Thursday, June 26, 2014

Andreas Gursky, White Cube, Bermondsey

Andreas Gursky, Lager, 2013
Without a doubt, Andreas Gursky’s recent photographs on exhibition at the White Cube in Bermondsey convince that he is the most exciting photographer of our generation. As I walked around the impressive gallery spaces, I kept thinking of my disappointment at the Jeff Wall retrospective at the Stejdlik Museum in Amsterdam. As I bemoaned at the time, Wall doesn’t seem to be doing anything he wasn’t doing ten years ago. I attributed the lack of surprises in Wall’s work to the Stedelijk Museum’s curation, but having been completely swept away by the innovation of Gursky’s recent work, I am beginning to think it might be the artist as well. Gursky shows himself in this exhibition to be the pre-eminent contemporary photographer.
Andreas Gursky, Beelitz, 2007
I want to make the claim that Gursky is the Gerhard Richter of photography. That is to say, Gursky takes the medium to new levels of experimentation, and with it his viewer is led to new levels of uncertainty, new revelations about seeing, about expectations, about art. Even though the two work in different media, Richter is a painter even when he photographs, Gursky is a photographer even when the images appear to be a long way from photography, both create enigmatic images filled with moebius-like conceptual layers inside perfectly constructed, controlled grids, planes and structural forms.
Andreas Gursky, Lehmbruck, I 2014
An image such as Lager, 2013 appears at first glance to be perfectly formed, logically structured. In a characteristic Gursky gesture, from afar the photograph looks very straightforward. A gridded structure, receding into the distance, presumably for storing art works. Time spent with the image reveals its disturbance. The edge of recognizeable Gursky photographs can be seen attached to the structure. Philosophical text and the departure board at Frankfurt airport become equated, given the same conceptual and visual status, at the same distance from the camera even though the one is further back than the other. Ultimately, it is not a question of placement within the image anyway; philosophy and airplane departures are the same thing because they are both the substance of Gursky photographs. We are drawn to read the text, but because the edges are missing, no sense can be made of it. And then we see that the gridded structure does not recede at all,  all pieces on the same plane, or perhaps there is a mirror placed half way back? Rather than effecting a mise-en-abîme, the background is pushed forward, onto the same plane as the foreground, emphasizing the artificiality both of the representation, and of the storage space for images that do not exist, images of which only an edge is real. Yet again, Gursky creates a reality that is more credible as abstraction, an illusion we yearn to make sense of.

Andreas Gursky, Katar, 2012
The two masterpieces of the Bermondsey exhibition are the twin images, entitled Lehmbruck I (2013) and Lehmbruck II (2014). Gursky photographs the Duisburg museum made of concrete and glass, from above and at an angle, a place that could not be possible, but yet, must be, because it is in the photograph. The impossibility of the angle from which he photographs the glass enclosure of a temporary exhibition (the works in the enclosure are well know and belong to other museums) pushes Gursky’s viewer away, giving her no access to the relationship between objects, between the internal spaces within the museum, between her and the photograph. Where the foreshortened, or maybe mirrored, perspective in Lager, creates a barrier to the viewer’s involvement, so the obscure perspective from which Gursky sees the Lehmbruck museum draws us into a process of trying in vain to determine from where we are seeing.  As viewers we become lost in our questions about the construction of the image, ultimately never getting beyond the puzzle of what we are looking at, whether it is an illusion, or if it is so artificially manipulated that we are being deceived. Even when we recognize the building of the Duisburg Museum, we still doubt the reality of what we are looking at.

Untitled XVII - Andreas Gursky - 2014 - 89283
Andreas Gursky, Untitled XVII, 2014
Of course, these formal games and manipulations are making reference to the institutions which house art, to popular culture, in the same way that Gursky has been preoccupied with the stock exchange, formula one racing and libraries in the past. However, what remains innovative about these enormous photographs is not what they depict, but how they depict it. As I suggested in my blog on the early landscapes at Sprüth Magers, Gursky pushes photography into a world where it becomes other than photography: his prints are huge, inkjet, digitally manufactured, not just manipulated, created as if in a dream. Gursky takes photography somewhere that is no longer recognizeable in images that present places that no longer exist, or perhaps they never did.
Andreas Gursky, Untitled XV, 2008
The White Cube exhibition demonstrates that Gursky is an artist at the height of his career, doing things with photography that are otherwise unimaginable. He pushes photography beyond its limits into unchartered territories, territories that exist nowhere but on the illusory surface of Gursky’s photographs. I can’t think of another photographer who is challenging the ontology of his medium in the same way. Lastly, the gallery itself is the perfect environment for Gursky’s large-scale photographs. Superbly curated, apparently by the artist himself, these old warehouse spaces honour works that are complex, ambiguous and unsettling on every level. 

All Images Courtesy the artist

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