As he revisits settings such as the Rhine river and Hong Kong’s futuristic cityscape, Gursky looks anew at our built environment and humankind’s impact on the natural world. The exhibition also includes work from the past few years, offering an important overview of the artist’s ever-expanding “Encyclopedia of Life.”
Rhine III (2018–19) revisits Gursky’s important work Rhine II (1999) — the dimensions, setting and composition of both are almost identical. (Rhine II is not in the Berlin exhibition.) And yet, just twenty years later, the landscape and mood have drastically altered. The drought of summer 2018 reduced the river to a record low, and the new picture offers a dry, dystopian vision of the once flourishing riverside. As Gursky builds an “Encyclopedia of Life,” he revisits and reinterprets familiar settings, keeping up with the impact of human habitation on the appearance of the world.
The monumental photograph Kreuzfahrt (Cruise) (2020) shows a colossal cruise ship still in the process of being constructed. Here is a human habitation atomized into a modernist grid, a hulking structure that travelers choose to inhabit temporarily, as a form of leisure. In an age of urban overcrowding, migration, and an ongoing pandemic, does the cruise ship represent a spirit of adventure, a longing for isolation or a need for anonymity? The composition, which despite the immense size of the photographic print doesn’t reveal the full scale of the cruise ship, brings to mind a vast minimalist sculpture.
Modern living spaces, and the balancing of efficiency with quality in contemporary life, is one of the themes Gursky addresses in his work Bauhaus (2020). The functional building with the logo of the DIY store, commonplace across Germany, is shown by the artist in its cold and precise aesthetics, which at the same time bring to mind the famous art school in Weimar.
In the adjacent space, Politik II (2020) directly follows Gursky’s work Rückblick (2015), to create a new series that looks at political structures. Over a period of several months, Gursky closely observed the activities of the members of parliament in the German Bundestag. Politik II features thirteen politicians in animated conversations, the figures filling the entire width of the picture. The fact that only one person stands aside, looking into a newspaper, magnifies the echoes between Gursky’s picture and a typical depiction of the Last Supper. While the humor is subtle in Rückblick—as expressed, for example, in the plume of smoke above Helmut Schmidt as an identifying feature of the former chancellor, the humor is bolder in Politik II. Who takes on the role of the savior in this implied depiction of the Last Supper—is it Angela Merkel, who has moved slightly out of the center of the picture, or Anton Hofreiter, whose shoulder-length hair alone seems to qualify him? Both pictures also include artworks in the backdrop: Politik II features Ed Ruscha’s Five Past Eleven (1989), while the politicians in Rückblick are framed by Barnett Newman’s modernist masterpiece, Vir Heroicus Sublimis (1950–51).