addition, subtraction and illusion

For images intended to hang from walls, Andreas Gursky’s art is lavishly scaled. Kirchentag 2013, for example, measures 3,070 x 2,170mm. Unsurprisingly perhaps, his work commands equally lavish prices. At auction in 2011, for example, Rhein II 1999 was purchased for US$4,338,500―the most ever paid for a photograph.

The Art Gallery of South Australia recently acquired an edition of Kirchentag 2013, which depicts a temporary campground of teeming thousands attending the titular biennial Evangelical Church ‘festival’ in Germany. This and most other images for which Gursky is best known have all been digitally manipulated to ‘hyper-realistic’ excess. In painting, drawing and sculpture, hyper-realism refers to work executed to such precision that it resembles a high-resolution photograph of the subject. How then can high-resolution photographs like Gursky's be considered hyper-realistic? By adding, subtracting, or altering―that is to say, editing―their detail.

Kirchentag 2013, for example, is a confection of images invisibly combined as to give the appearance of documentation. To my eye, Gursky’s people-centred images aren’t as visually impressive as the robustly graphic Les Mées 2016, Bahrain I 2005, 99 Cent Diptychon 2001, and Shanghai 2000, for example. The products of Gursky’s deliberate exaggerations unashamedly―and often beguilingly―discredit such truisms as ‘seeing is believing’, and a ‘camera never lies’.

How truth and fact are represented in photography has been explored by Susan Sontag in On Photography, Errol Morris in Believing is Seeing, and the BBC seven-part documentary, The Genius of Photography, among other analyses. As with most art, judicious editing of fact can sometimes better articulate a truth. As to what truths Gursky's images speak of, Art Critic for New York magazine, Jerry Saltz, noted that prior to the World Trade Centre terrorist attack in New York on 11 September 2001, Gursky's monumental works aptly critiqued the seeming inevitability of economic globalisation. Saltz added, however, that since then so much of Gursky's work is left wanting, if not shallow. Writing in 2007, he quoted the artist; 

My preference for clear structures is the result of my desire―perhaps illusory―to keep track of things and maintain my grip on the world.

and concluded that,

Gursky is in too much control and not adding anything new or daring to his work. 

I'm surprised that Saltz didn't explore Gursky's reference to 'illusory', especially in light of  the artist's highly-manipulated visual fantasies, and self-confessed need to "maintain a grip on the world". In a 2009 interview with Nancy Tousley, Contributing Editor for Canadian Art magazine, Gursky explained that; 

I read a picture not for what’s really going on there, I read it more for what is going on in our world generally.

His most recent offerings―exhibited with some previous works at Düsseldorf's Kunstsammlung Nordrhein-Westfalen―reveal a distinct tendency toward greater visual linearity and homogeneity. I can't help think that despite a global economy that has yet to recover from 2008's seismic global financial crisis; a worldwide trend toward appreciation of the local; and this year's British vote for independence from the EU, the artist's concern for the effects of economic globalisation remain as valid as ever, if not worthy of repetition.

Kirchentag 2013 is currently on exhibition in Gallery 11 of the Art Gallery of South Australia.

 Kirchentag 2013,   
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 ©Andreas Gursky

Kirchentag 2013, ©Andreas Gursky