Andreas Gursky: Rhine II

17 Nov

Rhine II by Andreas Gursky, 1999 (350cm x 200cm)

This photograph by the German artist Andreas Gursky (b.1955) recently sold for $4.3m (£2.7m) at Christies New York. This sets a new world record for a photograph.

It is initially bleak and minimal, yet I am captured by the composition, at the same time uncertain as to why I like it so much. Maybe it satisfies my appreciation of abstraction: six clean lines of limited tonal contrast. Green and grey comfortable side by side. Easy on the eye – a textless sweep from left to right. To the eye it is simple, restful, a relief. I resist the cliché ‘meditative’ and yet I do feel I could sit and look at the landscape for hours – absorbed in a nowhere place that heightens the sense of somewhere.

I want a large print. I know it is worth paying for, a lot maybe. But that much? Maybe. The photograph presents itself as priceless and like a clever salesman uses hypnotic charm to convince us of value.

In an interview Gursky states “It says a lot using the most minimal means … for me it is an allegorical picture about the meaning of life and how things are.” (see video below). How are ‘things’? Flowing by, bleak, but with the green grass as an allegory of eternal growth, nature gently pushing up despite the ordered human bands of grey. But life is also an image manipulable reality. We are increasingly digitalised, morphed and modified. This photograph has been cleaned up digitally, dogs and walkers have been erased. Yet there is a feeling that anything (dog, bird, plane or boat) or anyone (jogger, walker, pram-pusher) is likely to enter stage left at any given moment. The ‘already there’ is removed and in a sleight of paradox the possibility of repopulating the frame with our own cast is heightened….or not, if we choose to drift into reverie and a break from the image saturated world we currently navigate.

At the back of my mind is Hirosho Sugimoto’s seascape series ‘Time Exposed’. And maybe his photographs are behind this one of Gursky.

Hiroshi Sugimoto - Norwegian Sea (1990-1999)

Sugimoto is closer to the void, Gursky’s photograph just gives us a little more land – half way between a landless ocean and coastal reassurance. And if Gursky’s photograph is trying to present us with a post-industrial landscape (the Rhine surely being on of the most industrial rivers in Europe) perhaps L S Lowry can be invoked. Lowry, painter of the highly populated British industrial North is less known for his empty seascapes.

L S Lowry, Seascape 1950 (Kelvingrove Art Galley, Glasgow)

For me these three images are worth comparing. Maybe they represent a thread of desire, expressed through art, to withdraw from the populated world, from the imaged overloaded spectacle, from the industrial and technological sprawl. I don’t think any of these images are so simplistic, or nihilistic as to negate the phenomena they remove us from. They all are dependent on the busy context they arise from. Yet they all remind us to drop down under, or away from the relentless forms of change we live with. Perhaps Gursky’s allegory is that we live with a need to remove ourselves, to withdraw in order to re-draw.



Guardian Article

2 Responses to “Andreas Gursky: Rhine II”

  1. marinachetner November 17, 2011 at 2:37 pm #

    $4.3 million? Whoa! I appreciate the composition of the shot…. though that’s an outrageous price to pay. What I would do with that $$$ (!)

  2. rachael November 17, 2011 at 5:15 pm #

    I like the contrast between Gursky’s Rhine and Sugimoto’s sea. Seeing the latter, made me feel immediately relaxed: and aware of a certain level of disquiet about Gursky’s photo that I hadn’t quite registered feeling. Gursky’s work has become so commonplace in galleries that it’s really nice to step back, pick out the one image and concentrate on it as you have.

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