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In a recent television programme profiling Andreas Gursky, Ben Lewis, a British art commentator, referred to the “Gursky World” as one of the most prominent and signatory artistic visions of recent years. Much as Andy Warhol quickly established his artistic credentials with his highly original view of a celebrity-obsessed world in the 1960s, Andreas Gursky’s powerful large scale photographs have quickly informed the way that we view the ‘the fetishism of our material world’ (Andreas Gursky in Exhibition Catalogue, Edinburgh, The Dean Gallery, Andreas Gursky: Photographs 1994-1998, 1999, p.12) and have immediately become a part of established artistic vocabulary. Executed on a grand scale, his photographs survey the post-Capitalist landscape, searching for the signifiers which define our daily lives. The new celebrities are the grand shopping malls, Stock Exchanges and Raves which bring people together and control our lives. No longer is it about the single individual but about the mass, interactive exercise and the locations in which these are performed. Gursky draws on his completely unique compositional sensibility to unify these locations in terms of line, form and viewpoint to paint a picture of the commodification of our developed world. In the late 1980s he pioneered the use of new photographic techniques to create highly detailed colour photographs on a massive scale which allowed his artistic vision to become a reality. The photographs need this scale to fully articulate his ideas and nowhere is this more pronounced than in one of his undisputed masterpieces, 99 Cent II.
The horizontal expanse of 99 Cent II is quintessentially Gursky. From views of the Rhine to May Day raves, Gursky’s photographs earn their size through an aesthetic that is best displayed in panorama. From an omnipotent vantage point, we examine the saturated colours, compulsive arrangement and dizzying selection of goods offered for consumption at an American discount store. The diptych affords us a rare view of this contemporary shrine to capitalism, providing a look down onto the aisles we are accustomed to perusing from ground level. What we see is both seductive and unnerving.
In the case of the discount market, the sweeping view of the products on their shelves lacks a central focus, carrying on a legacy inherited from Jackson Pollock’s all-over technique (fig 1). This obliterates the ability to compare individual items, the primary activity of shopping. Instead the eye roves across parallel lines of shelves, nullifying the work of advertisers and packaging designers and stressing the sheer number of products available over the individual attributes of each. One’s eye is transfixed by the sheer spectrum of colour presented across a dizzying panorama. This effect is a hallmark of Gursky’s. He states, ‘you never notice arbitrary details in my work. On a formal level, countless interrelated micro and macrostructures are woven together, determined by an overall organizational principle’ (Andreas Gursky in Ibid, p. 5). The horizontal format also flattens the space of the image, eliminating the store’s aisles, closing the shelves in on one another, and creating a confused sense of the geometry of calm alongside the cacophony of colour. The artist augments this tension through digital manipulation, but the foundation is undeniably present in the familiar layout of the store and arrangement of the products.
The sole interruption to the perfect stacks of sweets and household items comes in the form of shoppers. Lonely heads float between the goods on sale, disturbing their order. These disembodied figures make the scene more alien. The products overwhelm the people, stripping the shoppers of their power as consumers to choose one particular item over another. Instead they are portrayed as subject to the whims of advertising’s colourful ploys. In this way, Gursky illustrates his technique of abstracting the figures in his photographs to ‘indicate my interest in the human species as opposed to the individual’ (Andreas Gursky in Exhibition Catalogue, Hamburg, Deichtorhallen, Andreas Gursky: Photographs 1984-1993, 1994, p. 11). We see how people as a whole interact with the market as opposed to an individual’s experience – the celebrity has become consumed within the interactive experience of the crowd.
Gursky first tackled the subject of the discount store in the original version of 99 Cent in 1999, which was quickly recognized as one of his most important works and placed in major museums around the world. When he re-visited the subject for 99 Cent II in 2001 he employed the diptych format in order to emphasise the intensity of the experience and ‘to obliterate the contingencies of perspective, so that the subject appears to present itself without the agency or interference of an observer; and to select and shape the view so that it suggests not a part or an aspect but a perfectly contained whole’ (Exhibition Catalogue, New York, Museum of Modern Art. Andreas Gursky, 2001, p. 30). The effect is to present a palace of shopping which is all-encompassing. It is no wonder that the shoppers have been sucked in amongst the rows of attractively displayed goods; they have no alternative.
99 Cent II represents a variety of artistic influences. From the previously mentioned all-over aspect of Pollock to the repetitive grids of Sol Lewitt and Donald Judd that mirror the stacks of items, as well as Andy Warhol’s thematic interest in consumer items, and Jeff Wall’s digital manipulation and adaptation of advertising techniques to augment his photographs, Gursky combines disparate threads of artistic practice to create a unique and engaging style all his own. Having shared his bedroom with his parents’ advertising studio as a child, it comes as no surprise that he combines his intimate understanding of the world of advertising, from overall style to tricks of the trade, with an artistic eye for pattern, shape and colour that is most closely linked to reductive aesthetics.
Like Warhol before him, Gursky takes the world of the everyday and makes it extraordinary, framing it for museum walls. However, where Warhol reproduces images based on their association with his personal life (‘If you want to know all about Andy Warhol, just look at the surface of my paintings and films and me, there I am. There's nothing behind it’), Gursky adopts the distant and detached view of his famed professors Bernd and Hilla Becher. He systematically photographs aspects of our contemporary culture. In 99 Cent II, he asks us to formulate our own conclusions when presented with a new angle on the fetishism of capitalism found in the endless rows of goods offered up to the discount market shopper.
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