Ralph Rugoff on Andreas Gursky at Hayward Gallery

Friday, February 16, 2018 - 09:00

Hayward Gallery reopened last month after a two-year closure with an exhibition of work by the German photographer Andreas Gursky.

The reception has been overwhelmingly positive from gallery goers and the arts press alike.

In this interview with Ralph Rugoff, Hayward Gallery Director, we find out why Gursky was chosen as the first artist to appear in the renovated space and what kind of work features in the show. Ralph also gives us some ideas about how you might approach the photographs.

Ralph Rugoff and Andreas Gursky during the Hayward Gallery installation of Gursky in January 2018
Ralph Rugoff and Andreas Gursky during the Hayward Gallery installation of Gursky in January 2018

Why is Andreas Gursky the first artist featured at the reopened Hayward Gallery?

There are several reasons Gursky was the right person to open the Hayward again.

First of all, he’s one of the most interesting artists of our time. He has created images of the world we live in that are unprecedented in their complexity and insight. He is a formal innovator who has helped to reinvent the language of photography.  And he makes pictures on a scale that works perfectly in the Hayward’s voluminous exhibition spaces. 

Gursky’s willingness to take risks as an artist and his interest in collective life also align his work with the innovative and democratic spirit of the Hayward’s architecture. As it’s the beginning of our 50th anniversary year, we want to indirectly celebrate the building itself in all of our exhibitions in 2018. Roughly half of Gursky’s photographs – he’s only made around 240 images in total throughout his 40 year career to date – have examined architecture.

Andreas Gursky, Rhein II, 1999. Copyright: Andreas Gursky/DACS, 2017. Courtesy of Sprüth Magers

What can we see in the exhibition?

It covers every aspect of his career from the beginning right up to an image that was finished in December 2017.

The very first pictures he was making saw him using film cameras to shoot pictures of people in natural landscapes. Rather than portraying particular places, though, he was interested in exploring the relationship between people and nature, how ordinary city dwellers bring their urban postures and behaviours into the wilderness, and how we still have this collective fantasy or desire for a kind of unsullied pastoral version of nature, when in fact there’s usually a huge motorway or industrial plant just down the road.

In the early 1990s Gursky began making pictures of architecture and of what he called “aggregate systems” – for example, making a photograph of a factory that reveals the complex systems linking humans and machines into a kind of collective organism. As he put, he was interested in making pictures that revealed how things fit together in the world.

At the same time he began making very large pictures that had an almost immersive physical presence. You’re often looking at something that’s bigger than the wall in the living room in the average flat.

Seen from a distance, many of these images seem to be structured by abstract formal patterns. It’s only when you get up close that you suddenly see every single detail in the picture – usually in remarkable focus. A recent photograph of an Amazon warehouse in Arizona (below) shows a teeming sea of things – there are probably 100,000 objects on shelves in view – and you can read the labels on most of them. It’s an amazing portrait of something we are all superficially familiar with – Amazon – but Gursky reveals the physical place in ways that raise very interesting questions about changes in our economy and also in how our sense of visual order is changing.

Andreas Gursky, Amazon, 2016 (detail)
Andreas Gursky, Amazon, 2016 (detail). Copyright: Andreas Gursky/DACS, 2017 Courtesy of Sprüth Magers

People may wonder if it’s worth coming to see a photography exhibition when the images can be reproduced. Why should we visit?

It’s a real revelation to come and see a Gursky show in person as opposed to looking at images in books or online. That’s partly because you can’t get any sense of the scale of these works by looking at them online and partly because you can’t actually see the detail.

There’s also the experience of discovery, of having to walk up close to observe tiny details and then walk back to take in the entire scene, so you have two distinctly different encounters with the same picture. You don’t have that experience when you’re looking at a reproduction.

What do you see as the themes in Gursky’s work?

Gursky has brilliantly chronicled sites around the planet that are emblematic of how the global economy and technology are altering our world and how we live in it. At the same time his work also explores how various structures package the way we see and experience the world, and how photography can make that visible.

Andreas Gursky, Les Mées, 2016
Andreas Gursky, Les Mées, 2016 (detail). Copyright: Andreas Gursky/DACS, 2017 Courtesy of Sprüth Magers

Any tips on how to look at a Gursky picture?

We now live in a culture where we’re used to looking at pictures for six or seven seconds on our phones. They are temporary and utterly disposable. Collectively we upload something like one billion photos every day to the internet. In contrast here’s an artist who puts so much time and thought into into his work that he only makes four or five pictures a year. So I think it’s worth giving them some time and paying attention to the different ways you can experience them.

Then there’s the challenge of looking beyond the image and considering why Gursky has chosen to photograph a particular scene. Many of his pictures have a metaphorical aspect, or they present the particular as an example of a larger phenomenon. He is also very interested in the relationship between painting and photography as distinct ways of making pictures, so you might want to think about his use of repetition and abstract compositions.

The key thing to remember is that Gursky’s pictures are never just one thing, so when you’re looking at them you definitely need to keep an open mind about what they’re actually about. Then I think you’ll find that they inspire you to think differently about photographs and how they shape our picture of the world.


Gursky at Hayward Gallery

The exhibition runs until Sunday 22 April. It is open from 11am – 7pm every day except Tuesdays, when the gallery is closed. Late night openings are on Thursdays until 9pm.

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