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'The way the world is constituted': Andreas Gursky, Hayward Gallery, London

Gursky is one of the few contemporary artists who is widely recognised by the public at large. His name stands for the ambitiousness of his aim to display all the forms of collective existence. Whether this aim was successfully achieved or not, everybody should judge by themselves.

The size of Gursky’s photographs is insanely large, so that it breaks all the usual geometric standards, plunging us into a fixed reality. For the first time, Gursky’s works fascinate and captivate the viewer, so that it is hard to move in the gallery.

In the first hall, one might see Gursky’s early photographs. As you will see later, these first works, made in the 1980s, significantly differ from the more popular ones displayed in the other halls. During this period of time, Gursky was studying at Düsseldorf Art Academy. He was mostly looking for an interaction between people and nature, registering different perspectives on the “social uses of the landscape.” Here, we can divide his works into two groups. The first one indeed comments upon the interaction between the humans and nature. The photographs “Niagara Falls” (1989) and “Ruhr Valley” (1989) raise a question about man’s place in the environment (either natural or artificial). It can be said that in those photographs, people and environment are put on equal footing. Nature looks like rather a decoration or the background, which is permanently disrupted by the presence of people.

Therefore, his works are about the manifestation of human behaviour rather about “interaction.” It is precisely this manifestation that shows Gursky’s moralist stance. It is expressed in his mockery of human activity, noticeable on his photos “Düsseldorf, Airport, Sunday Walkers” (1985) or “Rottingen, Swimming Pool” (1987). Gursky has described the figures in these pictures as “representatives of the species, whose mission remains obscure.”

In the 1990s he switched from the human behaviour in the natural environment to the built environment itself and its impact on human behaviour. The first photo, making this transition is “Salerno I” (1990), representing harbour basin with the numerous small orderly objects. These works made him a popular artist. The main topics of this photographs became labour, politics, commercialisation and sustainability in the global context.

There are two main features making his works of that time. First of all, Gursky started applying computer software (from 1992) to the process of editing pictures in order to construct reality, as he considered this move as the only one way to show the world truthfully. Among his techniques, he deepened the depth of field to make every element precisely detailed. He also combined photographs made from the several vantages into one painting (Paris, Montparnasse, 1993). Finally, he modified the colours and image. For example, he changed the colour of some of the shelves and added reflection to the ceiling to create a specific visual effect of claustrophobia (99 Cent, 1999).

Secondly, he started using “quantitative approach”, taking pictures of crowds at some action and filling the whole frame by those images (Tokyo, Stock Exchange, 1989; May Day series, 1997-2006) or photographing multiple objects with repeating patterns in structure (Paris, Montparnasse, 1993; Amazon 2016). In order to do so, Gursky quite often uses elevated shooting point, which he called “democratic,” as each element of the image has equal importance.

In fairness, there are presented several works, looking like an “exception.” To show the global context, Gursky took a photo of a unique object or a moment or a typical object, which have global influence as they are one of a kind (Toys ‘R’ Us, 1999; Antarctic, 2010; Review, 2015).

Also, Gursky’s mastery and visual flair are inspiring. His images always have excellent composition and rhythm. Nevertheless, his early works are more touching and have a ring of personality to it. Even the visual composition of these works is more emotional and exciting. Eventually, Gursky started to use similar approaches making photographs on the similar topics. He also has remained “moralist-observer”, fixing the human behaviour in the global capitalism context. Perhaps, for Gursky, such desire to maintain this stance, replicating himself and repeating patterns, is the true way to show the reality.

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