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June 6, 2009

[The Globe and Mail] An early, modestly scaled photograph from 1984 captures onlookers near an airfield watching planes take off and land. Taking a rest from their Sunday morning family bicycle outing, the figures are momentarily swept up in the spectacle of mass transit. But this anecdotal mode of observation gives way, in the early nineties, to gargantuan images of, among other things, crowds. Traders swarm at the Chicago, Tokyo and Hong Kong stock exchanges. Thousands of North Korean acrobats in Pyongyang perform their routines in perfect, eerie synchronicity. Throngs of Madonna fans surge toward the stage, like iron filings converging on an unseen magnet.

To my eye, these pictures have a disturbing subtext: the individual subsumed within the horde like an insect in a colony. (One of Gursky’s favourite nightclubs to photograph – in Dusseldorf and Ibiza – is called Cocoon; several of his pictures reveal a fascination with its distinctive honeycomb-like decor.) As pandemics sweep through the global population, as financial crises blaze like wildfires through the world’s economies, as political forces compel mass human migrations fuelled by ancient feuds, these pictures describe our collective dread regarding the individual’s vulnerability in the face of the mass.

Gursky protests a little at these ideas. “If the people within the community are getting along with each other,” he says, speaking of the nightclub pictures, “it should not be disturbing to you. When people come together in masses, it frightens us, but we can’t escape it. It’s part of our reality.” In the postwar, post-Nuremberg world, though, is such nonchalance really possible, or even ethically astute? Other pictures, such as the photograph of the neutrino observatory, give us vast man-made spaces in which just one or two humans can be found, solitary souls dwarfed by the synthetic worlds we have masterminded. Are these images of promise or of menace? To me, whether intentionally or not, these pictures worry at that problem. (read)

Andreas Gursky
Werke/Works 80-08
May 30-September 20, 2009
Vancouver Art Gallery

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