Thursday, April 3, 2008

Andreas Gursky Kunstmuseum Basel Catalog from Hatje Cantz

Looking through the new Andreas Gursky catalog published by Hatje Cantz, one gets glimpses of our world that is both remotely familiar and vastly unfamiliar at the same time. Gursky's large scale digitally manipulated creations -- according to the artist -- are meant to be considered as individual works and not a part of a series. This is a fine notion to consider but the work represented in this catalog made within the past seven years seems inextricably linked and to collectively address an interesting moment in the history of mankind on earth.

After seeing a show at the Matthew Marks Gallery last year I became more entranced by Gursky's hyper sleek view of capitalism and communism in a newly globalized world. His attitude though is one of detachment. One system is not favored over the other. Of anything, he links them together with his photographs of large-scale dance clubs and concerts and makes everything eerily clean and seductive. From what one can gather being that Gursky does not concentrate on individuals, it is not as if the people in his photographs are suffering under the weight of the world has created. They are reduced to the collective species and this is how they adapt to and change their environment that is under examination here.

One group of photographs that were featured in the show and this catalog are large 7 foot-high, 20 foot long panoramic photographs of formula 1 race car pit stops. The pit crew looks like it is working like a well oiled machine where each worker is in motion for the greater good of the system in order to keep it running. Many of the positions and gestures of the workers could be removed from this context and placed into a constructivist poster created by Gustav Klutsis. This notion gets confused as each of the workers is wearing a uniform branded with the logo of a major corporation.

These photographs are constructed in typical layering common to Gursky. A quarter of the foreground at the bottom of the frame is blank roadway which removes us, as viewers, from direct participation in the scene; the pit crew, the center of our attention, takes up approximately the next third of the photograph; we then finish off at the top third of the photograph which describes a line of racing fans, mostly standing, who observe the pit crew from behind glass. Many of Gursky's photographs "read" in this manner for me from bottom to top as opposed to from left to right or right to left. What I found fascinating about these four photographs was that they called for comparison to one another in a way that much of Gursky's other work does not. In essence, setting aside Gursky's earliest series of security guards in Düsseldorf, these four images come closest to the direct lineage of the teachings of his art school mentors Bernd and Hilla Becker.

What Gursky is describing, and has described throughout much of his work, are grand scale examples of capitalism. The first two images in this catalog are aerial photographs of a man-made archipelago made from poured concrete and sand that creates an artificial paradise in Dubai. Surrounded by deep blue water, we look down upon the world where anything seems possible; all it takes is money and imagination. Following these two photographs that vary very little in their form, is a fantastical race track mapped out on the clean desert floor which may reminds us of the smooth line illustrations found on Grecian urns or, if this was in North America, the spiritual markings on indigenous pottery.

These few photographs when placed within the context of others that describe stock trading floors where chaos reigns and the trading floor is covered with the detritus of past decisions, hint at the vast series of mechanisms in place to make our existence and our creations inexplicably tied.

Towards the middle of the book is a different series of images made in Pyongyang, North Korea during the Arirang Festival. This is a festival where some 70,000 performers take the stage in to create massive mosaic patterns in celebration of the birth of the late Kim IL Sung. These images describe totalitarianism's idea of entertainment but ultimately it is display to show control over the masses but done with the subversion of inducing pride, thus making it all the more enjoyable for us viewers to pick out the few “dissidents” that have fallen behind in the choreography.

There are two photographs that interest me a great deal in this book when the two are compared side by side. The first describes a long line of check-in counters at an airport, above which hangs a huge arrivals and departures information board where the information for hundreds of flights are listed. The second, two pages later, describes cathedral windows that not only function in the same way as the airport information board that seems to be its likely ancestor. Both hold a certain amount of beauty but it is the elder that has drawn a small film crew in which to decipher its deeper meaning. These two are so closely constructed that they seem to act as bookends for the range that I see in Gursky’s work. He celebrates both ends of the historical spectrum and of man’s creations and seems to hint that both are inspired by divinity.

In looking through this catalog it does not take long before the viewer realizes that each photograph is literally constructed in the same manner. Gursky has scaled down the form of these pictures to his strategy of layering as described above to the point where it is almost precisely the same. His aerial views keep us from being an active participant in this new world, the day to day sense of life is brushed aside for these grand spectacles.

This is a very nicely printed catalog with a clean and elegant design but Gursky's photographs are not served well in books. Much in the same way that painting is best seen on the wall, in books works of this nature are mere reproductions that will always pale in comparison to the original. Gursky's prints are at such a scale now that they demand attention to not just the macro view but also to the micro-details and this is unfortunately not possible to convey in a 10 x 12 inch book. Think of this handsome title as a preview until you get to see the actual works in person.

Buy online at DAP

Book Available Here (Andreas Gursky)