In recent years, Andreas Gursky has spoken of his affinity with painting, even of a slight frustration with the limitations of photography. ‘I’m a bit jealous of painting, where you have surface and the smell of paint. In my case, it is always the same,’ he told a reporter for Canadian Art in 2009.
With his ‘Ocean’ series (2009–10), he introduced, paradoxically, both radical distance and subjectivity by combining found imagery with large photoshopped bodies of water in the same image. The found (represented by the satellite images of landmasses situated along the edges of the composition) and the photoshopped (exemplified by the imaginatively invented water currents) constitute the two diametrically opposed poles toward which his work might move. The use of satellite images complicates the question of authorship, as Norman Bryson explains in the 2010 catalogue for the ‘Oceans’ exhibition at Gagosian Gallery in Los Angeles, because the scale of the images and the scale of technology needed to create them are both at issue. If his previous works did not appear to have been made from an individual point of view – an effect constructed by fusing composite photographic images together digitally to create an essential truth – ‘Ocean’ literalizes this notion of authorlessness. At the same time, with the addition of vast expanses of water and imaginary coastlines that appear believable but are created entirely in Photoshop, the series undercut the idea of objectivity.
Along with ‘Ocean’, this exhibition included a new series ‘Bangkok’ (2011), which takes the more subjective approach further. While the fictitious sections of the ‘Ocean’ pieces remain within the constraints of a certain verisimilitude – informed by empirical data about currents – the watery surfaces of the ‘Bangkok’ pieces do away with this positivist premise. Although the name of the series and the fact that they were taken of the Chao Phraya River supply a geographical reference point, these images of what appears to be water are curiously unspecific. Light reflected on the surface illuminates the waves and renders the water visible. In Bangkok V, the reflections create vertical strips that bifurcate the image – like a Barnett Newman zip painting with a bit of Clyfford Still’s jaggedness – finally making explicit Gursky’s previously stated affinity with the medium of painting. In other works, such as Bangkok II, various colours have been digitally added to the areas of reflected light. In still others, these areas are emptied of colour entirely and delineated by schematic lines.
Small details of objects and plants floating in the water are added here and there and act as a kind of narrative subtext. These additions contradict the presumption of verisimilitude because they look either too blurry, almost painterly, or too sharply delineated in relation to the surrounding water. The differences in scale of this incidental floating debris and the arbitrariness of their inclusion jar the appearance of seamlessness that has been one of the strengths of Gursky’s oeuvre. In previous works, spectators could marvel at the detail, then step back in order to behold the entire image. Even though the effect of a seamless whole was equally deceptive in earlier works such as 99 Cent II Diptychon (1999) or Hamm, Bergwerk Ost (Hamm, East Mine, 2008), the iconographic systems Gursky constructed held tight. Without an overarching structure, the introduction of images of debris and floating flora in varying resolution and scale appears willful and the narrative artificial.
The pictures of shimmering, wavy surfaces, at times quite obviously distorted by digital manipulation, appear to be pushing the very limits of photography that Gursky bemoans: His images court the painterly but must remain within the printed two-dimensional restrictions of the photographic. If one considers Gursky’s long-standing iconographic flirtation with abstract painting – for example the horizontal lines of asparagus farming in Beelitz (2007) or the curvy details of a Formula One circuit in Bahrain II (2007) – this development is not surprising. Clearly, these photographs want to be something else.