My review of Andreas Gursky at the Hayward Gallery London (till 22 April 2018)
In February I went to see the Andreas Gursky show at the newly refurbished Hayward. His work sits between large scale abstract painting and photography. There is a lot to like about the show, the scale and presence of the pictures is arresting. There is an admirable seriousness of intention and ambition in most of them. A recent iphone picture view of the US midwest from a car (below) is terrific. A 4m long print of clubbers, seemingly shot individually, with very carefully controlled colour, is hypnotic in its all over patterning, as were many of the constructed pictures. I liked most of the show a lot.
Photography has always had a connection to painting in the sense that much art photography is defined by how much it looks like existing paintings. This is apparent in most of this show. One example being the dark watery series of pictures of floating refuse in Bangkok which look so much like the paintings of Jean Dubuffet. If there was an eco-message therein it's pretty banal… ‘here's someone else's rubbish, not mine of course. This makes me uneasy, our crap is tidied away, buried, recycled or invisibly airborne in the jet fumes that got me here. But look at the impoverished naughty locals dropping plastic in the river’. They are rather beautiful though.
The best pictures have an interesting spatial thing going on in them. The clubbers does this as does a composite of a Tokyo suburb, where there is a strange interplay of spaces that don't quite match, and often movement too. This is when they are at their best, not really too mindful of what art (and in particular painting) is expected to look like. It is a uniquely photographic, constructed version of the world. The supermarket (99 cent) and the Amazon warehouse (Amazon 2016) use a more conventional space but have some of the same unreal-reality about them.
His work is not without contradictions. There seems to me to be an implied ecological message about industrialisation, consumption and waste, but it is exactly that world that allows pictures like these; their scale, the travel involved to make them, their marketability. Not to mention their attractiveness to the super-rich, banks, hedge funds and their top-end boardroom scale. Now and then it feels like he has an eye on this market and that seems to yield the least successful work.
Towards the end of the show is an incredibly slick and polished work of Formula One teams changing tyres on cars. The language is all painting with great Rembrandt pools of darkness, and the attendant crowd of onlookers, but the effect is all advertising. Round the corner is a side-on picture of a catwalk with a line of walking models. Both of these seem completely un-ironic to me, and sit awkwardly with the potential an artist has to present an alternative view of the world. They look like top-end adverts, made huge for art world spaces. They are subjects that have been ‘Gurskied’, a bit like Salvador Dali who saw out his career doing Dali-style portraits of old New Yorkers for a ton of money. Likewise the pictures of the Chinese Olympic stadium, and the daft Steve Bell like 'German leaders with Barnett Newman' print.
And for god's sake when is the guff on the wall going to stop informing us that 'these pictures lead us to question the reality of the photograph' IT IS NOT 1890 ANY MORE, WE ALL KNOW THIS. No one thinks they are 'reality', it's a gormless cut-and-paste art phrase, and anyone able to reflect on it for 3 seconds shouldn't be using it.
It was very welcome that we could all take pictures in the show - or they had abandoned trying to stop people. Taking away a few phone snaps of a show and using them to reflect on what I have seen is, these days, part of the experience. I am doing it now. Not being able to do so is like only being allowed to watch live TV rather than catch up, streaming or recording. It isn't part of the modern experience. And I simply don't believe the copyright excuses given by many galleries. It is just the past trying to hang on where it isn't needed and sell a few more postcards.
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