Andreas Gursky’s strikingly large colour prints take a refreshingly real and insightful look at the visible, insidious and pervasive impacts of capitalism and globalisation on the human condition. For me, what is refreshing is that Gursky’s works pull no punches and do not offer a smokescreen of contemporary aesthetics at the expense of truth. The poignancy and relevance of this show cannot be overstated; the works, by implication, seem to indict so many of the prevailing conditions of our current global malaise.
Gursky studied under Bernd and Hilla Becher at the Düsseldorf Kunstakademie, in the early 1980s and he adopted a style and method that closely followed the Becher's documentary approach to photography. In the mid-1980s, Gursky broke from the academy/atelier tradition, using colour and observation to produce images of people in the pursuit of leisure activities, such as skating, walking and skiing. He depicted these protagonists as vulnerable actors dwarfed by vast landscapes or monumental architecture.
Since the 1990s, Gursky has concentrated on images of commerce and tourism, often savagely lampooning the seemingly unstoppable march of technology and its related capacity to steamroller through the unsustainable concept of ever-expanding markets, stimulated by global trading. His subject matter ranges from the vast, anonymous architecture of modern-day hotel lobbies, apartment buildings and warehouses to stock exchanges and parliaments in places as disparate as Shanghai, Brasília, Los Angeles and Hong Kong. Although his work adopts the scale and composition of historical painting, his photographs are often derived from inauspicious sources: a black and white photograph from a newspaper, for example, whose subject is researched at length before a photograph is finally shot and digitally altered before printing.
Gursky sharply delivers what is essential, a personal and perhaps ruthless take on the evolved relationship between corporate and governmental power on the one hand and humanity and visual arts on the other. Perhaps it is just my state of mind, but I for one, found references within Gursky’s works to the whole gamut of topical geopolitical scandals which seem to be hand-in-glove with global corporate avarice. In Schweine we cannot help but see our political leaders and corporate leaders as helping themselves under the auspices of public interest – graphically Orwellian. As if Covid wasn’t enough of a pretext, the less well-off and most vulnerable in our society now face the prospect of an entirely man-made energy and food security crisis. Gursky offers the opportunity for us to see the dystopian aspects of luxury cruises on the one hand (Kreuzfahrt, 2020), whilst colliding high fashion, VR and surveillance on the other (VRii, 2022).
The execution and delivery are exquisitely judged, and the exposure all the more brutal because of it. Bauhaus (2020-21) is redolent of earlier corporate brutalist images of the Koday factory, indicting again the cynicism of business to not only represent history and culture but also to rewrite it to suit their corporate image and goals. Quite honestly Gursky does not conjure the frightening aspects of global capitalism, but highlights what already exists; the future has arrived and it's certainly not orange. Gursky reminds us of the fact that big government/business across the planet has embraced surveillance, facial recognition and associated listening technologies in order to better manage their respective and audiences to control and regulate behaviours that may or may not be at odds with the prevailing, or subsequent ethos.
Just in case you were wondering, my titular reference is to Winston Churchill’s now-legendary speech given in the November of 1942 at the Mansion House in London. Here, Churchill proportionately described the resounding victory of Erwin Rommel’s route from El Alamein in relation to the overall scale and suffering of the (still unfinished) second world war, at once stirring but cautionary. In Gursky, we see precious little reference to ideas about victory as opposed to the increasingly dead hand of a global political generation that has run out of ideas beyond the ethos of self-interest.
It is possible of course that Gursky’s works don’t touch you, but bear in mind that this may be part of your own pre-disposition to corporate conditioning. A definite show on the ‘to see’ list.