In a series of classic experiments in the 30s, marketing guru Louis Cheskin demonstrated that package design could alter the way test subjects experienced the taste of the beer or crackers they sampled. With a nod to Freud, he called the phenomenon 'sensation transference', and provided the packaging industry with a sense of legitimacy. Beauty might be only skin deep, but a clever container could change your perception of the world. In the ultimate spin on Cheskin's findings, a leading package-design firm recently offered to devise 'trade dress' for products that don't yet exist - the idea being that, in a marketplace where 90 percent of new products fail, companies should be sure they have a winning container before developing the mere contents that go with it.
In the art world, Brian O'Doherty's landmark book Inside The White Cube (1976) reached a not dissimilar conclusion. Charting the evolution in the 50s and 60s of the Modernist gallery space - a religiously stripped-down interior in which 'a standing ashtray becomes almost a sacred object' - O'Doherty suggested that the gallery functioned much like a package, its clean white walls 'donating their content' to the art object. It's a notion brought to mind by Andreas Gursky's 1997 photograph of Jackson Pollock's One: Number 31 (1950), shown hanging in New York's Museum of Modern Art, one of Modernism's most famous containers. Monumentally scaled in a horizontal format that Gursky favours and which matches that of the painting, the picture's subject is the display situation as much as the artwork. Catching an idealised moment when no visitors are present, Gursky's camera finds the museum's recessed lighting creating pools of smudgy light that blur the intersection between floor and wall, while parallel strips of floor and ceiling, both of which have been exposed to match the beige overtones of the painting, frame Pollock's canvas. In this deadpan manner, Gursky jettisons Pollock's decentred splatters - the original anti-package - into a Minimalist conversation, transforming our experience of it in a way that would no doubt make Louis Cheskin proud.
The prevalence of the package over the product has become one of the key markers of contemporaneity, an emblem of our faded faith in essence and built-in values. It has come to define the way we regard our surroundings as if they existed under glass - be it a vitrine, the windshield of a car, a television or computer screen, or a security monitor. It's not simply a matter of seeing reality as packaged goods, but of realising that our gaze itself is a kind of stylised container. At the moment, Gursky is one of our chief chroniclers of this look. Ostensibly, his camera surveys an eclectic range of subject matter: factories, sea ports and air-cargo sites, dance clubs, landscapes, trading floors and shoe displays. But the real subject of his pictures is always the invisible bubble that our gaze sets upon the world. This is how Gursky defines 'the contemporary', which he finds - or fabricates with the aid of subtle digital massaging - wherever he points his camera.
Due to their imposing size, his photographs boast a virtually sculptural presence on the wall that recalls Minimalist objects, as do their hyperhygienic production values. But it takes a while to absorb one of his pictures. There is usually no central focus in his compositions (a legacy from Pollock), and his preference for an extended horizontal format tends to flatten space, inviting the eye to scan, to rove across parallel lines of information.
Your gaze can also get slowed down by the enthralling quantity of detail recorded in these photographs. Because Gursky typically shoots his subjects from a considerable distance, often aiming down from a God's-eye viewpoint, his images of busy stock-exchange floors and skyscraper offices conjure the uncanny realm of miniatures: when people appear in them, they tend to look like model railway figures. (As Gaston Bachelard noted in The Poetics of Space (1958), the miniature universe is above all something we look down upon). The tiny human figures shown walking, sitting and performing Tai Chi exercises in Hong Kong, Grand Hyatt Park (1994) are endearingly inanimate in appearance, while the construction cranes in Hong Kong Island (1994) suggest a group of Erector set toys set against a theatrical maquette of city buildings.
But whereas the uncanny generates a confusion between the inanimate and the animate that classically produces a sense of horror, in Gursky's pictures one feels instead a detached fascination. His is a kind of eviscerated uncanny, too frozen to be actively disturbing. The element of precision, for one thing, is potently foregrounded, reinforced by the remote aerial perspectives he favours. Sometimes you get the impression you're looking at images recorded by a remote-controlled camera, except they're too scrupulously composed.
In an interview published in the catalogue for the exhibition 'Photographs 1994-1998: Andreas Gursky', the artist announces: 'My preference for clear structures is the result of my desire - perhaps illusory - to keep track of things and maintain my grip on the world.' That preference has resulted in his use of increasingly abstract compositions over the last four years, evident in a photograph like Rhein (1996), which seems less inspired by landscape photography than Barnett Newman's zip paintings. The river runs through the centre of the horizontal picture like a silvery slate line, bounded by parallel cords of green grass, road, shoreline and sky. Devoid of human figures or other potentially distracting verticals on the horizon, it's a virtually abstract image, a slice of landscape that looks factory-produced. Which, to a certain extent, it is, for since 1992, Gursky has employed digital technology to remove unwanted elements from his composition, streamlining them into a package of contemporaneity.
Gursky's move towards this kind of packaging is probably most conspicuous in his two photographs of Prada shoe displays. Prada I (1996), another long rectangular composition, would initially suggest a sublime brochure photo for a high-end boutique, were it not for one thing: the shoes, shown occupying two impossibly long shelves, aren't individualised or presented in a way that elicits admiration or desire. Again, it's the aseptic display that's provides the picture's focus: hidden lights illuminate the shoes, calling to mind a museum installation, and the tones of the pale pink carpet strip below are carefully reflected in the light green wall behind the shelves. The eerie perfection of the scene is enhanced by a visual device that adds an off-kilter note: the bottom shelf actually protrudes from the rear wall, but thanks to Gursky's flattened perspective, the two rows of shoes read as being parallel. It's a subtle trick that renders the space uncertain, as if slyly to inform the viewer that this is a fictitious portrait, an image of a theatrical set-up rather than a real place.
There's a trendy Tel Aviv restaurant called Nothing where people order food from a menu, but are served empty plates - a logical extension of the idea that we dine out for atmosphere and entertainment (the packaging) rather than physical nourishment. Prada II, shot a year later, serves up a related notion, and brings Gursky's earlier impulse to a chilly climax. In this picture the shoes have been removed, and we are left to contemplate a free-standing wall with three built-in shelves. The pink and green tones of the floor and walls remain, only now the shelves display overlapping gaseous fields of white, green and pink that suggest a work by Dan Flavin. On one level, Gursky has documented a sculpture that exists only as a photograph. But the compelling point seems to be that the shrine has itself become the object of worship and contemplation. The package has become the content, in other words, and can work its effects without showcasing the supposed objects of veneration.
Once you've looked at enough of Gursky's work, the recurring motifs of cargo crates, high-rise office boxes, consumer displays, manicured parks, and hotel atriums and courtyards all seem to strike a similar note: the circumscribed and 'artificial' framing of contemporary experience. Compartmentalised containers for shoes and art are equated with compartmentalised work spaces, whether it be a factory or the dark, glistening office tower featured in Hong Kong, Shanghai Bank (1994), a photo in which hundreds of employees appear as worker ants occupying grids of harshly lit cellular spaces, utterly dominated by the building's exterior frame of aggressive diagonal, vertical and horizontal lines.
When shooting huge corporate hotels, Gursky emphasises their monolithic geometry by presenting almost depthless images of stacked balconies, their endless rows neatly delineated by structural vertical elements and abstracted trellises. With its vast interior canyon replete with shops, restaurants, pedestrian walkways and park-like areas, the atrium-style hotel, pioneered by architect John Portman in the early 70s, is, of course, a bubble-world paradigm, a miniature city under glass. The space is designed not so much to offer an experience of luxury as one of contained spectacle and power; dwarfed by its massive geometries, guests are liberated from reminders of their individuality and can instead feel like anonymous, yet pampered, worker bees in a high-tech colony. Gursky taps into this anonymity effect with pictures like Times Square (1997), a starkly abstracted portrait of a Portman hotel courtyard that looks like a giant yellow, white and green circuit board. Though the bottom of the photo shows some recognisable details - mainly various canopied entrances to different hotel function rooms - this is one of Gursky's most abstracted images: the parallel stacks of balcony walkways are exposed to the extent that they are nearly bleached out, appearing as white spaces punctuating the bright yellow grid of the hotel's architecture. Human figures, however, are discernible, walking or standing along a few of the balconies - which function as display shelves of another order - but they appear as ghostly, washed-out beings, aliens in the process of being beamed up, as if to affirm that despite the hotel's monolithic size, it offers no room for individual identity.
As with his photograph of Portman's Hyatt hotel in Atlanta, Gursky created Times Square as a photomontage, combining images taken from different perspectives to engender a sense of spatial dislocation, and so evoke the contained uncanniness of late 20th-century space. For Untitled V (1997), a 443 cm long picture of six shelves filled with colourful athletic shoes (a pop culture counterpart to Prada I), he constructed a room specially to photograph the sneakers, then fabricated the extended rectangular composition with the aid of digital processing. 'The real shoe display was pictorially ineffective and harmlessly presented', he observes in the catalogue interview. 'That's why I felt it would be all the more interesting to highlight the symbolic dimension of this phenomenon - the fetishism of our material world'.
Just as he digitally altered Rhein in order to accurately create his version of a 'modern river', he justifies his use of digital manipulation in these and other pictures as a means of rendering the contemporary in persuasive packages. It is not a question of straight photography being inadequate: as he puts it, 'The documentary material alone would not have sufficed for a convincing photograph'. Gursky, it seems, is only interested in 'documentary material' if it's photogenic, which means the real subject of his pictures is a quality inaccessible to the naked eye (as things can only be photogenic in pictures). This gives his art a theological bias - God being the ultimate totem of inaccessible reality - and this orientation informs a number of his photographs of mass activities in which unordered groups of people - ravers, stock traders, racetrack fans - appear to be organised by some invisible principle or hidden logic.
In his pictures of traders, Gursky achieves this effect by using the figures' bright uniforms to compose loosely arranged tapestries of colour. But two pictures of dance clubs, Union Rave (1995) and May Day (1997), plainly suggest that even our more anarchic leisure activities are, in fact, highly, and hierarchically, structured. The former shows an endless crowd of club kids facing the elevated camera, many with arms raised in the air as if paying homage to the DJ, who, back to the camera, is wearing a T-shirt that says 'Fire' off which dances a yellow blur of light with flame-like fingers. The DJ as Prometheus, bringing illumination to his faithful followers? Perhaps. In May Day, a massive lighting rig of concentric circles, glowing red against a black background, hovers like a UFO mothership over dancers who appear as completely de-individualised patches of colour. Only the DJ, occupying a raised platform in the background, is coherent as a figure, a priest conducting a psychedelic midnight mass.
In focusing on such fetishistic rituals and spectacular modern-day forms of worship, as well as the global altars and steel-and-glass cathedrals in which they take place, Gursky implicitly links the architecture of display with its earlier incarnation, the shrine. This connection is manifestly clear in his image of Pollock's painting at MoMA. Installed in this hallowed setting, the Pollock is a theological entity, a metaphysical representation of itself, remaining beyond our grasp as a real object with a history. This dematerialisation process is what good packaging is all about. During the second half of the 19th century, when 'trade dress' became a widespread phenomenon, it was already generally understood that the way to spur consumption of goods was to transform them into symbols. Seeking to convey an inviolate presence in an imperfect world, many packages evoked an almost religious aura: Nabisco crackers, for example, began to use an orb-and-cross logo, a symbol of Christ's redemption of the world. That's abstraction for you. And that's the logic we find in Gursky's picture of the MoMA-wrapped Pollock.
'Whatever the moral claims made on behalf of photography', intoned Susan Sontag in On Photography (1977), 'its main effect is to convert the world into a department store or museum-without-walls in which every subject is depreciated into an article of consumption, promoted into an item for aesthetic appreciation'. Gursky, well aware of this, attempts to demonstrate how this photographic gaze has been built-in to daily life, structuring our environments and the way we behave within them. It's no coincidence that in Sha Tin (1994) - a picture of crowds of tiny spectators at a racetrack, behind which lies a curtain of high-rise apartments drawn against a distant hill - the most compelling detail is the giant TV screen showing the race in progress. Even when confronted with the real thing, we prefer to watch the version in the box.
One of the exhibition's catalogue essays raises the question of which subjects lend themselves to Gursky's growing tendency towards abstraction, but the issue is basically a red herring - Gursky's digitally-enhanced mise-en-scène, rather than his subject matter, largely determines the abstracted quality of his photographs. The contemporary reality he depicts is not something he 'finds', but a look he carries around in his head. It's a purist fiction, a vision of ascetic contemporaneity that seems slightly old-fashioned. For this reason, once you've looked at enough of his work, it can appear somewhat formulaic. Indeed, some of his atypical pictures - such as Singapore II (1997), a hallucinogenic vision of a hotel atrium where vertical strings of Chinese lanterns are photographed as blurry glistening red blobs that conjure skeins of skinned tomatoes or falling globules of blood - can be more intriguing than his programmatic images.
His most faithful subject, though, is an abstract principle: the photogenic. While reality may let us down from time to time, we can count on Gursky to render it in 'pictorially effective' terms. And he certainly knows how to fashion persuasive containers - it comes as no surprise to learn that his childhood bedroom was part of his parents' advertising studio. Evidently, he's been carrying that look around in his head for some time.