Andreas Gursky: A God’s eye view of the world

Two new Andreas Gursky exhibitions capture the tension between the chilling neutrality and passionate Romanticism in his epic, enigmatic photographs – to thrilling effect

Superman sits with his chin on his hand, glum.

He appears to be suffering from ennui. His familiar red-and-blue suit, complete with cape and knee-high boots, is as slick as ever. He is an animation, but life-like. He is dressed to fly around and save people, but there is no one to save. He is alone on a dark planet, surrounded by craters. The sky above is a sour, indeterminate green. It appears toxic, the result of a nuclear holocaust, perhaps, in which everyone has died. There is a full moon, with all its symbolism of metamorphosis and bewitchment, but Superman is indifferent to it.

This is one of the most complex and melancholic images in an exhibition of recent works by the German “photo-artist” Andreas Gursky, which has just opened at White Cube Gallery in Bermondsey. It belongs to the tradition of German Romantic painting, exemplified by Caspar David Friedrich’s 1818 painting Wanderer Above The Sea of Fog, which shows a solitary male figure contemplating the sublime power of nature. The idea of the sublime was defined in the late 18th century as that which provokes a feeling of terror and awe. By contrast, Gursky’s Superman seems to be feeling nothing much at all.

Gursky is best known for creating vast, digitally manipulated photographs of landscapes so empty and crowds so dense that the viewer feels a kind of elemental panic. He effects the pose of an all-seeing God, with a view from everywhere and nowhere at once. This is enabled by his process: since 1992, he has taken several photographs of a scene and then digitally merged the results. This allows him to achieve a panoramic perspective that would otherwise be impossible.

In 2011, Gursky’s photograph The Rhine II sold for $4.3 million at Christie’s in New York, despite the fact that it was one of six editions. It became the most expensive photograph in history. Due to the market value and the monumental scale of his images, Gursky is considered by many to be the most significant photographer working today.

I am not quite so fanatical, but I loved this exhibition. It dramatises Gursky’s Romantic themes, reinvented for our consumer world of high-rise offices, CCTV cameras, and ecological devastation, but shows a departure in his work too. The superhero series was made earlier this year, and introduces a sense of narrative which isn’t present in the near painterly abstraction for which he is famous. 

Most fascinating is the way the exhibition brings to light the tension in Gursky’s work. On the one hand, his images appear chillingly neutral towards the human life that they so avidly document. On the other, they exist in the passionate, expressive tradition of German Romanticism. They manage to be both cold and intense. He has said: “The composition of my landscapes is orientated towards images of the Romantic period: only the Kodak colours transport them back into the present day.”

Gursky was born in Leipzig in 1955, into a family of photographers. He studied under Bernhard and Hilla Becher in Dusseldorf. He is understandably strict about the reproduction of his images, and seems as mysterious and resistant to the press as Tino Sehgal. Now 59, he lives  in Düsseldorf.

While there is an annoying trend in contemporary art of incorporating cartoon characters and other pop cultural icons into work, a lazy hangover from Pop Art, the superhero series is one of the few instances where it works. Superman translates as übermensch in German, an idea which is also key to the Romantic tradition. Rather than a comic book hero, the übermensch points to a tortured genius who must rise above the crowd in order to achieve individual greatness. It was used by the Nazis to justify the dominance of the Arian race, which was a misinterpretation of the philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche’s original idea.

Gursky’s image of Superman is unsettling partly because it should be funny, but it is not. Like Superman himself, the viewer feels almost nothing. There is no pang in the chest. Gursky is expert at engineering emotional response; he can make you feel what he wants you to, even apathy. Superman’s sadness is not grand enough to be tragic. He has lost the will to be wonderful, indeed, to be a hero. In this way, the monumentality of the German Romantic tradition  is punctured.

Superman originated in 1930s Depression era America as a Left-leaning character who fought for social causes. This was later annulled by his massive popularity and commercial value. He was co-opted. It seems that Gursky is evoking these histories. One of the major themes of Romanticism was nature versus industry, which Gursky has adapted for our era of global capital.

Another image in the superhero series shows Ironman embracing a blonde ponytailed woman on a tropical beach that would be worthy of a Sandals brochure, if not for the sick pink tint that contaminates the scene. They stand beneath silhouetted palm trees. Is Gursky mocking the conventions of love? The image is not cynical. It is not sincere either.

What makes Gursky such a great artist is the genuine elusiveness of his work. It can’t be easily read. Even when he uses motifs that would be trite in others’ hands, he manages to make them meaningful. Here Ironman and his girlfriend are staring into one another’s eyes, except Ironman’s eyes consist of two glowing white holes. She doesn’t seem perturbed. There is another glowing white hole in his chest, which I initially mistook for his heart, but in fact it is a uni-beam projector, part of Ironman’s armour. His grand passion may simply be a pre-programmed defensive function.

The most affecting work on display at White Cube is the only film, The Wash (2014), which provokes the kind of primal response that the Romantics must have hoped for. It is not by Gursky, however, but the young American artist Alex Perweiler.

The concept is simple but the effect is so vertiginous that I felt both physically nauseated and unable to look away. It seems that a camera has been positioned over a waterfall. The moment when the falling water hits the river below and produces clouds of white froth and mist is played continuously only a loop. The collision of water on water expresses a great, natural violence; it appears like a thundering death trap, willing you to fall.

This feeling of terror and awe is enhanced by the soundtrack, which consists of a monotonous techno rhythm, faster than a regular heartbeat. Indeed, it made my heart beat faster; my body seemed to align itself to what was happening on the screen. The combination of the music and the moving image creates a sense of tense, unpleasant excitement. Here the sublime does not bring us closer to God, but induces a horrible vertigo.

A smaller exhibition of Gursky’s work, Early Landscapes, has also opened at Sprüth Magers Gallery. It focuses on his photographs from the late 1980s and early 1990s, prior to his use of digital manipulation. These are analogue images, and I prefer them. Rather than aesthetic disinterest, they point to Cartier Bresson’s idea of “the decisive moment”, whereby a photographer must act immediately to capture life as it occurs.

This is the case in the astonishing, large photograph Niagara Falls (1989). Gursky was on holiday at the falls when he saw a boat careening towards their base. He climbed over the safety barrier and took the photograph, which is staggering for the moment of danger that it expresses. The image shows the boat dwarfed by the immense power of water. The river runs from black to bottle green to the purest white. There are figures on the boat, but their faces are indiscernible. Not only is the water capable of killing them, but it is indifferent. Once again, there is the sense of an almighty presence that simply doesn’t care.

Andreas Gursky, White Cube Bermondsey, London SE1 (whitecube.com) to 6 July; Early Landscapes, Sprüth Magers Gallery, London W1 (spruethmagers.com) to June 21

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