Exhibition review: Gursky at Hayward Gallery

With its iconic brutalist architecture and cutting edge programming, the Hayward Gallery is a world-renowned gallery at the vanguard of contemporary art. ARTIQ were delighted to be invited to join industry and press at the opening of its recent redevelopment to review ‘Gursky’, its first exhibition in 2 years and the first major UK retrospective of the work of acclaimed German photographer Andreas Gursky.


Engaging with Gursky’s work is a philosophical experience. Every photograph, in its own way, invites us to engage, scrutinise, reflect and spar with the depicted; to be active viewers, but also to be rendered passive by their magnitude. His early works explore the juxtaposition of man-made structures betwixt nature’s idylls (Mülheim, Anglers, 1989), and the peculiar recreational pursuits of his countrymen (Düsseldorf, Airport, Sunday Walkers, 1985), deemed ‘representatives of a species whose mission remains obscure.’

His later works might as well be those of a different photographer, so radical is the degree of development from young creative to mature chronicler. Subjects and themes become more intense, stirring and thought-provoking.

Take, for instance, Kamiokande (2007), in which we see the Super Neutrino Detection Experiment. The Experiment, which observes the movement of neutrons, is situated 1,000 metres below Mount Ikeno, Japan. We are shown a subterranean cylinder lined with shelves of golden orbs, rising majestically out of a reflective body of liquid (ultra-pure water) at the base. Drifting on this celestial lake is what looks like a pair of mortal boatmen gazing up in awe at their splendid find. Gursky shows us that just as the man-made can be what is most hideous about the world (El Ejido, 2017, for example), so too can it be what is utterly sublime about it.

In Pyongyang VI & VII (2007/2017), Gurksy wonders at the dazzling symmetry of the North Korean mass games. Given all we know and spurn about the despotic state, the technicolour formations of pom-pom-bearing ladies in leotards show us a strange human ingenuity; an organisational brilliance of the sort that might be directed towards forming peaceful, productive relationships with the world. This may seem a remote possibility, yet Gurksy, when quizzed on his excursion, spoke of the ease with which he moved throughout the nation, and how he believes the North and South will reconcile in time.

For me, Gursky’s grand claim is that he aims for ‘the essence of reality’ in his photos, but what does that mean? The key is in his later works. For most, each is the final amalgamation of many photographs painstakingly pieced together in the studio, in which every element is brought into equal clarity. No person or thing occupies a blurred, peripheral position, even if they occupy the edge of the physical photograph. This conveys a sense of endlessness. Nothing fades into the distance. A crowd of people in May Day IV (2000) might go on forever. Normal photographs and human vision don’t do this; they focus, select, and relegate or reject what is not needed. This is distortion.

In showing the essence of reality, he means showing something, anything, or many things, for what they are: co-existing, complimentary and contrasting fellow objects. In the world, nothing is less real than anything else, whether it be a neutron or a pom-pom-bearing North Korean in a leotard. We are the great distorters of a world that has a nature, form and function independently of what we see and think about it.

But what about beauty and ugliness, good and evil? Do we not collectively (and individually) determine where, and in what, these properties are inherent? It seems we do, somehow; and yet Gursky declines to comment. It is obvious to anyone in the know that mass animal farming (Greeley, 2002), rampant consumerism (99 Cent, 1999/2009) and melting ice caps (Antarctic, 2010) are global problems that we can shout about till we’re red in the face. That doesn’t mean they can’t be depicted beautifully, albeit sadly. Gursky’s gift is that of choice: to see the world as it is, and to make up your own mind. Wonderful.

Review written by Ben Webb, PA to CEO, ARTIQ.

Exhibition details:
‘Gurksy’ Andreas Gursky
Hayward Gallery
25th Jan – 22nd April