As the crowd dissolves into an almost galactic matrix, individual forms become indiscernible from the glaring lights of the stadium and the flash of cameras in the audience. Gursky draws the viewer to the predictable patterns that emerge from a chaotic disarray of human bodies and the excitement, at times in the form of fearful anxiety that large-scale spectacles can arouse within the individual. The scale and scope of human activity becomes amplified indefinitely by the multiplicity of lenses through which the media instantaneously disseminates the spectacle to a much larger audience, suggested in the present work by the flash of a camera or the screen of a projector.
Madonna I serves not only as an investigation of the behavioral psychology of crowds and reflection of a culture of consumption that defines globalization, but also as a historical record that documents the cultural and political circumstances at the turn of the Twenty First century. That Madonna, standing here with an American flag wrapped around her waist, is able to command the attention of an audience of more than 20,000 people is testament not only to her status as a defining icon of our popular culture, but also to the unwavering unity and resiliency which America exhibited in the days and months following the terrorist attacks. In the bottom left corner of the present work, a video-screen projects an image of the Manhattan skyline aglow at sunset, a reassuring confirmation that despite the trauma of recent atrocities, America would stand united as a single nation, from the East coast to the West. While the stadium spectacle that Gursky photographs here is undoubtedly a specific event at a specific place in time, through his lens the moment becomes an abstract cipher. Given the emotional weight of the historical import of the moment depicted, Gursky draws us to an oxymoronic reality that the purported emotional intimacy of the post 9/11 mourning experience became experienced and transmitted through the anonymity of the commercialized mass-spectacle. Madonna I is more a portrait of our obsessive image culture and the desensitization and equalization of experience that results than it is of the public events it purport to depict. In an era shaped by a globally interconnected network of exchange and a multi-billion dollar entertainment industry, music concerts today draw audiences on a scale historically reserved for significant religious or political events. That Madonna I in fact depicts a moment in America’s history that was steeped in fearful anxiety and political import, but one which is here overtaken by the visual awe of the spectacle itself, elucidates the dichotomy between intimacy and anonymity familiar to our contemporary experience.
A forefather of large scale conceptual photography, Gursky first gained recognition in the 1980s under the instruction of German conceptual photographers Bernd and Hilla Becher. Less than a decade later, Gursky arrived at an artistic approach of his own, one that secured him as among the most distinguished and influential artists in the history of photography. Utilizing emerging technological innovations in photography to create highly complex visual montages, Gursky freed himself from the limitations of human perception and photographic medium in order to better convey the rapidly increasing scale and pace of a flattening planet and to elucidate the juxtapositions that are the heart of his work. It is through this underlying juxtaposition of abstraction and representation – surface and depth – that Madonna I illuminates the contradictions of abundance and emptiness, immediacy and distance, and absence and presence which define our social paradigms and human experiences.
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