IN February 2007, Andreas Gursky’s image 99 Cent II Diptychon went under the hammer at Sotheby’s London auction. Its new owner, an unnamed private collector, paid $US3.346million, a new record for a photograph sold at auction.
“Placed in this broader fine art context, Gursky’s work suddenly transcends the normal valuations of contemporary photography,” photographic magazine PopPhoto.comreported at the time.
Gursky takes us beyond the regular daily media diet of images that we see in newspapers, magazines, the internet and advertising billboards. As New York’s Museum of Modern Art photography curator Peter Galassi once said, “Gursky’s photographs just knock your socks off”.
A new exhibition at the National Gallery of Victoria reveals why. The 21 works are some of the artist’s finest. They are large – most are 2-3m high – and mesmerising. And in the NGV’s vast temporary exhibition space – the walls of which are painted white to highlight the photographs – they lure you across the room until you feel like you’re going to fall into the frame and become part of the composition.
The exhibition, simply titled Andreas Gursky, is staged in the same gallery space as the Art Deco show that closed last month. The clean, white open space for the present exhibition is a marked contrast to the cluttered, department-store feel of the previous blockbuster. It is the perfect setting in which to display Gursky’s vast work.
The German-born Gursky flew to Melbourne for last week’s opening. Quiet and thoughtful, he prefers to let the works speak for themselves. “Everyone can have their own private views,” he says.
Discussing Gursky’s oeuvre was left to exhibition curator Thomas Weski, who is also deputy director of Munich’s Haus der Kunst. The two first met in the late 1980s and Weski has been a strong advocate of Gursky’s work for 20 years.
Weski describes Gursky’s images as “not classical documentary photographs that attempt to portray objects with the greatest possible likeness by making use of the medium”. Each work has fictional elements ensconced in familiar landscapes. “It is thus not a question of simple representation but rather an individually developed view of the world,” Weski says.
Gursky is inspired by modern world achievement and order, and people’s responses to the phenomena they have created. Where do humans fit into the scheme of the things they have designed and invented? What effect have capitalism and globalisation had on today’s world?
“From the beginning of his artistic activities, Gursky has addressed contemporary themes, visual phenomena of a globalised world, arranged into categories as work, leisure time and representation,” Weski explains.
For 10 years Gursky has also incorporated digital photography into his creative output. “The photographer is transformed from a chronologist into an author,” says Weski.
One of the NGV exhibition’s best examples of the Gursky-meets-digital experience is Madonna 1, created in 2001. The artist has taken his photos of a Madonna concert in the US from an elevated position on the right hand side of the stage. Different moments during one night’s performance are fused into a single image. The result? A sea of human ants – many of whom are highlighted by the random spotlights. The audience – not Madonna – is the focus. It reminds us of the adored status of rock stars when they perform, and the potency of the collective energy they generate.
Another mass event is Formula 1 racing, captured in F1 Boxenstopp 1. By manipulating a series of photographs taken mostly at Japan’s grand prix, Gursky presents one powerful ode to motor racing. His subject is the frenetic activity of the pit stop in which car crews spend no more than 10 seconds on quick-fix maintenance.
Above Gursky’s pit, crowds of people watch from a glass enclosure. They are fascinated, transfixed. So are we.
Gursky presents the viewer with an inventory-style documentation of our lives and the things we know so well, yet possibly fear. From the pit stop to the apartment block. Hotel foyers. National festivals. The Tokyo stock exchange. Vietnamese factory workers making wicker chairs. A section of the Tour de France course as it winds up a mountain road packed with onlookers. Tiny animal and human shapes that can be seen fossicking around a Mexico City rubbish tip. The packed shelves of a US department store, groaning under the weight of the product choices available.
Gursky was born in the German city of Leipzig in 1955, the son of two successful advertising photographers. “As a teenager I couldn’t imagine doing photography. I was against advertisements; it was my parents’ work,” Gursky says.
But he could not resist the art form’s possibilities. From 1978 to 1980, he studied at the Folkwangschule photojournalism school in Essen. In 1980, he moved to the Kunstakademie in Dusseldorf, where he was influenced by the respected husband-and-wife photographic team Bernd and Hilla Becher, who taught at the academy. Gursky’s first solo gallery show was in 1988.
His work has featured in some of the world’s great art museums, including the Museum of Modern Art in New York, London’s Serpentine Gallery, the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago, and the Pompidou Centre in Paris.
The new NGV show is the first time an Australian gallery has exhibited Gursky’s work on this scale. “A lot of people know him in Europe and America, but he is less well-known here,” observes NGV senior photography curator Isobel Crombie.
His work, she says, “takes photography into a whole new area. I think it’s the scale of it, the ambition of it, and the charisma of it.”
Many international photographers, she says, are inspired by Gursky’s style. “Not many achieve that kind of level,” she adds. “It’s really a combination of technical proficiency and the ideas behind it.”
Since the NGV re-opened its St Kilda Road building in 2003, it has strongly backed its photography exhibition schedule and mounted several important shows. Crombie says it reflects a growing understanding that photography is a vital part of the contemporary art scene, with strong messages to impart.
But she adds: “It’s been a long time coming. I’ve been in the field for 30 years and was always convinced photography was the modern art medium, but it’s taken a while for it to filter through the hierarchies that operate in any art world.”
The old masters took their viewers to new places via the canvas, paints and brush. Gursky’s time machine is his camera, assisted these days by sophisticated technology. His photographs grip you by the throat and pull you in. Minutes pass and you’re still trying to pick out the human figure in the boat, or the faces of the girls carrying the white pom-poms in a crowd of thousands.
As the visiting Weski says, “the primary aim of this analysis is not the rapid consuming of these images – attractive though they may be at the first glance – but rather the decelerated reception and more profound understanding on a pictorial and contextual level.
“It is all about an experience of the world based upon the foundations of seeing.”
Andreas Gursky is at the National Gallery of Victoria until February 22.