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How photo artist Gursky messes with your sense of reality

Miriam Karout / kbmJuly 7, 2016

Photos aren't fiction, right? Andreas Gursky's photographic art will make you doubt your eyes - and the way you view images in our world of info overload. His unique works are on display in his hometown of Dusseldorf.

Exhibtion 'Andreas Gursky - Nicht Abstrakt' at the Kunstsammlung NRW, Copyright: DW/S. Dege
Image: DW/S. Dege

Andreas Gursky has a bit of everything: flower beds, a concert by Die Toten Hosen, an electronics store, oceans, politicians and even Marvel superheroes.

I connect immediately with the very contemporary themes and figures in his works, since I recognize so many of them from my own life.

In our consumer-oriented society full of smartphones and tablets, everything seems to have become a bit more abstract. Modern technology makes it possibly to do ordinary tasks not with our hands but with a tiny computer. This feeling of abstraction is exactly what Gursky integrates into his work.

For laymen like me, the exhibition "Andreas Gursky - not abstract" at the K20, Kunstsammlung Nordrhein-Westfalen, in Dusseldorf seems to be the perfect gateway into the world of creative photography. But upon closer inspection, I wonder whether the show is really about photography; so many of the works look like paintings instead.

'Amazon' by Andreas Gursky, Copyright: Andreas Gursky/VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn 2016
"Amazon"Image: Andreas Gursky/VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn 2016

Photographs can't be trusted

The work titled "Amazon" fascinated me in particular. I often use the online service, but I never knew what it looked like behind the scenes. For those of us in the smartphone-Facebook-Twitter generation who are racing through life, it's sometimes difficult to pay attention to details. In "Amazon," an endless sea of colored packages towers before me. The bold colors of the products pop up again and again and it seems like the individual rows are repeating themselves.

But after a few minutes, I realize that each element appears just once in the picture. And then I notice that the countless Amazon products in the background are larger than those in the foreground. Has the photo been modified? Yes, most definitely.

Every day, hundreds of photos and illustrations fly through my news feed, but I never have time to think about them. Gursky's "Amazon" resembles some of them in my feed. Have they been manipulated too?

These days, we all have quick and easy access to information, much of which is published by your next door neighbor rather than professionals. Gursky's work underlines how the naïve credibility of photographs is disappearing. Pictures don't always tell the truth and no longer represent reality.

'Rhein' by Andreas Gursky, Copyright: Sebastian Drüen, Kunstsammlung NRW
Gursky's altered interpretation of the Rhine RiverImage: Sebastian Drüen, Kunstsammlung NRW

I have similar impressions when I see Gursky's "Rhein" series. As a Dusseldorf native, I know the Rhine River very well - but Gursky still manages to pull one over on me. "That's a very nice picture of the Rhine," I think. Half an hour later, I take another look at the work and realize that the giant river has been portrayed as a small canal surrounded by luscious green meadows. The water is just a tad too clear, the grass a shade too green.

Superheroes to rescue us from ourselves

Gursky manipulates his works in order to manipulate the viewer. But also to get us to think. I became more skeptical with his other works in the exhibition. Nature and technology overlap and collide, such as in "Les Mées." Myriad solar panels are spread across a hilly expanse. We as people later nature, says Gursky - in photos, but also in the urban environments we've built up around us.

'Lager' by Andreas Gursky , Copyright: DW/S. Dege
What is really real?Image: DW/S. Dege

So what do Iron Man and Spiderman have to do with anything? Superheroes don't represent reality, I think. But however fictional they may be, they are an essential part of our culture. Iron Man is pictured in front of a building marked with the delivery company Hermes, while a human is standing in the window of a towering skyscraper. Perhaps we do need real-life superheroes after all - to rescue us from our own consumerism.

I leave the exhibition thinking about how important each detail is and how I should perhaps try to pay just a bit more attention to the little things. Everything around me is "not abstract" - rather, it's manipulated reality.