Sounds noble enough but does Andreas Gurksy's self-confessed encyclopaedia of life truly contain all that life's rich pageant has for us or does Gurksy, as the photographer, impose his own personal hierarchical structure on it with himself, the artist, at the very top of the pyramid?
For the most part I don't think he does. A comprehensive overview of the German photographer's work was a brilliant way to reopen the newly refurbished Hayward Gallery (they've added some gold bannisters, moved the shop, and made the bogs more 'inclusive' (!)) with. He's popular without being populist, his art is clear, his message is pretty direct, and his photographs, for the most part, are bloody huge. It's a show that should be able to please both punters and critics - and so it proved to be. I certainly left feeling like I'd got my money's worth and I'm both a punter and a (self-appointed) critic.
It's not laid out strictly chronologically and the accompanying pamphlet uses a very loose thematic approach (sections are divided into broad categories like Architecture, Scale, Crowds, and Display) but rather than confusing the visitor it frees them up to take things in at a more leisurely pace.
Gursky was born in Leipzig in 1955 and, along with Thomas Ruff, studied under the fabulous Bernd and Hilla Becher at the Dusseldorf Art Academy. A journey from Leipzig to Dusseldorf at that time involved passing through the Iron Curtain from East to West Germany and clearly he preferred it in Dusseldorf as he continues to base himself there. Along with Ruff, and others like Thomas Struth, Candida Hofer, and Axel Hutte, he became part of a loose grouping of photographers that became known as the Dusseldorf School.
Mulheim, Anglers (1989)
Krefeld, Chickens (1989)
Ruhr Valley (1989)
Dusseldorf Airport, Sunday Walkers (1985)
Gurksy's 'Sunday pictures' of the eighties captured people at play, swimming, walking, fishing, doing nothing, in and around Dusseldorf. His description of them as 'representatives of a species whose mission remains obscure' can be taken in various ways. It makes him sound haughty and aloof, above the quotidian concerns of the proletariat - which isn't great - but it also suggests that he has a little of what Graham Greene called a 'splinter of ice in the heart', the ability to look at things dispassionately at least for as long as it takes to turn them into art.
Many of the figures in these works are dwarfed by bridges, trees, mountains, and buildings. Suggesting that Gursky was interested in loneliness, alienation, and the search for meaning in a meaningless world.. Both Ruhr Valley and Mulheim, Anglers seem to speak of a kind of yearning, whispering about vague melancholia.
Aletsch Glacier (1993)
Untitled I (1993)
A square of grey carpet in Kunsthalle Dusseldorf has been photographed in such close up that it defamiliarizes it and ultimately renders it abstract. Equally his triptych of Turners places just as much as emphasis on the walls, the floor, and the lighting as it does on the paintings. Gursky, as ever, is democratic in his process.
He's on record as saying "my images are always interpretations of places" and those places can be as small as a piece of carpet or as vast as a glacier or, in the case of Dolomites, Cable Car. a combination of both. You'll really have to squint to spot the solitary cable car suspended by a wire over the mist covered mountains. Or, ideally, go to the exhibition. Don't expect my photos of his photos to be as good as his. That's ridiculous.
Turner Collection (1995)
Dolomites, Cable Car (1987)
The windows of Schiphol airport in Amsterdam act as a secondary frame, an auxiliary lens but they also show Gursky's interest in architecture. Both blockbuster buildings and the more prosaic, even liminal, spaces we pass through on the way to somewhere more interesting. Some, like airports, we may see only occasionally. Others could be our places of work or our homes. Sites, and sights, that have been rendered meaningless through familiarity can, seen with new eyes, suddenly tell a very different story. Invite a stranger round to your house and it's likely they'll comment on something you've barely thought about for years.
The airport departure lounge also seems to signpost the fact that by the time he was creating photos like this Gurksy's burgeoning success had brought with it opportunities for travel and that travel led, quite correctly, to a broadening, an internationalising, of his subject matter. Further democratisation of his process came, in photos like Karlsruhe, Siemens and Salerno I, with the epic panoramic shot that places as much attention on the vans parked up in the foreground as it does the architecture and hills in the background. These are the photos one thinks of when one thinks of Gursky and if you were to suggest some of them have something of a Where's Wally? quality about them some may laugh. I couldn't possibly comment.
Karlsruhe, Siemens (1991)
Salerno I (1990)
These are the works Gursky calls his 'aggregate states', worlds without hierarchies. They're fascinating to look at and new details continually reveal themselves. They don't seek to instruct but rather to let you create your own narrative. It's fun to listen to people in the gallery do this.
The strange shaped Kodak building and the huge Paris, Montparnasse both show the enormity of the buildings but they also, the latter especially, open a window into the multiple lives being lived out inside those buildings.
Paris, Montparnasse (1993)
Digital post-production techniques were bought in to play on works like Paris, Montparnasse (the French capital's largest residential building) and it's worth reminding ourselves that Gursky doesn't photograph reality, but creates a new reality. He's playing tricks with us but so subtle are they we fall for them each time - and thus we give him permission to continue to do so.
Toys 'R' Us (1999)
99 Cent (1999/2009)
Pyongyang VI (2007/2017)
Huge toy megastores, American shops during Hallowe'en, and Egyptian pyramids all catch the eye but perhaps none more so than the incredible colours and light of Gurksy's Pyongyang VI. North Korea's Arirang festival (or Mass Games) are held in honour of Kim Il-Sung and feature over 70,000 gymnasts and 30,000 school children. Gurksy first visited in 2007 but, taken by recent developments in North Korea, went back to the photo last year and we can only be grateful he did. It's a thing of beauty and it's something that's barely comprehensible to anybody outside of the DPRK.
Next to that the photograph of four of Germany's recent chancellers (Gerhard Schroder, Helmut Schmidt, Angela Merkel, and Helmut Kohl) sitting in front of Barnett Newman's Vir Heroicus Sublimis (1950-51) can look rather drab, a bit humdrum even. It does tell us quite a bit about Gursky's methods though, the way he'll happily 'photoshop' images to create a desired effect, to tell a story. After all, it seems pretty unlikely that these four ever really got together to ponder American abstract art.
Even more can be learnt about his career trajectory by comparing Desk Attendants, Salzgitter, Dusseldorf from 1982 with recent works taken from space of entire land masses. He once photographed representations of the Earth, now he photographs the Earth itself. No wonder an airport departure lounge appealed such. I love airport departure lounge boards. I love looking at the various destinations and imagining what I'd do if I was to ever go there, ever live there. They fill me with wanderlust.
Desk Attendants, Salzgitter, Dusseldorf (1982)
Gursky would appear to be a man whose wanderlust could easily have been sated so it's nice to see he still finds inspiration on his travels. Utah was inspired by a photograph that Gursky took from the window of a moving car. If you've ever taken a photo from a moving train it's a pleasant effect how the background is steady but the foreground is blurred. Gursky gets paid for doing this!
Some of the stuff he's made in the last few years seem to hint at either a drastic change of direction or an artist, now well into middle age, having something of a crisis of confidence. Iron Man in SH I looks like something from an Athena poster, other works (like Tokyo) hew closer to what you'd expect for him, whilst in other cases he's scaled down the size of his photographs quite dramatically. The story's ongoing. The jury is out.
SH I (2013)
You would never be able to see the view in Tokyo in Tokyo itself. That's because it's constructed from dozens of different shots taken from train windows in the Japanese capital. Gursky's trying to create a reality that is more real than real reality. Really.
He's also trying to address salient issues of our times. Environmental degradation, working conditions, dehumanisation, consumerism. Yet he shuns overt didacticism. "I keep awareness of the problems simmering without losing sight of the beauty and complexity of the world so that interest in it doesn't disappear" he explains.
Paris, PCF (2003)
The Super-Kamioka Neutrino Detection Experiment (or Kamiokande for short), that comes, unfortunately, complete with this blogger's reflection (hey, I don't get paid for this, you know) is situarted one kilometre beneath a Japanese mountain and has been set up to observe the behaviour of neutrinos. To give you an idea of how unfathomably vast and cavernous it is look in the bottom right hand corner, that's a man in a boat. Why isn't this place better known?
Rhine II's not what it looks like. Gurksy's removed a power station on the far bank to make the picture more 'natural' though one can't help wondering why he didn't just walk a few hundred metres further down the river!
In this it both explains, and further mystifies, and that, often, seems to be exactly what Gursky's work has always done. Visions that at first may look familiar soon become discomfiting and those that at first appear odd reveal themselves to be actually very ordinary things. He makes the extraordinary ordinary and the ordinary extraordinary and as something of a magician behind the lens he does it with a sleight of hand you barely notice. A trick that good is one worth repeating and one worth devoting an entire, and important, show at this great gallery to.
Rhine II (1999/2015)
Bahrain I (2005)
Tour de France I (2007)
Thanks to Mark for the company, his always insightful comments, and for debriefing with me over a brace of eminently sensible pints in the ever reliable Kings Arms on Roupell Street afterwards.