Panoramas, bird's eye views, the single largest photograph in the world containing 80,000 brightly dressed gymnasts, a chain of islands, or lines of asparagus plants...the sheer amount of modernity is killing us. Perhaps the unwieldiness is what compels photographer Andreas Gursky, featured in April's issue of Modern Painters, and on view soon at Matthew Marks. Or is it the money? After all, this is the photographer whose print "99 Cent," sold for $2.48 million. What was the subject matter? The interior of a discount store. Multiples of the lowest of the low.
So, it works. Or we're curious. Or both. Consider May Day V, with its reverse Panopticon effect: everyone is seeing out. Seen next to Beelitz, which could either be a close up of some kind of cardboard, or a metal door... More than ever we get a sense of the scale at which we humans are currently operating in: too many choices, too much information, too much to see, too much to process, not a hope in hell of remaining on point or conscious for any length of time. And meanwhile the world progresses beyond what we can possibly remain even remotely informed about...or oriented to. What's up with this road in Bahrain? Is that a mirage? A track? And just where is James Bond Island?
More and more we see photographs tracing the impact of the impact of man--in multiples, repetitions, the large scale manufacturing of civilization. We are in love with our own sense of production. And why not? Despite Baudrillard and Benjamin, our sense of being in love with replications--of ourselves and others--goes back a long, long way. Think of the Terracottta army, Easter Island, etc. But this scale? This abundance? What are we to make of all this? When we see images such as the James Bond Islands, are we to think of its inevitable disappearance? Or are we to think of the shapes and colors, the surface of the image? Are we to consider the original at all? Do you see a whale, or 8,000 pounds of product? Do we see cow, or skirt steak? Do we see a canyon, or a place for our SUVs? Are we to feel a sense of joy at the discovery of such a view, such a world, or are we to mourn that once we are seeing this replication, the real that much closer to absent.
Still, there is something extremely compelling about the scale and depth these photographers--Gursky, Burtynsky, Hofer--achieve. The tenderness, the depth of feeling that one senses in the composition, tone, and subject matter. Prefacing Irish writer Edmund Burke from 1756, Critic Alix Ohlin suggests a contemporary sublime, a time in which we are faced with "terrible emotion,""terror" and "transformation." Scale. Remember the guilt with which people referred to 9/11 as such, the "brute beauty," if you will, of the destruction? We aren't so much trembling before God, Ohlin suggests, as we are trembling before the sheer presence of ourselves. Difficult to disagree.
And finally, though one can't help but be happy about recent leaps in printing technology, on top of digital imaging, what we are looking at, what we are taking to be documentation, is in fact manipulation. In fact this seems to be expected now. Ohlin suggests that "to show globalization as it really is--to make the invisible sublime--the image must be altered." Ironic, the technologoy we create to track our technology can't contain or adequately document it...
Finally, there is the suggestion that Gursky presents "our ignorance magnified." While I agree with this assessment, I can't say that this is necessarily a new thing. It seems to me that since photography's invention it has been an intensified mirror, always offering this possibility to those willing to read the surface and beyond.
It remains to be seen what affect, if any, all of this documentation will have on our world, or on the art world. But so much for predictions of the demise of photograph as a form of art. Instead it seems we're entering a golden age. I'm not sure how we'll read the work, but suddenly it seems utterly essential.
Stay tuned for more after I see Gursky's work up close and personal this weekend...