Andreas Gursky at the Hayward Gallery, London

By Fi Churchman

Rhine II‰‰, 1999/2015, inkjet print, 238 × 408 × 6 cm. © the artist / DACS, London. Courtesy Sprüth Magers, Berlin, London & Los Angeles

Andreas Gursky’s photographs are infinity mirrors. At least here, in the newly renovated Hayward Gallery, this is the illusion: all ten rooms are filled with photographs of other spaces. Works that are large-format behave as portals to other places – such as Dolomites, Cable Car (1987), in which a single orange cab seemingly floats midair among fog-heavy mountains, the cables rendered near-invisible, or Mülheim, Anglers (1989), which presents a sweeping river that ends in the distance where a concrete overpass bridges the waterway and grey sky. These are set alongside smaller-scale works that appear more like windows presenting scenes of the quotidian: people engaging in football practice or paddling at a public swimming pool (Zürich I, 1985, and Ratingen, Swimming Pool, 1987), or a field of chickens amidst which a cockerel is photographed mid-strut (Krefeld, Chickens, 1989). The austere aesthetic of these photographs makes them formally beautiful to look at, reminiscent of the objective vision of Gursky’s teachers Bernd and Hilla Becher, who were famed for documenting industrial buildings.

As a member of the Düsseldorf School, a group of students taught by the Bechers, Gursky’s works carry traces of influence from the new topographics photographers; a term coined in 1975 for a group of mostly American photographers, but also the Bechers, who were known for formal and stylistically dispassionate works that addressed the urban banal and man-modified landscapes by combining traditionally ‘objective’ documentary style with the formal elements of fine art. For example, Rhine II (1999/2015) is a landscape split into six horizontal strips: a grass bank divided by a pathway, the river and opposite green bank make up half the photograph, the rest is sky. It turns out this image is digitally altered – a power station was removed from the scene. This linearity, a compositional technique favoured by Gursky, recalls the abstract style of Lewis Baltz. Aerial shots are a reminder of Joe Deal. The colour and subjects of Utah (2017) and Ibiza (2016), both drive-by photographs, look like a homage to Stephen Shore.

But these associations are also a harbinger of how one might perceive other works in this retrospective. Aletsch Glacier (1993) is a landscape that evokes the sublime, akin to the works of twentieth-century American photographer Ansel Adams, and hangs next to Niagara Falls (1989), a photograph of passenger ferry Maid of the Mist as it heads towards the crashing falls, two birds wheeling above – a postcard trope. It’s difficult to shake the feeling that these are images and subjects that have been seen many times before – which is where this retrospective starts to feel repetitive, particularly among works produced in the last two decades, which appear to focus on large crowds of people, scenes of late capitalism, the environment and mass production. Perhaps this is the point, as demonstrated by the rows of stock shelved in Amazon (2017) and 99 Cent II, Diptych (2001) (both of which represent capitalism) or by the lines of tulips on a farm in Untitled XVIII (2015). But in these examples, as in photographs like Nha Trang (2004) and Pyongyang VI (2007/17), I am further reminded of Ron Fricke’s 1992 documentary film of the human condition in the age of globalisation, Baraka, in which fast-flowing imagery of factory production lines and mass choreographies of people performing either religious ceremonies or civil celebrations feature.

In this survey exhibition, Gursky’s oversize photographs trigger a psychic Google Image search result, making it difficult to find what French philosopher Roland Barthes called the punctum – that small detail or accident in a photograph that ‘pricks’ or ‘bruises’ the viewer; that which etches the image into your memory. Instead, there’s the sense you could be here for hours scrolling through an infinite number of similar searches, staring into endlessness. 

25 January – 22 April 2018

From the March 2018 issue of ArtReview