Wednesday, June 25, 2014

Andreas Gursky. Early Landscapes, Sprüth Magers, Grafton Street, London

Andreas Gursky, Niagra Falls, 1989

Today was my German day in London. I saw the first of two Andreas Gursky exhibitions and visited Christie’s new exhibition space on New Bond Street which is showing Polke/Richter-Richter/Polke. I found Andreas Gursky. Early Landscapes at Sprüth Magers in Grafton Street to be fascinating, but I am not sure that everyone will be as captivated. I was excited because they are all photographs I know well, but have never seen.
Andreas Gursky, Alba, 1989
Niagra Falls (1989) on the wall opposite the entrance takes over the upstairs gallery with its visual complexity. The press release makes a lot of the boat heading into the abyss of the renowned waterfalls, the impossibility of the tourists’ survival, and the simultaneous fact that they must survive. The blurb also mentions the characteristic Gursky dwarfing of human life by the immensity and power of a natural, sublime landscape. However, to my eye, the most interesting moment, or moments in Gursky’s photograph, come in the form of two black birds that rupture the whited out sky above the falls. The birds are like stains on the image, troubling because they are distinct, free and autonomous, none of which can be said about the boatload of tourists. The two birds disturb because they are what Roland Barthes has taught us to recognize as the punctum, the moment when all rationality collapses. Certainly, for me, the birds signify the photographic gesture that ensures we can no longer hold on to familiar distinctions. The viewer's being forced to navigate such unsettling gestures is what makes Gursky's photographs provocative.

Andreas Gursky, Mettmann, Autobahn, 1993
I have always maintained that Gursky's photographs must be seen in the flesh. Mettmann, Autobahn, 1993 is a perfect example, because the slats or strips that striate the image in reproduction appear painted on afterwards. Up close to the photograph itself, even in digital reprint, we see that the strips are before the camera, apparently painted on a perspex noise barrier along the autobahn. And when up close, once again, what disturbs is not what we might imagine. It is not the strips that challenge the viewer, but the cows who disquiet the wholeness of the landscape just like the birds in the sky of Niagra Falls. It’s difficult to pinpoint why or how they disrupt, but unlike the chickens in Krefeld. Hühner 1989, the cows are not the subject of the photograph, and yet, they are its only life energy, and therefore, draw our attention. 
Andreas Gursky, Ofenpass, 1994
In Ofenpass, 1994 we see Gursky already begin to push the representational into abstraction. It's an image that in its blown up version looks forward to the more recent works. The verticality of the image, the lack of distinction between mountain and sky, the importance of landsape as a subject and object, the impossible perspective that looks both  from a position perpendicular to and overhead at the mountain; all are characteristic of the later photographs. Like the later works, this landscape is made strange. It is flattened out, creating a verticality to the image which is unusual for photography, especially landscape photography. The flatness is both Gursky’s departure from the Romantic composition of his vision, as well as the underlining of the same tradition to which he owes his greatest achievements.
Andreas Gursky, Hühner, Krefeld, 1989
Perhaps the most fascinating question raised by this exhibition is that of reproduction. As he often does, Gursky has reprinted images for this exhibition. Not only are the photographs reprinted, but they are blown up to the oversized dimensions of the contemporary Gursky digital prints. These dimensions are so unusual for photography that I kept wondering what has happened to photography in Gursky's photographs. As if it is not enough to change the size of the prints, Gursky has also remounted the prints in a process known as diasec which permanently fuses acrylic glass and the C-print. Gursky’s work from the late 1980s is known to be unstable, vulnerable to deterioration and colour fading because he used the materials of chromogenic photography before they were fully established.  Exposed to light, humidity, and temperature fluctuations, Gursky’s prints from this period have continued to undergo chemical reactions, creating havoc for collectors and dilemmas for the market. It’s not clear if the instability of the 1980s and early 90s prints inspired Gursky to reprint for aesthetic, economic or practical reasons. However, the end result is the same, the question must be asked: what are we looking at? Do we look at the original photographs? A transformed image? And what does this transformation do to the meaning of the image? These are anything but works from 25 years ago. The photographs exhibited at Sprüth Magers have no physical history, and a history of aesthetic and hermeneutic transformation, from analogue to digital, transformation of dimensions, material, offering new challenges to viewers and critics alike. If photography was once the infinitely reproducible image, evoking repetition, seriality and loss of originality, then it becomes a very different medium and process of production in Gursky's studio.

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