Specifically chosen by Andreas Gursky to appear in his 2007 retrospective held at the Kunstmuseum Basel, James Bond Island I is a spectacular exhibition of the sublime perspective that epitomizes the artist's trademark picturing of our globalised turbo-capitalist age. Constituting the first in a three part series executed in 2007, the present work represents the most structurally commanding and emotively brooding of the cycle. Gursky's immense portrayal of an ominous and sheer volcanic archipelago surrounded by an oceanic mass of peculiar placidity invokes an indeterminate cross-contamination of the real and the artificial. Described by Bernhard Mendes Bürgi as evoking a "distinctive and almost bizarre plasticity", this work possesses a remarkable degree of breathtaking otherworldliness (Bernhard Mendes Bürgi, 'Foreword' in, Exhibition Catalogue, Basel, Kunstmuseum Basel, Andreas Gursky, 2007, p. 46). The enveloping James Bond Island I stands as a mature development of such early vehicles of Gursky's sublime as Cable Car Dolomites from 1987 and Niagra Falls from 1988 in furthering the artist's dramatic landscape pantheon. Indeed, within the sweeping vista of formidable cliff faces and distant horizon Gursky conjures the central transcendental conceit of the German Romantic tradition, particularly the work of Caspar David Friedrich. However, any such allusion to Romantic subjectivity is complemented by an almost puritanical degree of dispassionate and technological detachment; within James Bond Island I a masterful critique and subtle irony staunchly resides in our consumer directed moment of super-modernity.
Gursky's photographic invention is geographically centred on the volcanic bay of Phang-Nga situated at the tip of the Malay Penninsula off the coast of Southern Thailand. The title itself refers to the tiny island of Ko Phing Kan, the extraordinary and vertiginous landmass that famously appeared in the 1974 James Bond film 'The Man with the Golden Gun'. Starring alongside Roger Moore in the leading role Christopher Lee was cast as the iconic villain Scaramanga, whose nuclear base and lair were located on the formidable limestone pillar of Ko Phing Kan, thereafter becoming popularly known as 'James Bond Island'. At the time this constellation of jungle covered islands were an undiscovered paradise, however, since the film's release this remote area of Thailand has witnessed an onslaught of tourist traffic; year upon year hoards of devoted Bond fans and sightseers take the boat trip and dedicated 54 mile bus journey north from Phuket Town to catch a glimpse of the now legendary 'James Bond Island'. To similar effect, since the release of Danny Boyle's 'The Beach' in 2000, the neighbouring island of Phi Phi Leh has witnessed an exponential proliferation in cinema inspired travel. This consumer driven sightseeing is subtly critiqued in the present awe inspiring panorama. Gursky employs the twentieth-century baptism of Ko Phing Kan as a signifier for global tourism and its culture of capitalist colonisation; widely referred to by its popular name by locals, the original appellation has largely fallen out of common use. Across the differing compositions and multitude of islands pictured within Gursky's eponymous tripartite cycle, the unifying rubric consigns an underlying subtext of economic cynicism to one of the most overwhelmingly beautiful natural locations on earth.
Gursky instigates a strained yet unassailably prominent correlation with a visual expression of the Romantic Sublime. In accordance with some of the most powerful and celebrated works of the artist's oeuvre, James Bond Island I strikes a direct dialogue with the painted landscapes of Friedrich's nineteenth-century practice. As outlined by Joseph Leo Koerner in his renowned study Caspar David Friedrich and The Subject of Landscape, Friedrich's works are defined as "a celebration of boundless indeterminacy in landscape ... as sign of our inability to appropriate nature" (Joseph Leo Koerner, Caspar David Friedrich and The Subject of Landscape, London 1990, p. 226). Indeed, within Gursky's thundery, subdued colour-palette and towering planar horizon, the chain of islands appear as the last vestiges of a vast and unfamiliar submerged mountainscape. Gursky has transformed these remote enclaves of paradise familiarised by popular cinema, into an alien and ominously quiet colossal expanse of orrida belezza. Here the artist's mature photographic practice calls forth a restoration of the pictorial structures allied to painterly tradition: "Since 1992 I have consciously made use of the possibilities offered by electronic picture processing, so as to emphasize formal elements that will enhance the picture, or, for example, to apply a picture concept that in real terms of perspective would be impossible to realize" (the artist cited in, Lynne Cooke, 'Andreas Gursky: Visionary (Per)versions' in, Exhibition Catalogue, Dusseldorf, Kunsthalle Dusseldorf, Andreas Gursky – Photographs from 1984 to the Present, 1998, p. 14). Towering perspective, infinitesimal pixilation, and multiple vantage points are skilfully homogenised to engender a harmoniously compelling yet visually irresolvable image. Via a pictorial interweave of microstructure and enveloping macroscopic detail, Gursky frames and manipulates nature and perspective to confer an overwhelming and impossibly omniscient visual encounter that verges on the aesthetic Sublime.
Exhibiting the extremity of Gursky's now signature master-trope of an elevated vantage point, a key photographic device gleaned from his formative mentors Bernd and Hiller Becher, James Bond Island's God's-eye perspective evokes the intimation of a deific realm. Once again this draws a parallel with Friedrich whose vast landscapes are renowned for their devotional invocation of God via a mediating solitary human presence; our participatory empathy with the Rückenfigur typically present within Friedrich's vast natural expanse incites an overwhelming annihilation of self and impression of a transcendent higher power. However in Gursky's photography, to quote Marie Luise Syring, "the tragic element is missing. Instead, the artist maintains an ironic distance" (Marie Luise Syring, 'Where is Untitled? On Locations and the Lack of Them in Gursky's Photography, in Ibid, p. 7). Although human activity is redolent in the most miniscule of boats navigating the grey sea, we are not invited to empathise on a directly human level. Nonetheless, even when featured in Gursky's photography, man is never completely dominated by his surroundings, rather "he knows how to assert himself as an individual and his integrity remains intact" (Ibid.). Indeed, this goes hand in hand with Gursky's rigorous command of Nature via a laboriously meticulous and technically seamless method of photo-collage.
An impossible image, not only for the naked eye but also for the single lens, James Bond Island I represents a fictional landscape composed of many photographic parts. Representing a rejection of singular perspective, the paragon discovery of Renaissance invention, Gursky disregards our natural stereoscopic vision to engender a harmonised photographic compression of multiple views and perspectives, digitally processed and cogently reorganised. Herein, Gursky subtly distorts reality and exploits the concept of 'truth' associated with photography. To again quote Syring; "by using digital technology, Gursky exposes the consumer world as a virtual spectacle and by radicalising the structure of the image using computers he underlines the theatricality of a situation" (Ibid., p. 6). Ultimately the possibility of a boundless Natural sublime is thwarted by Gurksy's ironical detachment and the restless nature of his composition. Rather than a sustained melancholic absorption into the depths of infinity, the homogenisation of multivalent views and focal points suspends our vision within the 'bizarre plasticity' of Gursky's 100-eyed vision of Argus. Rather than conferring a singular awesome vantage point our vision is forever navigating the artificial planes of this image's construction. As such, and more aligned to twentieth-century abstract painting, it is perhaps more apt to compare Gursky's reduced aesthetic and minimal colour palette to an evocation of Lyotard's post-modern Sublime; herein sublimity is engendered not via a sense of awe-inspired reverence of a transcendental higher-power, but through a tangible sense of the 'here-and-now' resonating from a visual suspension affected by the work of art itself.
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