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ADVENTURES IN CONTEMPORARY ART

NO 19: ANDREAS GURSKY

Beneath a featureless white sky flows a grey body of water flanked by horizontal green banks. Parallel to the green runs a grey path on the near side of the ruffled water and a grey shoreline on the far side ... The first image to grab my attention is the very scene I've been walking through to get to the gallery. If it is Hyde Park, then all the geese and trees and people have been removed from in and around Serpentine Lake. Andreas Gursky does digitally manipulate his monumental photographs. But this picture is called Rhein, so clearly I'm on the wrong track: I'll orientate myself in a minute.

All the photographs are huge. Some are empty of people: an aerial view of Los Angeles at night; an expanse of suspended cellular ceiling in Brasilia; floor after floor of identical hotel balconies with hanging plants. Actually, there is the occasional person in the hotel's corridors, but they are so tiny relative to the monolithic facade, so separated by unbroken lines of corridor, that they serve to emphasise an essential absence of humanity.

And some have lots of people: politicians milling around on different levels of the Bundestag, bald pates and sheaves of papers prevalent; a sea of young heads and shoulders pointing in the same direction at a rave; skiers walking across snow-covered ground, the line of tiny figures stretching all the way from one side of the picture to the other.

I stop in front of a diptych of the Hong Kong Stock Exchange. The two panels make a single scene, row upon row of trading-floor workers arranged in a triangular format, the traders facing the empty centre of the room. Red sound-damping screens on the wall, red-carpeted corridors between the rows of desks, and hundreds of red-waistcoated workers, four-digit numbers on their backs. They're on the phone, reading the financial press, shouting to colleagues, using keyboards, looking at monitors. My eye moves up and down each row, skips between reds, takes in the hive of activity.

As in this diptych, the artist is usually at a distance from his subject, looking down on it. "Man is central to my photographs, even when, in exceptional cases, he can be reduced to the point of invisibility." This God-like, detached viewpoint is fine. I enjoy sharing it. But I want something else too: I step closer to the image, so my field of vision doesn't extend to the edges of the scene. The detail is captivating.

The rows of seats are actually composed of narrowly separated workstations at which sit six people in aircraft-seat proximity to one another. Each has a telephone, keyboard and monitor on his desk. Every second desk has a printer on a raised shelf. Jackets on hangers hook onto the work stations where they can; bare pink hangers do the same. The scene is crystal-clear, information-rich, electric.

I see myself taking a seat. Not in the middle of a set of six since that would involve temporarily displacing traders into the narrow gangways, but on the end of a row. Quite comfortable, except the back support only extends for a few inches above the base of my spine. But, like colleagues nearby, I can lean back against the surface of the workstation in the row behind me. At the front of my desk there's an additional plastic work surface which I flip up. What do I do now? I think the dealer in the seat next to mine is power-napping, otherwise I'd ask him.

The phone rings, I buy stock. The phone rings. I sell stock. The phone rings again. It's Andreas, speaking from the Bundestag. He tells me about arrangements for the weekend. One: intercontinental flight. Two: cross- country ski. Three: happy people, happening sound - the happiest sound on the planet. Sounds like one cool deal. I ask where we'll be chilling out. A block booking - floors 14 to 34 - has been made at an atrium-style Portman Group hotel in Atlanta. Every room identical. All come, all crash. Two-litre jugs of decanted mineral water available from room service at no extra cost.

I key in what I know, and e-mail it to every screen in the triangle. After a few seconds, a pulse of activity starts to beat through the room. Soon there's a real buzz to the place. Just as I'm thinking that maybe I could get the hang of living in a post-industrial, mass-elite society, I'm caught up in a wave of hysteria which forces me into the gangway, sweeps me along the molten corridor and rushes me outside ...

Beneath a featureless white sky a grey body of ruffled water is flanked by horizontal green banks.

Andreas Gursky, 'Photographs 1994-1998': Serpentine Gallery, W2, to 7 March.

'Personal Delivery', Duncan McLaren's book on contemporary art, is published by Quartet (pounds 12).

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