Like many of Andreas Gursky’s works, the new, six-part series Ocean I-VI (2009-2010) goes back to a spontaneous visual experience. As the artist relates, while flying one night from Dubai to Melbourne he stared for some time at the flight monitor: the Horn of Africa to the far left, a tip of Australia to the far right - and there in between the blue void. Then all of a sudden he saw the graphic representation on the monitor as a picture.
The path from diagram to large-scale photographic work proved to be very involved. Gursky used high-definition satellite photographs which he augmented from various picture sources on the Internet. The satellite photos are restricted however to exposures of sharply contoured land masses. Consequently the transitional zones between land and water - as well as the oceans themselves - had to be generated completely by artificial means. Given that they make up by far the largest part of the works, this resulted in a gigantic project that only compares with the efforts Gursky lavished on the series F1 Boxenstopp (2007). That all these pieces nevertheless convey the feeling of real subaquatic depths is due solely to the precision of Gursky’s visual work. He even consulted shoal maps to get the right colour nuances for the water surfaces.
At second glance one realises however that Gursky’s interest in the image is not cartographic in nature. The distances between the continents do not follow any systematic programme, such as ‘Google Earth’ offers, but are slightly shortened or elongated according to compositional principles. But above all Gursky’s works foreground aspects that cartography only deals with schematically and quite incidentally, because they are of little economic merit: the seas. Steeped in midnight blues that depart distinctly from the colours for depicting seas on maps, Gursky gives his oceans a dimension of the sublime that is only otherwise to be found in painted seascapes.
If one peruses the old cosmogonies, the Earth first gained its countenance as the elements earth and water were delineated from the undifferentiated and formless mass; only then did the seas and landmasses start to mutually distinguish themselves. Seen in this light, it comes as no little comfort that landmasses and stretches of ice appear at the edges of Gursky’s pictures. In view of the yawning chasms that open up at the centre of the works, they grant the eye a foothold and orientation. But conversely the oceans gain their overwhelming power from the contrast to the landmasses that shine out from them in all their sharpness and wealth of detail.
By shifting the shapeless and ungraspable aspect of the oceans to the centre of the works and permitting only the edges and fragments of the continents to be viewed, Gursky goes beyond the representation of the cosmos as an orderly structure: they grow here from the heart of it is an indefinable, unnamed menace. With this the artist addresses a very topical attitude towards life: the feeling of hopelessness of ever trying to restore the old order of the cosmos when faced with mankind’s progressive destruction of nature. Gursky’s Ocean I-VI seems to anticipate a state of the world in which it has once again been rendered uninhabitable. And the only one of the pictures that features a continent at the centre - Antarctica - acts by way of a complement to the other motifs in the cycle. Since time immemorial every bit as hostile as the sea, under the portents of global warming this continent now seems to be raising an apocalyptic finger, for all the beauty in its details.
By casting a distant eye on the world as a whole and simultaneously featuring the peripheries rather than the centres, the works stand in the way of economic interests and amenability. From the midnight blue of the formless, which we associate with superhuman magnitude, we gain instead an idea of a world quite unamenable to our desires.