The Hayward’s cave-like interiors and monolithic masses and details have been seamlessly sewn back together. Its architecture is self-similar with the current display of Andreas Gursky’s work, which isolates the outside and infinite world into similar cavernous frames, and he too has carefully stitched reality and fiction to create uncanny new wholes. The Hayward has a mannerist rough grain in its brutalist board marked concrete flesh; it has a life not seen in typical white cube galleries. Gursky too, is interested in the infinitesimal grains and textures of the world. But these particles are also the corpuscles of photography itself, those flecks and gradations of noise we see on a film negative, and so, his subject is also his medium. Like all good art – in the manner of Shakespeare’s ‘The Tempest’, which is essentially a play about making a play – his work comments on its own creation.
It could be said that the history of the world can be read through its resolution, through the resolution at which we can design and see our environment. If you look at fabrics from rough linen through to ultra-fine microfiber, it is possible to not only track technological innovations and the histories they entail, but also the detail at which we become increasingly interested in seeing – which can be seen now in our increasing obsession with HD and DPI. Gursky captures the next step in the evolution of our sense of resolution, a way of seeing beyond increasing levels of detail, one which constantly flips back and fourth between the detail and the overview, perhaps imprinted in us as we zoom in and zoom out when using Google maps – in fractions of a second we can travel from our own home to the scale of the whole world and back again. But this is not only a contemporary way of seeing, its also our way of thinking – we forget to recycle something as insubstantial as a coffee cup and it immediately conjures images of melting ice caps in our heads.
Gursky’s work however, compresses into one intense and static slice, what Google maps makes possible in a zoomed succession of joint-less frames; his work is in two different scales, two states at once. One photo, ‘Untitled 1’ (1993), encompasses these ideas and is ideally placed in the exhibition at the bifurcation of earlier and later works. In the image, Gursky deconstructs contemporary perception, but the resultant manifestation is strangely complete. It appears, on first glance, unimportant – just a tumult of grey – like most important things seem unimportant at the beginning, but then, it fits everything together; like the missed word in an overheard conversation, which ends up fitting the whole thing together.
It’s hard to see what is portrayed in the picture as it modulates from micro to macro, from a desert, to grainy dye clouds, a geological filigree, pixelated water, a microscopic view of skin, the warp and weft of a diaphanous fabric. And then, after some contemplation, geometric patterns emerge in the white noise that look like Neolithic earth works, and then you see another formation that is about the proportions of a plug socket – and you finally realise that you are looking at an expansive detail of a carpet, which appears at once both large and small.
It is this sense of fluid transmutation between scales that is important, more important than saying the works exhibit a ‘God-like view’ or that we become ‘lost in the detail’– it’s neither of these usual interpretations. Gursky’s work is neither small nor large scale, it is instead ‘infinitesimal’, a word which evokes the infinitely small as well as infinitely large. Our perception of the world is caught in the modulating infinitesimal threshold between the large and the small scale, and it seems, in most instances, that our brains and eyes have not yet evolved to overcome this dissonance. Although Gursky ameliorates capitalism and globalisation into something often beautiful, perhaps this disjunction of scale is another sinister blow globalised perception has dealt us.
In later works Gursky focuses in on what it feels like to inhabit this interchange between scales. The sensation is that smeared view of constant flux from the train or car that Gursky captures – appropriately on his phone – in ‘Utah’ (2017). The blurred view from the train or car is similar to Freud’s 1913 instructions for psychoanalysis: ‘Act as though, for instance, you were a traveller sitting next to the window of a railway carriage and describing to someone inside the carriage the changing views which you are seeing outside.’ It’s surely not healthy to see your psyche constantly reflected back at you, but as we continue to mimic the speed of globalisation and our information networks, this view from the train will bleed into our lives indelibly.