The Hollywood blockbuster Kong: Skull Island (2017) portrays a group of explorers on a swampy island inhabited by giant, hostile creatures. A photojournalist, played by Brie Larson, often pauses to take a snapshot of the action. As she holds up her camera, we see the scene through her lens, tightly framed. And as the shutter clicks, the film freezes into a still picture. The message is clear: Photographs stop time, transforming the flux of experience into a fixed image.
“The size of the work affects its reception, offering two different experiences: One immersive, one intimate.” – Andreas Gursky
“Let’s start from the beginning again, Jeff. Tell me everything you saw. And what you think it means.” – Lisa Fremont, Rear Window
In 2003 the art historian Michael Diers wrote an essay comparing Gursky’s iconic Paris, Montparnasse (1993) to both Alfred Hitchcock’s Rear Window (1954) and Miracle of the Relic of the Holy Cross in Campo San Lio (1494) by Giovanni Mansueti. All three artworks depict a world of windows and multiplicity.
Architecture is, of course, one of Gursky’s favorite subjects. Taipei (1999) has an atmosphere of condensed space, with just a few figures visible, while May Day V (2006) features hundreds of revelers (including the artist himself) dispersed across the gridded façade of the high-rise building. For Diers, the overabundance of windows and frames in Paris, Montparnasse and Rear Window offers an example of what the Russian literary theorist Mikhail Bahktin called “chronotopos,” or “spacetime.” Diers then introduces art historian Wolfgang Kemp’s notion of “narrative architectures,” an adaptation of Bahktin’s theory, which describes the presence of parallel narratives and simultaneous scenes in a single picture.
Gursky’s monumental new photograph Cruise (2020) is a vision of the twenty-first century sublime. The cruise ship, still in the process of being constructed, is unimaginably huge, a world unto itself. Yet there are worlds within worlds, a vast “narrative architecture,” and there are even figures visible in the windows, as is the case with Paris, Montparnasse or May Day V. Likewise, each window creates a frame, a lens through which passengers can view and comprehend the outside world. If, as Goethe famously observed, architecture is frozen music, Cruise allows us to experience architectural space as a spatial form that moves through time, like a piece of music. Linger in the details and there are pictures within pictures, notes within bars, chords, melodies and intimate moments. Repetitive, polyphonic and rhythmic, the pictorial space unfolds in time like a minimalist symphony.
“My ‘decisive moment’ sometimes stretches on for days or months and appears to be reproducible at any given moment, appears to stop time or, one might say, to stretch it into infinity.” – Andreas Gursky
“The film has long since inscribed itself in our cultural memory. And this goes far beyond individual film quotations, but concerns our aesthetic perception in general. But alongside the classic cinema format, new forms have also developed; films and clips are streamed to smartphones, which also changes the way we see. That’s why the smartphone is increasingly serving as a source of inspiration for me, and I’m getting more and more involved with this medium.” – Andreas Gursky
“Recently, I’ve been working with unsharpness. I was on a road trip with my wife, driving to Utah. Like any tourist, I was impressed by the landscape. One day I took pictures with my iPhone as we drove. I liked them. When we arrived at the hotel, I said to my wife: ‘OK, tomorrow you drive and I’ll try to get similar images at a higher resolution with my professional equipment.’ The resulting image—of a flat, dry landscape with mountains in the distance—is mostly out of focus, though the resolution is high. It has a completely different perspective to my earlier works, which are sharp throughout.” – Andreas Gursky
As Gursky’s anecdote about how he made Utah suggests, the smartphone has become a kind of sketchbook for the artist. Utah has all the blurriness of a casual snapshot, yet at a scale to match his panoramic vision, the picture offers a rich tapestry of the American west. What we might normally consider a weakness of amateur photography—a shutter speed too slow to capture the image clearly—is here transformed into a new conception of visual experience. Ralf Rugoff, in his essay for Gursky’s Hayward retrospective, argues that “Utah is not just a somewhat painterly epic landscape … but a trenchant reflection on the medium’s changing relationships with the world of forms and the forms of the world.”
Königsbergerstrasse, diptych (2020) may not immediately bring to mind a work by Andreas Gursky. Instead of an expansive view of a landscape or a building, we see two pictures of a woman playing a game in a domestic space. Moreover, the photographs resemble the kind of private snapshots uploaded onto social media platforms. Look closely, however, and you might discern a few of Gursky’s key themes: Architecture, duration, entropy, frames, the tension between pictorial space and the potential for narrative. But here the artist introduces a sense of playfulness, even absurdity. A woman, with a box over her head, stands on a sofa, reaching to the peak of a toy construction that resembles the Tokyo or Eiffel towers. In the second picture (if we read left to right), she leans forward, attempting to place a block of wood atop the structure. Is this a metaphor for the precarious state of the planet? What happened before the first picture, and what will happen next?
We will never know. There is no before or after. Part of the pleasure of pictorial art is the information it withholds. For all its apparent simplicity, Königsbergerstrasse, diptych (2020), opens up an infinite “spacetime” for the viewer’s imagination. Only the viewer can complete the tower, or bring it crashing down to earth.