Monday, March 5, 2012

A stroll in the park (a few thoughts on Andreas Gursky)

After a ten-minute walk from the train station of Humlebæk, a small city 35 km north of Copenhagen, just when you thought you got lost then you find this sign, indicating the nearby entrance of the Louisiana Museum of Modern Art, Denmark's most visited museum and, according to Wikipedia, the 90th most visited museum in the world (is that a mark of honour or a low ranking? Hard to say).

The museum received its name from the first owner of the property, who had three wives all named Louise (it might be interesting to know something more about this man's story). After you pass the gate, you are greeted by a small and elegant courtyard, making you feel like you are entering the mansion of some wealthy local. Once you walk in, then the place starts unfolding itself, as if the facade was hiding it from view.

You get a first glimpse of the real place visiting the stylish gift shop, from which the surrounding park and the Øresund, the water strait separating Denmark and Sweden, reveal themselves.

Then you begin exploring the alleys and the exhibitions rooms, walking into groups of Alberto Giacometti's statues eager to guide you in and out of the several buildings (four, five?) popping up behind luscious trees. Sculptures by Alexander Calder lead you down to the shore, where you might be able to see the coast of the Swedish province of Scania.

Until you meet one more Giacometti creature, in the peculiar company of a photograph by Andreas Gursky, who after all is the main reason I came to visit this magic place.

Will the two be happy of the mutual company? They seem to keep some distance between themselves.

Gursky's show at Louisiana presents 40 large prints and several smaller works, spanning from the early '90's to the Oceans and Bangkok series, from 2010 and 2011 respectively.

The large prints obviously dominate the space, attracting people with the same kind of curiosity you see around the big animals at the zoo: we saw them many times in photos or tv, but never in flesh and blood, this close, this big. This is especially true for the heavily digitally assembled images from the recent years, posing a stark contrast with photographs from the 90's, where not only the technique seem more 'analogue', but also Gursky's vision does, more aimed at critically reading the real space in front of him, rather than reinventing it for his own images. This obviously translates into an increasingly complexity of his images over the years, both in terms of representations and in terms of the final objects, with bigger and bigger prints year after year.

But in the end I was really fascinated by the small prints in the exhibition, mostly from earlier years, where the compression of Gursky's vision in the reduced format adds a conceptual touch to the images, not revealing everything of them but still sharing the same god-like vision of the bigger ones - a subdued approach that makes his images a bit more philosophical and less spectacular.

The show rightfully opens with Rhine II from 1999 (above), Gursky's images recently sold at Christie's for the record sum of $4.3m, and it ends with the above mentioned Bangkok and Oceans series (you can seen one from the Bangkok series next to the reluctant Giacometti's statue). In addition you have a single puzzling piece of work called V&R, also from 2011, showing a group of models walking on a runway at a fashion show, probably the first ever work by Gursky where a reduced depth of field is used to enhance the subject of the image (ie the models, with a blurred audience in the background), rather than the usual clinical rendition of every small detail.

Andreas Gursky, V&R, 2011

All these latest works by the German artist seem to share the same kind of unbalance between intention and result, where the increasing freedom of his images from the burden of recording reality does not fully translate in increased creativity or freedom of imagination. The Bangkok series presents dark images of liquid surfaces where we detect the presence of debris and pollution, but the work seem to be conceived more to induce simple aesthetic admiration rather than inviting to think about the environment it seems to evoke (read here for an interesting collector's point of view).

Andreas Gursky, Bangkok VII, 2011

Andreas Gursky, Ocean VI, 2010

The Oceans series has a more interesting premise, digitally recreating satellite images of those water surfaces we never get to see, neither photographed nor witnessed with our own eyes in their vastity. The fashion show image looks simply flat, carrying the usual glacial gaze on consumerism Gursky accostumed us to see in his work, but lacking the epic which marks his best production, as this image seems to suffer from a digital composition of elements which fail to really merge in a complex and unified scene.

Ai Weiwei, Fountain of Light, 2007

Once again less is more appears to be the lesson here, or at least that's what Ai Wei Wei seems to suggest from the park of the Louisiana museum, with his sparkling version of the utopic Monument to the Third International: grandeur can be fragile, hiding a small heart behind its luxurious facade.

Michael Elmgreen & Ingar Dragset, Powerless Structures, Fig. 11, 1997

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