What Do the Successes and Failures of Andreas Gursky Tell Us About Our Recent Political Economy and the Role of Art?

Phantom (2014) Lik, P.

In December 2014, the photography world was not quite rocked by news of the most expensive photograph ever sold. Called Phantom, it was taken by Peter Lik, “a little-known Australian photographer who… describes himself as ‘one of the most important artists of the 21st century’”[1], and appeared to be such a transparent marketing stunt that it aroused more disinterest than debate. It also drew attention to how such claims are disseminated – in this case through Lik’s own representatives, and unconfirmed by any other party including the conveniently anonymous collector. The orthodox route is from auction results verified by the seller, buyer and auctioneer, and which comprise a vital pillar of the art world: the market. Whilst also open to charges of sensationalist hype and collusion, the market is in principle unbiased, and on such terms has anointed Andreas Gursky as photography’s king. He reigns not only over the sale prices, but by proxy has also come to define recent photography, and its hard-fought place within art. He is unquestionably a totemic figure within our milieu.

However, despite his eminence being recent, it is not exactly current. He was already enjoying major retrospectives by the late 1990s, and critical analysis of his oeuvre seems to have calcified around this point. In this essay, I will examine his career, offering new insights into his successes and failures, and showing how they relate to our recent political economy and the role of art. To do this, I will firstly explain the tensions in both the form and content of his work, in an attempt to distil exactly why it has attracted so much acclaim. This leads to its major criticisms, which I will propose were given renewed credibility by the 2008 financial crisis, such that a distinct turn in his image-making appears to have been catalysed. I will finally speculate on the metanarratives at play during this evolution, and how his recent work aligns more closely with the historic norms of art’s cultural value.

99 Cent (1999) Gursky, A.

Gursky’s pictorial success rests on tensions in the form and content of his work that are distinct, yet operate similarly and in concert with each other. The tension in the form exists between the overwhelming detail of his photographs and the aesthetic order it’s marshaled into. For example, in 99 Cent, Gursky employs a “poly-ocular perspective”[2] from multiple angles composited together, all-over focus that stretches from the front of the image to the back, and astonishing resolution, to create an incomprehensible amount of information. This becomes an example of “data sublime”[3] – an effect that induces mild panic in the viewer who struggles to take it all in. This unease is held at bay however by Gursky’s skill in constructing the composition as harmoniously as possible, with both the horizontal and vertical axes shaped by elements along the rule of thirds. What we thus see in confronting one of his images (a mind-boggling amount of detail) causes a sublime terror that is subdued by how we see it, (namely organised into a balanced composition). From this process arises a visual tension that operates in a similar way to the work of Jackson Pollock (whose One: Number 31 Gursky famously photographed) and even Where’s Wally? The viewer typically moves between surveying the image from afar to squinting at it close up, oscillating from the macro to the micro in an attempt to grasp a totality that can never be realised.

Nha Trang (2004) Gursky, A.

A similar trick is underway in his work’s content. What Gursky depicts could be broadly described as globalised consumption and production, and is typified by Nha Trang. Again, this evokes forms of the sublime – variously described as contemporary, ecological and technological amongst others which cause terror in the viewer trying to make sense of the “complexities of scale and finance that shape contemporary experience”[4]. How he portrays this though is always from an elevated vantage point that offers a sense of mastery over the scene. The anxiety felt when failing to comprehend the dizzying extent of globalisation is thus contained by the implied mastery of its representation. In this way, the tension in the content of his images functions in concert with the tension in the form. What we see visually (overwhelming detail) and what we see thematically (incomprehensible globalization) cause anxieties; these are subdued by how they’re seen visually (harmonious compositions) and how they’re seen thematically (from a God’s-eye view). This allows the viewer to experience a vertiginous, almost thrilling, sense of threat and loss of control whilst simultaneously enjoying the security of Gursky’s ability to seemingly command and order these risks. If the basis of all fear is the unknown, it’s as though Gursky’s all-seeing eye shows us how much we don’t know, but reassures us, God-like, that he does.

The result has been huge success for his work on all levels. In the 1980s, as photography began to find acceptance in the art world after its self-realisation through Conceptualism, Gursky’s ability to fill museum-sized wall space was as appealing as William Eggleston’s earlier introduction of colour. Unlike Eggleston’s more radical project though – or the self-reference of Cindy Sherman and Jeff Wall – Gursky became popular with all sections of photography’s audience who relished the visceral sensation of his pictorialism and the contemporary relevance of his subject matter. However the very basis on which this success rested also exposed a number of moral questions that coalesce into an irrefutable critique of his oeuvre, as well as, perhaps, his personality. Has mastering the sublime complexity of globalisation only been achieved through a pathological disinterest in its painful reality?

In his own words, Gursky “strive[s] for a condensation of reality”[5], even if, in his Photoshopped montages “a ‘fictitious construction’ is now required”[6]. This echoes Bertolt Brecht’s formulation in Threepenny Opera that “the simple ‘reproduction of reality’ says less than ever about that reality… So there is indeed ‘something to construct’, something ‘artificial’, ‘invented’”[7]. However, whereas Brecht was advancing this idea to better understand social injustice, Gursky’s application of it appears to do nearly the opposite in a number of problematic ways. If we’re aware that globalisation (despite its many material benefits) has led to unsustainable consumption, questionable labour practices, dangerous levels of pollution, climate change and inequality – it’s hard not to feel ethically conflicted by Gursky’s mastery, and thus trivialisation, of these issues.

Beyond this, as his work has become more widely known, a process begins whereby it arguably nomalises the issues, thus inhibiting political action to resolve them. We don’t question the hazards of globalisation when through the ubiquity of their ‘contained’ representation we collectively feel secure with them. Similar images begin to grace textbook covers and news stories on globalisation, and in Peter Sloterdijk’s famous argument (summarised by Slavoj Zizek), we become “aware of the distance between the ideological mask and the social reality, but none the less still insist upon the mask”[8]. Furthermore Gursky’s politically detached viewpoint conveniently resonates with most of the collectors wealthy enough to afford his art, resulting in its aforementioned commercial success. If being sold is the conclusion of his work’s ultimate purpose, is he arguably aestheticising the problems he portrays too?

This charge however, as with those of ‘mastering’, ‘trivialising’ or ‘normalising’ the hazards of globalisation, is a matter of degree and personal ethical opinion. Gursky’s defence would no doubt posit them as side effects of addressing such issues earlier, and with greater incision and creativity, than anyone else. They are testament to his prescience and skill as an artist. This defence is not usually employed though, since regardless of how he depicts “the ‘globalised’ economy subordinat[ing] innumerable individuals as interchangeable elements”[9], the economy of his work engages in exactly the same practice. He is clearly dependent upon the involuntary participation of many thousands of people, most significantly less affluent and advantaged than himself, in a dynamic that rewards him handsomely. As such, any critical exploration of these inequities is undermined by his own exploitation of them. It’s at this juncture that critics rightly and rhetorically ask whether his photographs “serve as a critical allegory of latecapitalist anomie or whether they are simply another instance of it”[10].

Untitled XII (Musil) (2000) Gursky, A.

This finally is a charge Gursky cannot disown. His portrayal of the world perhaps, but his behaviour in it certainly, implies a laissez-faire that in its worst light could be characterised as a form of nihilism. An interesting, yet speculative, additional insight into his worldview can be gleaned from Untitled XII (Musil), a page he photographed from Robert Musil’s book A Man Without Qualities. In the text, the protagonist Ulrich senses that:

He basically felt capable of having any virtue and any vice, and the fact that a balanced social system generally, albeit tacitly, regards virtues and vices as equally burdensome demonstrated something for him that occurs throughout nature: namely, that every interplay of forces eventually strives toward a mean value and an average standard, an equilibrium and a rigidification.[11]

The choice of this particular passage is instructive for two reasons. Firstly, Ulrich’s moral ambiguity appears to mirror that of Gursky. More importantly though, if Gursky is advocating Ulrich’s attitude, his beliefs are based on the ‘balance of nature’ theory. This proposes that ecological systems naturally incline towards homeostasis, and despite being entirely discredited is a view still widely held. As with Ulrich, it also seems to inform (if not give outright support to) many instances of both ethical and political detachment, including its recent manifestation in neoliberalism. However, unlike the ‘balance of nature’, which was (relatively) easy to debunk from the careful research of animal populations, neoliberalism, with the cultural values humans attach to it, is harder to unpick.

To this challenge, a recent event, the 2008 financial crash, has provided an essential case study. An objective ‘truth’ of what happened will never be agreed upon and is far beyond the scope of this essay, but the crisis irrespectively yields the most successful erosion of neoliberalism since its resurgence under Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan. Although there is no obvious successor to it as our dominant political ideology, its primary doctrine – that the market can and should guide policy – is under intellectual siege. Furthermore, after seven years without a genuine economic and social recovery, this siege appears vindicated. In such a climate, the critiques of Gursky’s oeuvre, which were established before this period, should be reappraised. This necessarily gives them far more credibility, and the proof of their newfound veracity is in the distinct turn his most recent work has taken.

Dubaiworld III (2007) Gursky, A.

Ocean V (2010) Gursky, A.

Bangkok II (2011) Gursky, A.

This can be plotted via three water-themed series. Dubaiworld blithely reflects the luxurious and conspicuous consumption of the pre-crash era. The islands show little need for digital augmentation to reveal their excess, and the authors of such excess would no doubt find their depiction appealing. Their complete containment within the frame, aided by a breezy colour palette, presents a reassuring mastery of sublime anthropogenic upheaval. This is Gursky’s comfort zone. However, post-crash, he returns literally and metaphorically to the real world in 2010 with his Ocean images. Of them, he admits that “of course you can imagine how [the climate] will change”[12], while declining to confirm either this as their subject matter, or any other political intentions for the work. Given they evoke NASA’s Blue Marble so strongly, which was credited with kickstarting our current environmental consciousness, this feels disingenuous. Furthermore, by refusing to show the totality of Earth, he abstracts the subject matter and withholds the familiar mastery of it. This tactic seem to be extended in his Bangkok series produced the next year. Whilst again abstracted (this time of a river rather than the planet), the images’ direct focus on pollution choking a natural habitat hints at a more firmly activist approach – and the increasingly sombre tones of these photographs seem to either confirm this, or at least the artist’s own growing disquiet.

Lehmbruck I (2013) Gursky, A.

Spiderman (2014) Gursky, A.

Gursky’s self-reflection seems manifest again in a pair of photographs from 2013 of the Lehmbruck Gallery in Duisburg. Referring to the very ‘industry’ he participates in, and contextualised by the rest of his oeuvre, he appears to be questioning the museum space as a site for both the production and consumption of culture. Compared to similarly located photographic projects by his fellow Dusseldorf alumni Thomas Struth and Candida Hofer, Gursky’s manipulated vision is forebodingly austere. The interior reveals itself as a sealed compound with no spectators, in which the human is symbolically represented as a collection of icons, frozen and trapped by the world of art. The viewer can only guess as to how Gursky positions himself within this Foucauldian “apparatus”. His next and most recent work is the 2014 Superheroes series, in which famous comic book characters are seen isolated within dystopian environments – and whose increasingly fantastical yet cryptic scenes mark an even greater departure from his métier. They also invite much speculative interpretation, which pivots contrarily on the superheroes’ dual affiliation with both social justice and American individualism. Are they an allegory for how the modernist social justice of the characters’ New Deal origins has become marooned in postmodernism’s sea of toxic indifference? Alternatively, are they a cautionary tale for that which awaits the former heroes of individualism, Wall Street’s own ‘masters of the universe’: to be damned to solitude in a world of their own decimation?

Rhein II (1999) Gursky, A.

Either way, and regardless of all his recent work’s elusiveness, there seems to be an undeniably moral tone emerging. A broader narrative for how this artistic transition might have evolved can be explored from contemplating more abstract questions around the purpose of art. Although nebulous, it’s useful to consider how 2008’s seismic failure in the logic of the market might affect Gursky’s view of such issues. He is after all king of the photographic art market – and was at the time of the crash, having sold 99 Cent II Diptychon for a record price in 2007. It was nearly five years before the same confidence was expressed by collectors again, firstly for works by Wall and Sherman, before Gursky’s Rhein II retained for him the title of world’s most expensive photograph. Despite the fact that this lengthy period of retrenchment was the result of wider turmoil, it would certainly cause Gursky to doubt that markets, money or perhaps even museums should be the arbiter of art’s cultural value.

How instead to evaluate it, is again, a topic that will never find consensus and is completely beyond the scope of this essay – but a cursory substantiation of the discussion’s axioms reinforce the critical readings of Gursky’s earlier work. The general principles of art theory derive from Aesthetics, the discourse rooted in the origins of Western thought and “which concerns the beautiful”[13]. This in turn can be philosophically located in relation to Ethics and Metaphysics, known as goodness and truth, and together these transcendentals have been meditated upon by thinkers from ancient Greece to the present. Concerning their relationship, Plato suggests that “from fair forms to fair practices, and from fair practices to fair notions”[14], implying a direct progression from beauty to goodness, then truth. If Gursky aspired to represent the “essence of reality”[15], the ultimate truth, he did so with a notably absent ethical dimension. This can be explained as a postmodern “incredulity towards metanarratives”[16], a rejection of overarching morals in a world that was about to reach the “end of history”[17], but we are clearly past that brief moment.

In our current return to more historical norms, we should not expect from Gursky, say, the clear moral didacticism of religious iconography, being past that moment too. But he would surely understand the contemporary as ‘post’ postmodern – in Nicholas Mirzoeff’s sense meaning the crisis of, not just the successor to – and the requirement of a return to the ethical in art as both timely and necessary. Since modernity, this has entailed politically radical elements, as expressed by nearly all movements and theorists. Despite their many differences, there are certain arguments common to all – and very crudely, revealing the ills of society and imagining their solutions are the two most prominent. This has a direct bearing on Gursky’s work, which until the 2008 financial crisis didn’t “so much mirror as embody the cold-hearted spectacle”[18] of many social ills. Although still spectacular, it finally appears to be raising overdue ethical concerns – or at least writhing uncomfortably with the realisation of them. Whether this is a genuine readjustment of his personal values is impossible to tell. With the ceaseless demands of the zeitgeist and the market to adhere to, there is every possibility the changes in his work are tactical rather than heartfelt. However, until Peter Lik’s improbable sale is satisfactorily verified, Gursky is still the most renowned artist in the photographic sphere, and his new work should be cautiously welcomed.

William Eckersley, January 2015

[1] Usborne, S. (2014) Peter Lik: The Self-Proclaimed ‘Fine-Art Photographer’ Whose Work Sells For Millions The Independent, December 11th 2014 [online]

[2] Van Gelder, H. & Westgeest, H. (2011) Photography Theory in Historical Perspective Chichester, UK: Wiley-Blackwell p.130

[3] Stallabrass, J. (2013) Elite Art in the Age of Populism [published in Contemporary Art: 1989 to the Present] Oxford, UK: John Wiley & Sons p.43

[4] Szeman, I. & Whiteman, M. (2009) The Big Picture: On the Politics of Contemporary Photography Third Text, Volume 23, Issue 5, September 2009 Abingdon, UK: Routledge p.554

[5] Beyst, S. (2007) From A World Spirit’s Eye View d-sites.net, March 2007 [online]

[6] Begg, Z. (2005) Recasting Subjectivity – Globalisation and the Photography of Andreas Gursky and Allan Sekula Third Text, Volume 19, Issue 6, November 2005 Abingdon, UK: Routledge p.635

[7] Brecht, B. The Cambridge Companion to Brecht [edited by Thomson, P. & Sacks, G.] Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press

[8] Zizek, S. (1989) The Sublime Object of Ideology New York, USA: Verso p.29

[9] Beyst, S. (2007)

[10] Sundell, M. (2000) Andreas Gursky: Photographer Artforum, March 2000 New York, USA: Artforum International

[11] Siegel, K. (2001) Consuming Vision Artforum, January 2001 [online]

[12] Ure-Smith, J. (2010) Andreas Gursky Goes On Show in Berlin The Financial Times, April 23rd 2010 [online]

[13] Janson, H. & Janson, A. (1998) History of Art London, UK: Thames & Hudson p.16

[14] Plato (1994) Art and its Significance (edited by Ross, S.D.) Albany, USA: State of New York University Press p.63

[15] Mead, A. (2012) The Ultimate Image The Architectural Review, March 2012 London, UK: EMAP Publishing

[16] Lyotard, J-F. (1984) The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge [translated by Bennington, G. & Massumi, B.] Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press

[17] Fukuyama, F. (1992) The End of History and the Last Man New York, USA: Free Press

[18] Galassi, P (2001) Andreas Gursky moma.org [online]