting) which perhaps suggests that there is no longer a centre to the world’s economy. It represents chaotic, unregulated activity.
At this time Gursky also branches out from film to digital and experiments with computer manipulation. He begins to build scenes, rather than just shooting what is in front of him. “Reality can only be shown by constructing it” says the artist. His images become larger and take on an almost super-human clarity, with more crisp, clear detail than the eye could, in reality, possibly take in. He starts to shoot scenes from several perspectives and puts them together, removing things, embellishing, intensifying the colour. He is not documenting what he sees, rather representing it, but at the same time trying not to make it look too artificial. Gursky likes to present what he calls a “democratic view” whereby all of the “elements in the picture are as important or unimportant as one another and which completely dispenses with hierarchy”. A good example of this technique is Paris, Montparnasse (1993) which shows a perspective on a block of flats that is, in reality, impossible. This is because it is built up from many separate shots that Gursky took from two viewpoints, so that all the dwellings are presented exactly front on, with no distortion (which would have occurred had the image been contained within one single shot.)
By the 2000’s Gursky is moving further and further from straight photography and his images are taking on a more fictional quality. “These days, I no longer go places without a plan, hoping to simply discover things. My process is much more conceptual and research-based”. An example of this is his work Review (2015) which depicts the back of four German chancellors’ heads as they sit and look at a work by Bruce Neumann. These heads were, in fact, all photographed on separate occasions, as was the artwork they regard.
We reach 2017, and Gursky’s latest work gives the impression of a snap taken from a moving car on a smartphone. The image seems spontaneous and is mainly out of focus, an informal composition of pre-fab homes along a highway, “a monumental homage to the mobile phone and the outsize role it plays in depicting our times” (Laura Cumming, The Observer).
In 2011, with a price-tag of £2.7 million, Rhine II by Andreas Gursky is the most expensive photograph ever sold. Lucy Soutter, critic and art historian guided us through the factors that feed into the value of such a work and also gave an analysis on the rise of the photograph as an art form to now be on a par with traditional disciplines such as painting and sculpture.
The talks ended with a tour of the exhibition. Nothing had prepared me for the mind-blowing scale and clarity of these images. They were, without exception, absolutely incredible. All in all this was a most interesting and valuable day.