SECTION: ARTISTS & THINKERS
FRIDAY, MARCH 17, 2017 - 11:55
The Hayward Gallery reopens after two years with a bang and two-and-a-half floors of photos by German snapper Andreas Gursky. I say ‘snapper’, but obviously he’s an art megastar, whose massive prints sell for millions. And I say a ‘bang’ but it’s more of a vast low-frequency ‘Oooooaaaaauuuuummmmmm’ sort of sound: the sound of things being crushed flat on to photographic paper. They may only be microns thick, and Gursky might not do conflict, or dispossession, or the other things we expect in twenty-first century photography, but these images are some heavy shit.
There’s no fancying about here: the Hayward has played it safe, delivering a solid retrospective. But that’s a good thing. You see how themes and scale develop together. From the get-go, Gursky is about the environments we in the West inhabit. They’re not strictly landscapes, but nor are the figures in them really individuated. A knot of people look at an airport; sightseers clamber up a mountainside. Gradually, they change: a single man is dwarfed by a bridge (‘Ruhr Valley’, 1989); tiny anglers are lost in a huge river landscape (‘Mülheim’, 1989). Then, in the early ’90s Gursky increases both his scale and his use of digital technology, stitching together multiple images, flattening perspective, creating giant, near-abstract reflections of the places we spend our lives. ‘Untitled #1’ (1993) is a shot of grey carpet tiles, but we want them to be fog, or a wild seascape, or anything, just as we want to be anywhere except a faceless office. Gursky’s best images have a compelling dream quality. ‘Rhine II’ (1999) has become a cliché: a stretch of the river from which Gursky removes all features, including a power station, leaving just oppressive bands of grass, path and water. In the flesh, it makes you feel unsteady and anxious. You want this not to be real, and it isn’t, but that isn’t very reassuring. It so plausibly could be the world.
His more recent, more obviously manipulated works aren’t so great, but this show is full of wonder. By investigating the banal and ditching photographic gestures Gursky creates bleak alternative worlds. Start 2018 feeling marginally less important than you already did.