337-338 Belvedere Rd,
Lambeth, London SE1 8XX
(Better Known as the South Bank)
Thursday April 5 2018
Preamble: Apologies for our silence for nearly a month – this has been due to dentistry, family trips, holidays and general life… also it has to be said that after four years on this project (we started in March 2014) we are finding it difficult to access the last few museums on our list. During our time devoted to visiting several galleries and museums have closed (Bromley) or moved (William de Morgan tiles) and some have indeed had a makeover and re-opened – the Postal Museum and the Hayward being amongst these.
The (first opened 1968) Hayward Gallery had been showing its age and it was good to see it looking sprucer, cleaner and lighter. It basically has two floors and a kind of mezzanine with connecting ramps. It does not of course have a substantive/permanent collection but puts on temporary exhibition mainly of more modern artists. So this is where we presented ourselves alongside many others. The Hayward is quite accessible so it was good to see several wheelchair and buggy users enjoying the spaces.
The current exhibition features the photographic work of Andreas Gursky. He was born 1955 in what was then East Germany but grew up and studied mainly round Dusseldorf. Interestingly, his parents ran a commercial photography studio and before long he had picked up the family Leica camera and was on his way… As photographers at the bottom of the talent pool (our partners can’t abide our shaky wonky efforts) we greatly admired the technical brilliance of his early conventional landscape shots where Gursky seemed able to capture every detail of vegetation whether in the fore or back ground so they can be enlarged without losing any of their crispness. Already his technical brilliance was evident in a shot of a cable car just visible in a mountain mist.
As Gursky grew more confident and also had the funds to travel more he became fonder of man-made structures – so architecture in the broadest sense. Sometimes he gets up close and personal with a huge lighting system or in one case with the very grey utilitarian carpet of an art gallery and these grand scale interpretations are quite arresting without being disturbing. These verge on abstracts as the context of the lighting systems is absent. The Montparnasse Brutalist housing block does give pause for thought as the viewer cannot fail to remember the troubles there have been along the ‘banlieue’...
Not that he ignores humankind – there are excellent compositions of the Tokyo stock exchange (pretty devoid of colour) and the German Siemens electronics factory which conforms to every expectation of the worker as small cog in the wheel of global capitalism. To paraphrase his own words the clarity of the image execution belies the ambiguity of the subject matter…
Nowhere is this more true than in two of my favourites: the 99cent store and the airport departure boards. By now Gursky is using digital photography and he is able to duplicate/overlap and repeat images in strips which gives an apparent impression of realism while delivering a greater impact and message.
Like many artists he enjoys the same subjects to which he returns but gives them a different treatment and thus interpretation. After the early photos of the river Rhine he returns to this and by straightening and manipulating the images delivers something akin to a Rothko (only with ‘greener’ tones) and where the grey water looks almost as though it has been painted with thick oils. Aware too of environmental degradation he captures the negative human impact on our landscapes.
Nowhere is this more true than in his pictures of oil (?slicks) on water. These later compositions have a near abstract quality and we were also taken with his version of the Formula 1 Racetrack in the desert of Bahrain – the black empty track has been chopped and joined randomly so leading nowhere but the overall impression is like a modernist work of art. Not that Gursky is humourless – obviously taken with the rituals of Formula 1 he has recorded two pit changes – the red versus the white teams – but exaggerated the number of mechanics needed. This reminded me of the joke whereby the race is not run on the track but is just between two teams changing the car wheels….
Some of his later work also tends to the deliberately blurry (as opposed to our own incompetence) but perhaps because they were quite dark we found them less absorbing. Having said that our attempt at a close up has quite a Monet-in-the-rain look about it… actually while trying to focus on his composition of Vietnamese basket weavers turning out chairs for IKEA…
It was encouraging to see the gallery re-open with such a popular exhibition though by popular it does not mean that many of the works do not have the kind of content to make you reflect around the subject matter. One of us has some doubts about whether photography is an art form but on the basis of this show you would have to say that it is… Also like many artists – think of Picasso who could draw life-like doves aged 8 but went on to re-interpret them through his life in different formats – Gursky could take brilliantly executed photos at the start of his career yet was re-interpreting the same or similar subject matters in ever evolving ways throughout his working life.