Andreas Gursky

By Andrew Maerkle

Installation view of “Andreas Gursky” at the National Art Center, Tokyo, 2013, with Bangkok I (2011) at left and Klausenpass (1984) at right. Photo ART iT.

On the eve of his current solo exhibition at the National Art Center, Tokyo, ART iT corresponded with German photographer Andreas Gursky about his work. Bringing together over 60 works selected by the artist, “Andreas Gursky” remains on view in Tokyo through September 16, and subsequently tours to the National Museum of Art, Osaka.


ART iT: Many of your photographs are composited from multiple perspectives of the same scene, and also digitally altered; the expanded view of the world they provide is a construction. Given this approach, could you discuss how you understand the traditional gaps between reality and representation, objectivity and artifice in photography? Do your photographs reinforce or subvert the ideology of perspective in Western art?

AG: My works are very real, and at the same time composed, but not completely imaginary. This can be seen, for instance, in the work Bahrain I (2005). The racetrack in Bahrain is made of concrete onto which a new circuit is painted for every race. That is why many of the road sections look so bizarre. This is not a figment of my imagination, but rather a figment of reality. Yet at the same time the picture is also a montage in which I have made a few changes for reasons of composition. Although the work has an increased element of perspective – the ground is steeply inclined and the composition forms an abstract pattern – there is still a horizon line and a strip of sky is visible. This structure can be seen in many of my works. In addition, I also use the central perspective in some of my pictures, such as Chicago Board of Trade II (1999) or Times Square (1997). Only in my “Bangkok” series, and before that in a few “untitled” works, does the abstraction displace the perspectival structure.

ART iT: Evoking Chinese landscape paintings, works such as Klausenpass (1984) and Cable Car, Dolomites (1987) are striking in their contrasts of scale between the natural environment and human figures; this sensibility is also applied to the built environment in works such as Kamiokande (2007). How do you conceive the relations between human and nature, and human and built environment in your compositions?

AG: Klausenpass, a photo I initially wanted to reject, but which ultimately caught my attention, was taken in the Swiss Alps in 1984. It came about more or less by accident on a trip. Around six months later, when I had developed the film, I saw something that I hadn’t seen before. The picture showed a dramatic mountain landscape and really tiny hikers scattered around the mountainside. It was surreal and bizarre how the people fitted into the landscape and the composition was so balanced. That’s when I began to think about people in their socially constructed environments.

ART iT: Previously you have mentioned that you maintain an archive of images sourced from the media, which you then reference and research in preparing your own photographs. Could you elaborate on how you decide to focus on a specific subject, and what goes into the research process? Do series like “F1 Boxenstopp” (2007), with almost theatrical arrangements of figures, and “Bangkok” (2011), with abstracted views of the Chao Phraya river, both emerge from the same research process? Does anything change in your approach and perspective as you move from location to location around the world?

AG: The motifs are almost always based on visual experiences. I generally collect pictures that I have found in print media as aides-memoires, or I print motifs from the Internet that have aroused my interest. Then the process of reflection begins, during which I examine whether the motif is suitable, whether it is worthy of a picture. Only then do I start – generally with great technical effort – capturing the motif and turning it into something that is my own.
Maybe I can illustrate this process by telling the story of how the “Bangkok” series came about. I was initially drawn to Bangkok by a different picture idea, which ultimately wasn’t realized, but then I still had two days until my return flight. During this time, as I waited at a public jetty and stared pensively at the water, I noticed that the water there looked completely different from what one knows from the Rhine or Ruhr. This is related to the fact that the water is very oily due to all the boat traffic, making everything that is reflected in it look highly abstract. This abstraction really inspired me, and I decided to return to Bangkok two months later to stare at the water for a week. That is how this series came about.
The sky above Bangkok can be seen in the pictures, but the pollution in the river is also visible. If you study the pictures in detail, you can see water hyacinths, disposable packaging and condoms floating on the surface of the water. I show the river how it is, I don’t sugarcoat anything, but I also don’t paint a bleak picture. What interests me about those works is that they simultaneously portray beauty and temptation, but at the same time highlight the global pollution of our rivers.

ART iT: With the prevalence of laptop computers, tablets and smart phones, a significant portion of contemporary life is increasingly dependent upon and absorbed in screen-based media – and the screens themselves have a tendency to become smaller and smaller. What are your thoughts on the current media environment, and do such developments inform your own vision of what is possible to express through photography?

AG: Of course I cannot escape from this development, nor do I want to. For my work, I use a computer, tablet, smartphone and digital cameras – which incidentally are also getting smaller and handier all the time. All of these things make my work easier and give me options that I didn’t have even a few years ago. I also endeavor at all times to use the latest technology for my works, in order to ensure the best-possible quality and durability. At the same time, I haven’t lost sight of analogue photography, which has a special appeal and may emerge in an appropriate project in future.

Andreas Gursky: Fit to Scale

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