LONDON — Shortly before entering Andreas Gursky’s latest retrospective which is installed in the Hayward Gallery’s renovated digs, my phone buzzes with news from the World Economic Forum in Davos. There, US Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin has made an offhand comment. It was nothing much: “The dollar is one of the most liquid markets,” he stated. “A weaker dollar is good for us as it relates to trade and opportunities. Long term, the strength of the dollar is a reflection of the strength of the US economy, and that it is, and will continue to be, the primary reserve currency.” According to Mnuchin’s hypothesis, a weaker dollar would incentivize investment, leading to an stronger dollar in the future. But investors are reactionary, and the Treasury Secretary’s comments cued a mini free fall in the dollar’s valuation — plus some general panic in the financial market.
According to Secretary Mnuchin’s comments, the dollar is so strong it can redefine anything — even weakness — as an asset. Ever the investigator of global economics, I think Gursky would agree with the Treasury Secretary. The financial system is a pervasive, remarkably durable network with the flexibility to withstand even the most severe blows to its legitimacy. Surviving periodic cycles of boom-and-bust, the market’s continued vitality increasingly looks like a magic trick. And as this loop of death and resurrection occurs with increased frequency, the spectacle becomes simply unbelievable to an outsider’s eyes. Gursky reproduces this sense of economic spectacle and encroaching disbelief in his most famous works, depicting the world’s changing industrial topography with meticulous detail. “Salerno” (1990), perhaps his most famous photo, is presented in only the second room of the gallery. Here, we see the once ancient port of Salerno transformed into an industrial hub for the shipment of automobiles. The striking clarity of his photographs is distorted only by the multitude of cars, shipping containers, and buildings that pixelate the otherwise pristine landscape.
Because Gursky typically builds his large photographs from composite images, everything is rendered in equal, striking clarity. The result is an image that imperceptibly teeters between multiple angles, collapsing or bending over backwards into convex arcs. An earlier work, “Ratingen Swimming Pool” (1987) displays this dizzying spectacle — aided by an already misshapen pool. Seen in the first room of the Hayward, these early, almost romantic landscapes, indicate Gurksy’s technical interest in contrasting the enormity of nature with the ant-like encroachment of human industry. This triangular relationship between nature, technology, and Gurksy as observer has remained constant throughout the artist’s career. See “Les Mées” (2016), which documents the titular French province’s massive solar panel fields. Again, a pixelated landscape — but one can’t help but feel as if Gursky is throwing the viewer into a simulacrum. This landscape (sans solar panels) could easily double for the famous Windows XP background called Bliss.
The uneasy serenity of “Les Mées” is confronted by “Amazon” (2016) hanging on the opposite wall. This recent work packs a punch by articulating the true thesis of Gurksy’s career. Modernization has not cleaned up the developed world as the gallery’s white cube would have you believe — it has simply hidden all our things, our many purchases and products, inside warehouses. The depot seen in this photograph is an Amazon warehouse in Phoenix, Arizona. One can see recognizable toys and trinkets: Star Wars, a toy monkey. All else becomes pixelated — even Gursky’s digital composites cannot capture everything that klepto-capitalism has to offer. In the background, three columns protrude from the sea of products. They read: “work hard;” “have fun;” and “make history.” Adding insult to injury, these readymade slogans punch down at the Amazon warehouse workers who have often had to contend with brutal heat, poor pay, and an exhausting pace.
Lacking a strong curatorial framework, Gursky’s retrospective at the Hayward Gallery can sometimes feel disorienting. (One room includes scenes from Japan’s frenzied stock market trading floor, a performance in North Korea, and a photograph of one of Egypt’s pyramids.) Perhaps this layout is supposed to extend the metaphor of a disorienting market economy, but it feels more like an intentional choice to let the art speak for itself. After all, Gursky is near universally adored and this retrospective is as safe a bet as any for the Hayward Gallery’s opening after a two-year closure for renovations. Where the show really stumbles is Gursky’s more fanciful digital works, sequestered to the last room in the top floor’s galleries. Works like “Review” (2015) and “Lehmbruck I” (2013) are fictional photographs. The former imagines four of Germany’s most recent chancellors in conversation before Barnett Newman’s abstract “Vir Heroicus Sublimis” (1950–51). The latter is a blasé rendering of a fictional exhibition within the Lehmbruck Museum in Duisburg, Germany. Here, Gursky has arranged works by living artists including Katharina Fritsch and Gerhard Richter. These semi-fictional scenarios feel depressingly hackneyed because they never advance toward a greater significance than what an initial impression tells you. It’s like telling a “Knock-knock” joke without a good punchline.
Leaving the exhibition, I look for an update on the market and Mnuchin’s commentary. The dollar has already returned from its slight price dip. Mnuchin, following in his boss’s footsteps, has not apologized for his comment. Regardless, all seems good with the global economy. As in Gursky’s photographs, equilibrium always acts as a thin veneer over the mounting chaos of overproduction, a bubble about to burst.