Halfway through Andreas Gursky’s solo exhibition at the Hayward Gallery in London, an image of Antarctica stands in striking contrast to many of the other works in the show. Still at a vast scale for a photograph — 2.5 x 3.5 meters — Antarctic (2010) depicts the massive continent in its entirety. The image, where the snow-covered landmass, taken from above, is bordered by the ocean into which its ice shelves are increasingly melting, leaves the continent looking like a gently patterned, floating, white disc. Despite the scale of both the continent and this work, Antarctica looks so small, so contained, and so fragile. If all that stands between ‘us’ — the us of humanity the show aims to speak to — and the environmental and human disaster of climate change and the rise of sea-levels, then the isolating composition of this image testifies to the precarity of the situation.
This framing sets Antarctic visually against many of the other works in the exhibition, in which scenes of global capitalism and modern culture, bleed endlessly beyond the edges of Gursky’s pictures. Inevitably complicated and multilayered activities, such as the ordered clamor of a Japanese stock market, Tokyo Stock Exchange, 1990; the plastic horizon of an unnamed landfill site, Untitled XIII, 2002; or the crisscrossing horizontal and vertical coils of cable and packed-in workstations of German electronics factory assembly lines, Karlsruhe, Siemens, 1991, are held tightly by the edges of the picture. All that is allowed on show is activity and the near uniformly massive size of the images doesn’t let you forget just how much is going on. Approaching from the other side of each gallery, the amount of information in the works initially acts to create fuzzy fields of abstraction — like those hyper-coloured fractal images of tropical beaches from which a dolphin was once supposed to appear.
Detail, that at once acts as bait, drawing you away from standing back in overview, and into proximity with the image surface, also hints at a chaotic and fragmented world: one which you would never be able to fully take in, but only appreciate in its atomized anonymity of things, infrastructures and citizens. Consistency then, if these images suggest there is any, comes with the planetary scale and complexity of human activity and its effects. “The planetary” as a viewpoint — though rightly and easily contested for its often uniperspectival privilege — is both necessary and made irrelevant in Gursky’s images. Often taken from high up, they include large-scale panoramas of cattle ranches, Greely, 2002; fishermen and bridges, Mülheim, Anglers, 1989; container ports, Salerno I, 1990; distribution centers (inside and out), Amazon, 2016, and Toys’R’Us, 1999; and fields of solar panels, Les Mées, 2016. And though there are individual factory workers, farm animals, or people reclining in a park, they are flattened, rendered as pattern by the remarkable depth of field created by Gursky’s use of large format photography and digital image compositing. With this, what feel like windows to real-life panoramas, are held in stasis.
With this rendering of various facets of the world’s activities as a subject to be viewed from afar, you could say that Gursky, like other members of the industrial-documentary focused Düsseldorf School of photography, follows a traditionally European and modern, humanistic trajectory: from the observation of the masses at leisure; to imaging and describing the infrastructures of globalized commerce, manufacturing and distribution; to a focus on the human effects on nature in a world in which the scope and scale of pop culture and politics is matched only by the vast imagination of science — in all the works, the cultural, commercial and scientific are the primary way of knowing and understanding the world. Even a perilously high cable car, miniscule against a vast sky and mountain, Dolomites, Cable Car, 1987; a tourist boat bobbing like a plastic bottle in the swell of Niagara falls, Niagara Falls, 1989; or sunburnt sports fans willing cyclists up wall-like mountains passes, Tour de France, 2007, serve to reiterate that even ‘nature’ is just a stage for exploration.
As a viewer, this human-centered gaze is unavoidable. Though much is made of Gursky’s digitally altered and composited images, with elements like the cattle paddocks of Greely or fast food of 99 cent, 1999, repeated for effect, all of the images suggest viewpoints that mean they must have been taken from somewhere and by, or for, someone. The position of their capture is always accessible for the artist’s camera (albeit some from a satellite and quite often from a helicopter or moving train), and for the viewer this is repeated in the consistently low-to-the-floor hanging of the photographs and the multiple trips back and forth between the images to catch a better glimpse of the details. This, human-centered-position feels recognizably distinct, though still somehow comparable to the now-familiar non-human floating detachment of slow-motion drone footage of disaster zones, sporting and music events, or military targets. In mustering this relationship between viewer and work, the finger of responsibility points firmly out from the picture: “look at what we, what we, you, are doing to the planet.”
A recurring question when looking at Gursky’s work is then as to what it is: Is it a photograph, a digital image, a composite, a fabrication? Beyond the now perhaps redundant question of whether we can believe what we see in openly doctored and constructed images, tied to this decidedly body-centered practice of image-making, the question of their faithfulness might instead put to questioning the seeming transparency and honesty of what they often allude to: the scenes and spaces of production. The images are treated as a kind of infrastructure for Gursky’s visions — like the warehouses, container ports and stadium tours their stitched-together parts are made ‘interoperable’ by digital image processing — coming together to perform a bigger whole and a whole that requires the reproduction of a certain belief to do so. What is this belief for Gursky’s images? If reflecting on the popularity of this exhibition, then it might still be, in part, a faith in high-resolution representation to tell us something (despite what we are openly told about how many of the works are constructed). But in the scenarios that Gursky’s images represent, it may yet be something different. Devoid of people as people, labour and not just products, or a planet without human effect, this belief might be in the transparency and answer of production and productivity itself. Indeed the most memorable, and perhaps most important images are those where this faith in the value of that production slips. The rows and rows of tired, uniformed workers in a wicker chair weaving factory in Nha Trang, 2004, with nothing more than old cardboard between them and floor; in Bangkok III, and Bangkok VI, 2011, the beautiful, but slick-like black surfaces of Bangkok rivers pocked by vegetation and slowly appearing trash; or of course that fragile island of ice in Antarctic.
About all of this, Gursky’s images remain ambivalent. They might repeat that ridding of labour and singularity in their flat, pattern like abstraction, but they also more faithfully represent the effects of the realties already constructed by the global expanse of capital by doing so.
Southbank Centre’s Hayward Gallery
Images courtesy of Southbank Centre. Credit © Mark Blower.