Difference and Repetition & Asphalt-Red Affect: Andreas Gursky at Hayward Gallery, February-April 2018

In this show there are many rooms containing billboard-sized photos, occupying a border between advertising and critique. Images are curated to smoothly interconnect on topical and formally aesthetic threads. Bodies at work, grid formation, colours and blocking, all of these tropes harmonise over the multiple galleries. One is immersed in images bigger than the human body, and caught in a infographic web of neoliberal identities, markers of late-capitalist and postmodern conditions.

“Different and repetition”: these are the words that come to me often as I wonder through this show. In Tokyo Stock Exchange (1990) men in identical suits caught in varying states of blur fill a frame, multiple images seamlessly pressed into one another, no joins to indicate the crafty manipulation of Gurky’s technical processes. Across from this image rests another, titled Karlsruhe, Siemens (1991), matched in scale but this time showing women at work in an electronics factory. They are positioned over work desks, the room around them busy and loud with the chaotic lines of curling wires that hang above them like strings to their marionette bodies. Standing between Tokyo Stock Exchange and Karlsruhe, Siemens one sees the links and discords between the images. On one side the manual labour of a factory, on the other, immaterial labour of global money flows, on one side women, on the other side men, on one side inert bodies, on the other bodies in movement. Though contrasting in these ways, both are dependent on one another within capitalism, propping each other up and allowing the other to function.

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Upstairs in the upper galleries I spend time with Bangkok VI (2011). Representation and abstraction conflate in this image which comprises of blue light reflected on water, witnessed from a bizarre perspective that somehow appears to see from below and above. The water is made looming by its steep portrait form yet remains a flat surface. Detritus floats in the water, subtle in comparison to the light which makes the liquid appear as solid mass. I think of the Walter Benjamin quote about seduction and reflection, “What, in the end, makes advertisements so superior to criticism? Not what the moving red neon sign says — but the fiery pool reflecting in the asphalt.”

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Gurky’s works often function as adverts, big billboards that they are, replete with gatherings of inert subjects one cannot latch onto specifically. Women in an Ikea factory, weaving furniture, all in a curated prison-colour orange jumpsuits with the word RAPEXCO printed on the back – Chicago stock traders, plentiful and busy, each individual small in the crowd, their different coloured outfits making their bodies look like flicks of paint splats –  people waiting in ques in an airport, the large destination board above making them small. Figures become place holders for people, and landscapes become contained surfaces, sealed by their clean-lined aesthetic, shrink-wrapped like the frame that tightly presses into the photos. Fused to it, part of its being. And thus, my criticism shifts across the smooth surface. Meaning swells and grows, then reduces.

Many of the images do not contain any people, just reams of commercial junk in a warehouse, placed in discord, only making sense to an abstract algorithm of purchase. Some images show only a couple figures, made small by the vastness of there surrounds. A tulip field, or a neutrino testing centre.

When first viewing the show I was impressed at the immersive size of the images, and the spectacular intricacies that sweep evenly through the frame. The eye is immediately seduced, invited to dance through the crowds of objects, the bodies at play, the colours and stilled movements that have been captured in the appearance of a single click. People gather around the photographs, their fingers pointing out small details to their partners, their friends, children, parents, lovers. Bodies sway to the rhythm of their inquisitive eyes that propel hands to gesture at areas of the densely populated frames. They hunch and crouch, they walk the length of the landscaped images back and forth, necks arch and bend at the portrait frames, they come up close before stepping away, walking backwards so their eyes can remain firmly on the picture. Heads swivel 180 degrees between images mounted on opposing walls, and works witnessed in previous galleries are recalled and discussed, illuminated in new ways as thematic strands ebb and flow through the vast show. A father stands behind his daughter, his hands rest on her little shoulders with loving ease as he reads the image’s caption aloud. A woman and a man stand close together, he quietly feels her body through her sweater and the top of her head find a place in his torso. Perhaps afterwards they will leave the gallery and find a bar, they will laugh about a memory from last month, they will plan what to do for a friend’s birthday, and the photos will linger with them.

[The work 99 Cent is discussed in a blog pot below]

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