26 February 2018

Region: Headquarters

Guest blogger, Geoff Nicholson, on Andreas Gursky at the Hayward Gallery

Main image: Andreas Gursky, Amazon, 2016 © Andreas Gursky/DACS, 2017.  Courtesy: Sprüth Magers.

As you walk into the Andreas Gursky exhibition at London’s Hayward Gallery you’ll see a large sign forbidding flash photography, obviously with the inference that non-flash photograph is just fine, and certainly a great many visitors were snapping away at the Gursky images.  However, this seemed at best a futile exercise.  There are few photographers in the world whose work is less amenable to be being seen on a phone, or even a full-size computer screen, than Gursky.  

His photographs are physically very big – sometimes the size of a living room wall - but they’re also big in their scope and ambition, in their complexity and detail, in their attempt to make you see the world differently.  Of course they appear in books and on websites, including Gursky’s own, but that experience is simply not the same, and not nearly as powerful, as seeing them full-size on a gallery wall. 

The Hayward exhibition is partly a show of greatest hits; here you’ll find familiar images of stock exchanges, 99 Cent stores, Amazon warehousing, Paris, Montparnasse showing the detailed grid of wall and windows of a vast apartment blocks.  There are aerial shots of the huge choreographed arrangements of participants in the Arirang Festival in North Korea, and there’s Rhine II which reduces a complex river landscape to minimalist layers of grass, water and sky.

All these images are manipulated one way or another, a technique Gursky has been developing since the late 1980s, on the basis that, he says, “Reality can only be shown by constructing it.” Sometimes the construction is very conspicuous, sometimes less so.  His photograph F1 Pit Stop shows racing cars being worked on by pit crews so vast that most of the crew wouldn’t be able to get anywhere near the cars.  Others are more ambiguous: we know that stock exchanges are hives of intense and sometimes chaotic activity within a very rigid framework, but is the activity quite as chaotic and the framework quite so rigid as it appears in Gursky’s photographs?  His aerial view of the crowd at a rave in Germany, a composite made from multiple separate images of individual people, allows you to see the throng in a way you never could if you were actually there.

And this certainly seems to be at the heart of Gursky’s work.  He reveals the world in more detail, in higher definition, than our own eyes ever do.  You emerge from the exhibition and you perceive the world in a new way.  You see, for instance, the geometrically precise pattern of windows on the nearby Shell Centre, you see the patterns of people walking on the South Bank, and you find yourself seeing it partly through Gursky’s eyes, while also thinking he could show these things to you with more clarity and novelty than you ever imagined.

Exhibition runs until the 22nd April.  Details here.

Geoff Nicholson is the author of many books of fiction and non-fiction, most recently The London Complaint and The Miranda. He lives in Los Angeles.

Image © Geoff Nicholson