The following notes are made after reading the article “Andreas Gursky and the Contemporary Sublime” by Alix Ohlin (1).
Ohlin’s analysis of Gursky’s work derives from ideas included in Edmund Burke’s eighteen century essay on the sublime, A Philosophical Inquiry into the Origin of Our Ideas of the Sublime (link). According to Burke, as quoted by Ohlin, “whatever is in any sort terrible, or is conversant about terrible objects, or operates in a manner analogous to terror, is a source of the sublime. That is, it is productive of the strongest emotion which the mind is capable of feeling” (2). In Ohlin’s view, one traditional source of the sublime is the grandeur of nature, which could be experienced directly or, in a mitigated way, through artistic representation. The “terror” that grand natural phenomena causes, and which derives in the feeling of the sublime, comes primarily from our inability to control or understand them. In that respect, it seems natural that the ultimate source of terror is the divine, “in relation to which human beings are inconsequential” (2).
There is a direct visual connection between this and the work of Gursky, where in many cases images are printed very large and people are portrayed so small in relation to the frame or the main subject, that we could almost overlook them (see for instance Klausen Pass (3)), but Ohlin makes the case that in today’s world, religion as a source of the divine has been substituted by “globalisation”. Ohlin goes on to describe, quoting Frederic Jameson, the main characteristics of this phenomenon, including many often repeated ailments of contemporary society: the international division of labour, computers and automation, the new dynamics in international banking, the flight of production to Third World areas (4). Many of these subjects have become acutely in focus after the financial crisis of 2008, several years after Ohlin wrote her article, and may have resulted in political decisions that will undoubtedly have deep repercussions in our future. Other similarly relevant themes have arisen since the article was written, such as how our privacy has been turned into data that is used to manipulate our actions. If one reads between the lines, the globalization that Ohlin refers to can probably be generalised as any brutal change beyond our comprehension. Our inability to make any sense of this change, let alone to adapt to it, is what fosters that terror that connects “globalisation” to the divine mentioned originally in Burke’s treatise.
There is no doubt that in his choice of subjects (stock exchanges, vast office buildings, outsourced manufacturing facilities, port yards, online store distribution warehouses) Gursky is providing us with direct references to globalisation, and consequently to what could be considered sublime in the modern world, but Ohlin goes further by highlighting that by manipulating his photographs, Gursky is actually “…seeking less to document the phenomenon [of globalisation] than to invoke the sublime in it” (4). This conclusion is again tied back to Burke’s ideas, and in particular to what he considered to be key attributes of the sublime. This included the perception of infinity, in natural phenomena, but also in man-made structures that due to their dimensions and perspective give the perception of being boundless, something that Burke termed “the artificial infinity” (4). In many ways, Ohlin argues, Gursky’s manipulation of structures in his pictures, often combining several photographs to create spaces that are immense, much larger and all-encompassing than in real life, does create artificial infinity in Burke’s sense. Another important attribute of the sublime mentioned by Burke, and referenced by Ohlin, is vastness. This is a key attribute of Gursky’s most recent work, which tends to cover entire gallery walls and provide the viewer with overwhelming amounts of visual information, that can be appreciated both as a whole (from a distance) and in detail (from close).
What is perhaps the most interesting and possibly also the most controversial aspect of Gursky’s work is his manipulations. In addition to whatever aesthetic considerations one could make in connection with his quest for the sublime, Ohlin tries to tie her views on globalisation, namely that is a phenomenon that occurs largely unseen, difficult to grasp, “…sprawling, diffuse…” (5), with Gursky’s justification for his manipulation. This is something that has also been identified by others (see my comments on Gerald Schröder article on Rhein II here), and is basically the idea that Gursky’s alterations are a way of showing the “invisible” elements of globalisation; that in order to show the real impact of these changes that are beyond most people’s grasp, “…the image must be altered”(6). To make this point, Ohlin quotes Gursky in the context of him visiting industrial companies, scouting for locations to photograph:
“Most of them had a socio-romantic air I hadn’t expected. I was looking for visual proof of what I thought would be antiseptic industrial zones. If these companies had been systematically documented one would feeling one was back in the days of the Industrial Revolution. After this experience I realized that photography is no longer credible, and therefore found it that much easier to legitimize digital picture processing.” (7)
The problem with this is that if we argue that our globalisation is equivalent to Burke’s divinity; then one could conclude that like any other mortal layman confronted with a power which is so complex, elusive and beyond his control; Gursky is equally unqualified as anybody else to know what the true reality of globalisation is and consequently, the danger is that his manipulated worlds end up being nothing but a caricature of reality, based on Gursky’s prejudices about what he expected. Which then only leaves us with an aestheticized response to his work.
(1) Ohlin, A, 2002. Andreas Gursky and the Contemporary Sublime. Art Journal, Vol. 61, No. 4 (Winter), 22-35. This can be read here http://www.jstor.org/stable/778148
(2) Idem, p 23.
(3) Andreas Gursky | works – Klausen Pass. 2018. Andreas Gursky | works – Klausen Pass. [ONLINE] Available at: http://www.andreasgursky.com/en/works/1984/klausenpas. [Accessed 20 April 2018].
(4) Ohlin, A. Op cit. P 24
(5) Idem, p 35.
(6) Idem, p 29
(7) Idem, pp 28-29