Magazine article The Spectator

Exhibitions: Andreas Gursky

Magazine article The Spectator

Exhibitions: Andreas Gursky

Article excerpt

Walking around the Andreas Gursky exhibition at the Hayward Gallery, I struggled to recall what these huge photographs reminded me of. Gursky has built a career on colossal, panoramic pictures of subjects that are extremely ordinary -- the view from a departure lounge of the empty runway at Schiphol airport, for example. Or, yet more exquisitely uninteresting, a wall-sized image of a section of beige carpet in an art gallery.

Then I got the connection that had eluded me. These pictures were much like Martin Parr's little books of Boring Postcards. These are collections of real cards made over the years by the British photographer, with separate volumes devoted to items from the USA and Germany (the latter entitled Langweilige Postkarten).

Some are so transcendently, unutterably dull as to make you laugh out loud. For example, one from the American selection shows a dismal section of dual carriageway, the grass in the central reservation parched, a single vehicle in the middle distance and above, inscribed in jolly yellow letters, the words, 'Traveling on Beautiful Interstate 35'.

That Gursky's work is often like that isn't so much a criticism as an observation. 'Breitscheid Intersection' (1990) depicts a stretch of thoroughfare even more devoid of visual fascination than Interstate 35 -- except that some ant-like workmen are laying a grid on the embankment, presumably to prevent it eroding. Unlike postcards, however, Gursky's pictures are blown up to a heroic scale.

They are up to four yards wide and, technically speaking, magnificent. 'Paris, Montparnasse' (1993), one of his most ambitious pieces, depicts the largest housing development in the French capital -- a vast filing cabinet for human beings -- in such precisely focused detail that when you move close in you can make out the furnishings behind each of the hundreds of windows. The effect is brilliant and lowering at the same time.

Now in his early sixties, Gursky was taught at the Düsseldorf Academy of Art by Bernhard Becher who, with his wife Hilla, took many photographs of such things as old gasometers, water towers and grain silos. These were all in black and white, neutrally lit, and arranged in grids. The Bechers thus established what you might call a poetics of dullness. But with them it was the idea that counted. In contrast, Gursky, whose father was a commercial photographer, is far more adept at the practicalities of camera and editing. 'Paris, Montparnasse', for example, is spliced together from a series of shots so as to remove, as if by magic, the perspective recession that would result from any single snap of an enormous oblong structure. …

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