Andreas Gursky’s photographs urge viewers to look a little closer
Andreas Gursky’s photographs capture scenes from an elevated, god-like perspective. From afar it is difficult to figure out what the 67-year-old German photographer wanted to depict in each photo.
The real story begins only when viewers eye the details up close.
In a new exhibition at the Amorepacific Museum of Art (APMA) in central Seoul called “Andreas Gursky,” 40 large-scale panoramic photographs by Gursky display images of places in society, like the warehouse of a giant online retailer, a cruise ship, the frontal view of an apartment complex and a riverside.
It is Gursky’s first time to exhibit his work in Korea.
The exhibition spans across 40 years of Gursky’s artistic career, including two new photographs that are being showcased to the public for the very first time: “Eisläufer” (2021) and “Streif” (2022).
Gursky is a pivotal figure in contemporary photography, consistently producing works that provide strong insights into humanity and modern society. He has exhibited works in the Museum of Modern Art in New York, and other cities including Tokyo, Paris, Madrid and London.
His method of turning photographs into art is especially distinctive. Called the “digital post-production process,” Gursky digitally manipulates pictures taken by film cameras by piecing pictures together to create larger depictions of his subjects or editing them to be perfectly parallel or vertically upright.
Through these processes Gursky has overturned the preconception that photographs are mere visualized accurate recordings; they can instead be disorienting and offer a confusing “stretch” on life.
Probably one of his most famous works, a 2009 remastered version of “99 Cent” (1999) shows the product aisles inside a regular 99 Cents Only store in the U.S. With what seems like millions of commodities neatly stacked up on shelves, the photograph represents the prevalent consumer culture of capitalism, Woo Hye-soo, deputy director of the APMA, said during a press event last week.
At a glance, the picture appears normal like one that could have been taken by anyone, but when you peer into it you will notice how it completely lacks depth perception, and that everything is strangely yet flawlessly perpendicular. The resolution of every single minutiae is clear-cut to the core.
“Gursky took separate photographs of the aisles and conjoined them together to create one whole piece, which is how they all appear to be the same size, no matter how far away they are,” Woo said. “You can see what’s written in each of the labels, and even the posters on the far end of the walls are visible. Gursky’s photographs are filled with small details and that’s what makes them entertaining.”
This process of constructing photographs to be precise and be aligned absolutely straight is frequently seen in his other works as well, and according to Woo this symbolizes the infiniteness of social structure, as the lines seem to extend beyond the edges of the photograph.
A large residential building in Paris is depicted in “Paris, Montparnasse” (1993) but is “paradoxically realistic yet unrealistic at the same time,” Woo said. “The hundreds of windows were all edited to be the same size. There are so many compartments that the entire building cannot be perceived all at once — it makes you wonder what sort of details people may be neglecting in society.”
Gursky traveled to Pyongyang in 2007 as part of his “Pyongyang” series (2007-17) to document the Arirang Festival, which honors the late Communist leader Kim Il Sung. The biggest event in the country, Gursky took photographs of the hundreds of thousands of acrobats’ performances from an elevated perspective.
Humans are recurring figures in almost every single one of Gursky’s pieces, but they aren’t necessarily the main focus of his photographs, Woo said.
“In Gursky’s version of society, people aren’t taken into consideration. The point is how humans are being portrayed in this ginormous social structure. Humans are shown in detail as a constituent; but that also doesn’t mean that Gursky thinks humans are insignificant. They are important as they ultimately make up the entirety of society.”
Woo added that this perspective helps us to contemplate the roles of individuals in an ever-changing monolith-like world.
Gursky’s recent photographs acknowledge the Covid-19 pandemic. Some were even unintended, like “Kreuzfahrt (Cruise)” (2020). Similar to “Paris, Montparnasse,” Gursky assembled the multiple aspects of a cruise ship this time that were digitally enhanced as well.
“We were planning Gursky’s exhibition since 2018, and at the time of course we didn’t know a pandemic would happen,” Woo said. “Coincidentally, ‘Kreuzfahrt’ was created in 2020 and some interpreted that it was like Noah’s ark, while others said that they thought of when Covid-19 hit cruise ships and people were forced to quarantine at sea.”
One of Gursky’s newest works, “Eisläufer,” was created in the winter of 2020 and features people enjoying a day in the ice and snow near the Rhine River in Düsseldorf, Germany. The scene however, wasn’t entirely a joyful one. On the upper right side there is a police car, with officers urging people to practice social distancing amid the pandemic.
“Gursky asks the important questions in our society today,” Woo said. “As his photographs are overwhelmingly huge, this helps induce a grandness in presenting a glimpse of what the future should be like.”
“Andreas Gursky” continues until Aug. 14. APMA is open every day except Mondays from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Tickets are 17,000 won ($13.90) for adults. Reservations are required through APMA’s website.
BY SHIN MIN-HEE [email@example.com]