A few Saturdays ago, I went to two photography exhibitions. When you see two shows more or less together like this – even though they are nothing to do with each other – it’s hard to stop unlooked-for, and occasionally revelatory, connections popping into your head and affecting how you perceive the work. Both the exhibitions, I felt, had something to say about expanse: two very different ways of longing for scale. And to do this, both had to almost fight against the hang. It was an interesting day.
Andreas Gursky at the White Cube, Bermondsey
Gursky is known for his large format photographs, often of landscapes but also buildings, events and visually arresting scenes. When I first became slightly hooked on his work, I was attracted to his ability to ‘transform’ real locations so that they resembled abstract paintings. It’s almost a kind of optical art in some cases. You may be familiar with his views of the Rhine and its banks, which at a distance resemble a canvas of near-perfect horizontal painted stripes; or his image of the Bahrain race track, now a black snake winding an impossible series of curves through sand.
Accordingly, Gursky’s images can pay havoc with your sense of proportion. As photographs, they tend to be vast; but their subjects are themselves so huge that containing them in the frame is an act of compression or distortion, to the point where it’s no wonder they don’t quite appear to be what they actually are.
This latest collection certainly calls back to that technique – a new Rhine photograph makes an appearance – and the twists and turns of a ski-run, ranging white-on-white across the field of vision, provide an interesting spin on the ‘Bahrain’ pattern.
Some images surprised me, as if Gursky was deliberately wrong-footing viewers’ expectations in some of the selections on display. Two images of the Hong Kong Shanghai Bank – hung so you couldn’t view them together – illustrated this. Both feature the same architectural section of the building, with a huge screen. On one, this screen was filled with umbrellas, drawing out the textbook abstract feel of so many Gursky images. However, the partner painting showed the screen displaying what seemed like random words and phrases. My best guess is that they were the names of stocks, but writ large in this way, with no context, they helped to create a truly alienating, future-now shot.
I was distracted by ‘Schweine I’ (‘Pigs I’), an image that at first seems to offer a more intimate version of a tried and trusted Gursky experience: inside the sty, a pig is curled up, half buried in the hay, resembling a kind of kidney bowl, or comma shape. However, recognisable parts of other pigs butt into the frame, including a head in the bottom left corner. Barrels occupy the upper section of the picture, neatly stacked, but with a rogue pallet on the left. While this is surely composed (or edited) with the utmost care to disrupt the Kubrickian symmetry we might expect, I still couldn’t shake a vision of Gursky collecting his snaps from Boots, plucking this print from the wallet, noticing the pallet on the picture’s edge and shaking his fist at the sky in despair.
Perhaps the image destined to be the star of the exhibition is ‘Kreuzfahrt’ (‘Cruise’), a single shot taking in an entire side of an ocean liner. Eye-splitting arrays of tiny windows confront you, line by line; Gursky creates, in effect, a series of miniscule photographic frames. Some of them are properly exposed due to some construction or refurbishment activity. Others offer faint or blurred signs of human presence. A dazzle ship in a literal sense.
But this was the first time I’ve felt that Gursky’s photographs looked a little … random. The walls of the White Cube’s enormous central corridor remained empty – I don’t actually know if they are ever used for display – and when eyeing the size of the accompanying book of Gursky’s work on sale in the shop, I couldn’t help wondering why we were only being shown 18 at their full size in the gallery. The larger-scale works didn’t have the opportunity to properly intimidate, and the smaller-scale pieces got slightly lost.
But talking of work getting slightly lost…
For the Record: Photography and the Art of the Album Cover, Photographers’ Gallery
Given my level of obsession with music, I was only ever going to want more from this exhibition – but some of what was included still puzzled me. Certainly, the exhibition feels smaller than it is, because it is crammed into a single floor of the gallery. (Two are given to the Deutsche Börse Photography Foundation Prize, already reviewed for ArtMuseLondon by Sarah Mulvey, here.)
I also had to remember to switch off certain preconceptions. Suddenly confronted with an onslaught of album sleeves – some of which may belong to your favourite records – it’s very hard not to start thinking about the music instead of the art, and wonder why certain ‘better’ albums weren’t included. Equally, I was initially bemused that certain labels with wholly distinctive aesthetics – such as Factory, ZTT or ECM – were largely absent, until I reminded myself that this was about photography, not sleeve design.
As a result, the exhibition leans towards cool and iconic portraiture. A selection of Blue Note sleeves featured, as one might expect, but perhaps less obvious were the more forbidding, starkly intense close-ups for the ESP-Disk free jazz label.
There were moments of startling coherence that I felt showed the exhibition at its full potential. For example, an entire section was given over to Grace Jones, showing how her tight control of her famously androgynous, angular image paid dividends across one arresting sleeve after another. Compilations of old blues and revolutionary folk, as much reportage as portraiture, show the seeds of ideas that would later come to fruition in latter-day releases from the vault-emptying archive collections from Honest Jon’s Records, to the tinted film stills of The Smiths.
This kind of approach made other parts of the exhibition feel like someone had just thrown some albums at a wall. The display for designers Hipgnosis (key client: Pink Floyd) did them no favours, the UFO and Montrose covers in particular being somewhat ‘regrettable’. Peter Gabriel’s first album could have been pulled out into a display of Gabriel sleeves: all self-titled, his early albums were meant to represent magazine-like updates on his current music, with an intriguing artist portrait on each one. Likewise, the art project aspect of Roxy Music – with their album ‘cover girls’ somewhere in the hinterland between alluring and unsettling, an expression of the SF glamour the band were aiming for – gets trivialised by bunging ‘Country Life’ into a group of sleeves gathered for their risqué elements.
Perhaps most poignantly, I’ve never known the 12” by 12” vinyl format feel so small. Compared with CDs – let alone download thumbnails – it’s easy for those of us of a certain age to fetishise the glory days of the LP record when the artwork felt as important as the music. (Although its revival suggests that younger generations are starting to appreciate it, too.) But this show is so busy and cramped that it ends up diminishing what it seeks to amplify. Well worth a visit nonetheless – expect to have some reservations, and hopefully an excellent debate over a drink afterwards.
Andreas Gursky is at the White Cube, Bermondey until 26 June 2022.
For the Record is at the Photographers’ Gallery until 12 June 2022.
Photos by AA.