Review: Andreas Gursky (Kunstmuseum Basel)


Book Reviews, Photobooks

Andreas Gursky is one of the most important living photographers, despite the fact that his work is often being judged on nothing but else but its size or its price. While his photos are indeed monumental, size is merely a means to an end - as is obvious to a viewer who is confronted by one of Gursky’s photographs. The prints are not big simply because he can print them big, but because they have to be big, because of what they show and how they show it.

Andreas Gursky is a survey of Gursky’s most recent work (which also includes some older examples), which was on view at the art museum in Basel, showing, for example, the Formula 1 series, images taken in North Korea, and various landscapes (such as the so-called “James Bond Islands”).

Despite the fact that the reproductions of the photos in the book are vastly smaller than the actual photos, it’s quite interesting to see how in the context of a book (which, btw, is extremely well produced and of high quality) the images still maintain a lot of their original power. And what might be lacking one can sense - it’s like there is something left that gives a hint of the photos’ impact when seen hanging on the wall of a gallery or museum.

I think there are two main reasons why Andreas Gursky is a book that even skeptics might want to have a look at. The first one is one of the essays in the book, which connects Gursky’s images of North Korean mass rallies with earlier imagery, such as early 20th Century mass rallies and a famous painting that the artist himself quoted as an inspiration for his work. That essay for me is one of the best ones I have seen in a photography book in a while.

And second, seeing so many of Gursky’s images in one book makes it clear what his photography is about. A German art magazine called him someone who reported on the “world’s spirit” (which is not quite the Zeitgeist that is also familiar to the English speaking world), and while that sounds like one of those lofty, grandiose terms that Germans appear to like so much, there is more truth to it than it would appear at first. Gursky’s photography shows us the vastness of our world, using single images. You get to see a North Korean mass rally, a vast and bewildering array of colours, with tiny people as elements, and then, just a few pages later, there is an aerial photo taken at a Madonna concert, equally bewildering and vast. Gursky’s photography is a survey of the modern world we live in, done - as becomes more and more clear the longer one looks at his images - in the style of those painters that in the past would show vast battle scenes, seen from far above. And I can’t easily think of another photographer who would attempt to show things as they are in this way and this successfully.