Realer than real: Andreas Gursky’s photography on show at MAST Bologna
Photographing means, quite simply, capturing a given subject at a given time, in a given place. Thus, it could be thought of as a relatively straightforward medium. Which is why, in its early days, it was considered mainly as a technical tool, a mechanical-electronic reproduction of reality. The exhibition “Visual Spaces of Today” by Andreas Gursky, on show at MAST Bologna until January 7th, 2024, serves as a symbol to dismantle the misconception of straightforwardness, while giving complexity back to photography. It stands, also, as a monument to Gursky’s career, dedicated to getting this medium the recognition it deserves: the status of art form.
“Visual Spaces of Today” is Gursky’s first anthological exhibition in Italy and marks the beginning of the celebrations for the 10th anniversary of the MAST Foundation. MAST is an acronym for Manufacturing of Arts, Experimentation and Technology; the visual spaces in the photographs, selected by curator Urs Stahel and by the artist himself for the exhibition, reflect these concepts. “The powerful images of the German artist,” according to MAST, “open up and reveal new ways of conceiving of work, the economy and globalization, unveil concrete visions of production sites, distribution centers, temples of consumption, transportation hubs, places for energy and food production, headquarters of the financial industry”. The exhibition includes 40 images, from the earliest works (Krefeld, Hühner, 1989) to the most recent works (V&R II and V&R III, 2022), covers great distances between Salerno (1990) and Hong Kong (2020), and combines the modern tourism industry (Rimini, 2003) with millennial production processes (Salinas, 2021)
As Stahel explains, Gursky’s work is more than just a collection of photographs, it marks “a new era for photography”. Mostly associated with large format photography – especially so for the pictures shot in the nineties – the artist’s practice coincides with the recognition of photography as an art form in all respects. His work was among the first examples of photographic images standing on their own, being displayed in museums as artworks in their own right, and, as such, purchased and collected (Gursky’s Rhein II was sold for 4.3 million dollars in 2011).
As Gursky wittingly pointed out: “Triumphant we exclaim: Yes, photography is art! Yes, photography should be in the museum! Yes, photography can be an autonomous image and not just a mechanical-electronic reproduction of reality. Finally! The goal, then, has been reached”. And the goal was reached indeed. Entering the immense MAST space dedicated solely to his large format prints, it is impossible not to feel like you are about to witness something important, pivotal – you just know it.
Standing in front of each picture is a full-on experience. The photographs span over five decades and three continents – and they manage to address some of the most relevant issues of each. Seen all together, not only do they hold up a mirror to contemporary society, but they manage to relate to each other and to the present moment, creating a complex conversation. As for the topics of this conversation, capitalism, commerce, finance, work, fashion, politics and architecture are all called into question – thus, different times, different themes, different places. Yet, the exhibition seems to be a unified inquiry about how we, human beings, inhabit the planet; how we decide, or happen, to organize our existences and societies on it. An enquiry lasting a lifetime. No conclusions are drawn either – no judgment in the pictures: all discernment is left to the viewer. Maybe this is the finest complexity of all in Gursky’s work: he is able to inspire a pressing curiosity towards the world and the logics underlying it, without giving any pre-made conclusion. He does so with accuracy and control – He does not tell us what to think but compels us to ask questions.
French philosopher Jean Baudrillard first theorized the dawn of image society – a society where, as Stahel puts it, we experience “the favoring of the image over reality” and “it is no longer possible to distinguish between real and simulated events”. Today, we are fully there, in the Hyperreality Baudrillard foresaw. From Dusk to Dawn, we live immersed in images – either still or moving. In this context, Gursky’s large format photography forces us to take the time that meaningful observation demands. In a world where all images must be easy, ready to consume, transparent, uncomplicated, Gursky brings complexity back to the forefront – where it belongs.
Aesthetically, his pictures are neat, tidy, precise, but never banal. Some are shot on the spot with little editing after, while some others are heavily edited – up to the use of blunt digital manipulation. Even in the latter case, they manage to represent the truth no less: “my works” he writes, “are very real and at the same time they are a composition, but they are never completely imaginary.” Sometimes, the closest one can get to the truth – the kind of Truth that transcends the trivial and passive observation of the world as is – is utter fiction. Mere representation doesn’t always work. In this instance, digital tools are here to help. But one must use them savvily – needless to say, Gursky masters this art, too.
In the Age of Mechanical Reproduction, often and increasingly associated with the rise of ever-new digital technologies, uniqueness is a rare virtue – and Gursky’s pictures all have it. They are so clearly the result of a careful, profoundly human combination of thought, instinct, study, and choices, that it becomes immediately clear no other person could have shot them. It had to be him, exactly at that time, in that exact spot – which is, quite simply, or very complexly, what photographing means.
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