Flatworld

by Mark Calderwood

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To stand before Andreas Gursky’s monumental photographs is to be engulfed by space- space made into such a palpable and overwhelming presence that it stirs feelings awe and dread, in a way often compared to the sublime in nineteenth-century landscape art.

Critics have made much of the fact that Gursky’s seemingly objective images are in fact subtle constructions, a detached fictional wherein we recognise our world more clearly. Vast natural spaces and enormous structures of the built world alike are dwarfed by the machinery of global commerce, relegated to sites for industry, shipping, commodified leisure or high-end consumerism. It is these inescapable, omnipresent and omnipotent tangles, complex networks too large and shadowy to see beyond the edges of the picture plane, that draw the same sense of unease toward the invisible as the terror of the divine once evoked by sublime nature.

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But what no critic mentions is the actual materiality of the works: they are utterly flat, bonded to acrylic glass. There is not even the minimal depth a framed print offers. For all their grand scale and dense complexity, the images are completely dimensionless, negating the depth and scale of the subject and by extension, short-circuits our emotional response at the same time as provoking it, denying us an “in” to engage with the work. The grandeur of nature and the disposable junk of the 99c store alike are reduced to banal vignettes typical of picture postcards or biscuit tins. The tendrils that entwine global society are revealed to be wide but flat: we do not dwell within it, we serve it as worker drones, shoppers, tourists, consumers, with only the shallowest engagement with the enormous/dense spaces and networks Gursky presents. Bland, glossy and glassy, his flat works reveals our globalised, hypercommercialised, consumer society to be surface with substance; utopia is hollow at the heart.

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