Andreas Gursky

Andreas Gursky's photographs need no introduction. Before Gursky, art photography rarely dealt with both scale and imagination, and allusions to elaborately constructed realities were usually less than subtle. Gursky's new show at the White Cube Bermondsey (opens in new tab) is being presented as something of a departure for the German artist, chiefly for the rather more obvious use of post-production work in the creation of his epic, wall-sized images. His photo manipulation was always in quiet service of the final image, creating a kind of exaggerated hyper-reality that the artist seemed to suggest was the only possible way of taking in the subject matter at hand - be it a supermarket, stock exchange, crowded beach or towering city.
 
The White Cube show transcends this monumental realism in favour of set-ups that are explicitly false, even though the image surface itself is still almost overwhelmingly crisp and perfect. Rather than the accidental palaces of capitalism and consumption, we have the world of pop culture and its shadowy, imaginary denizens. Leading the charge is the 'Superhero' series, a collection of four anonymous, quasi-tragic portraits of Batman, Superman, Spiderman and Ironman set against a series of blankly impassive backdrops. These are explicit flights of fantasy, in which Batman - brooding more than Christian Bale himself - stands silhouetted before a mercenary on a tropical beach, Superman sits desultorily in a volcanic landscape, Ironman and Pepper Potts entwine themselves in yet another exotic location and Spiderman stands outside Renzo Piano's Tokyo Hermès, meeting his alter ego Tobey Maguire.
 
Each compositional element is quite clearly that - something separate, combined - these aren't going to be mistaken for film stills, even though some of the imagery has been taken straight from official studio shots. Instead, they bring to mind the doomed but improbable solitude conjured in the work of Caspar David Friedrich - the figure adrift in a roiling, superhuman landscape.
 
Other works are also infused by the artist's new boldness with his tools. The twin images Lehmbruck I and Lehmbruck II offer up a new kind of curation. Using Duisburg's Lehmbruck Museum as their starting pointing, the pair treat the art gallery as a playground, scattering contemporary classics around to remind us of the physical impossibility of making our relationship with art and its display utterly perfect. In contrast, Gursky's overview imagery of two big German festivals, Kirchentag and May Day IV, are almost like the aftermath of a great disaster, scattered, blurred limbs and haunted faces.
 
The romance of scale has never been so slickly rendered. Abstracted visions of Bangkok's neon-drenched waterfront contrast with a dirt road in Spain, transformed by car headlights into a Martian landscape, while the image of a German asparagus farm is on more familiar Gursky territory - the abstraction of the everyday, writing the prosaic so massively large so as to draw attention to the intricacies and beauty of the otherwise banal and industrialised. A close up of a Constable is treated like the curves and tarmac of a virgin race course, while his reassembled satellite imagery of Antarctica is cropped and re-sized so as to create a painterly representation of an 'impossible' view, a continent rendered as a fine white powder.
 
At times, the monumental scale of these images threatens to transcend the surroundings of the White Cube Bermondsey, one of London's most impressive private gallery spaces. This, the photographer's first London show for seven years, is something to behold in the flesh.

ADDRESS

144-152 Bermondsey Street
London SE1 3TQ

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Jonathan Bell has written for Wallpaper* magazine since 1999, covering everything from architecture and transport design to books, tech and graphic design. He is now the magazine’s Transport and Technology Editor. Jonathan has written and edited 15 books, including Concept Car Design, 21st Century House, and The New Modern House. He is also the host of Wallpaper’s first podcast.