Size matters in art. A few hundred years ago, the only subjects you were allowed to paint really big were scenes from the bible or history. Big meant important, it meant special.
German photographer Andreas Gursky works on a ‘history painting’ scale, creating vast, brain-bending, eye-twisting, perfect images, but what he captures isn’t biblical or of much historical importance, his is the art of the endless everyday, of the mundane juggernaut of normal life.
The first work here is a huge photo of people standing on snowy fields and skating on a frozen river. Each one of the hundreds of people here is totally focused on themselves, on their exercise, their play, their conversations. But in this modern, Breughel-like landscape, you see that they’re all part of a mass; individual cells in a vast organism. They all feel unique and special, but they aren’t.
Next there are photos of models on a catwalk, all forced into near-identical outfits with their near-identical faces, all in a manipulated, mediated version of ideal beauty. There’s a photo of German politicians arranged like ‘The Last Supper’, a terrifyingly enormous cruise ship with its countless cabins, a crowd at a gig, the hoardings of a bank building, a display of Apple products. One jaw dropping photo shows a professional ski run, its slope empty, big screens showing the moment of a crash. Everything here is spectacle, it’s all specks of humanity engaging in capitalism, desperate for diversion, but getting totally lost in the process.
There are tender moments too – a small, quiet photo of a mother with her baby, for example, and a couple of not so great, semi-abstract images – but they’re just tiny slivers of respite. Because Gursky is showing you the ceaseless, faceless, anonymous repetitiveness of the modern human experience. These are images of people existing in a system that repeats and depletes, one that wants you to infinitely consume resources that are finite. His photos dwarf you because society dwarfs you. It’s a metaphor, mate, and a very beautiful one too.