at the Museum of Contemporary Art, through September 22
Earth From Above, a Photographic Portrait of Our Planet
at Millennium Park, through September 15
Two well-traveled photographers–one German, the other French–arrived in Chicago two weeks ago to introduce their views of the world. It’s not a pretty picture, yet lots of big, pretty pictures are what Andreas Gursky and Yann Arthus-Bertrand have to show us. The Museum of Contemporary Art is exhibiting 47 Gursky prints, two of which are 6 feet tall and 16 feet wide; at Millennium Park, Arthus-Bertrand is represented by 120 four-by-six-foot photos from his “Earth From Above” project. Celebratory on the surface and cautionary on further scrutiny, both exhibits issue visually dazzling dispatches from the globalist front lines, bad news about existential and environmental crises. Yet the artists share a postcard aesthetic, their cityscapes and landscapes revealing a knack for impressive graphic patterns, striking color, and grand scale.
Gursky’s subtext is so low-key that his work could drift unnoticed into the domain of slick signage, while Arthus-Bertrand uses his images to trick viewers into reading his captions, which advocate sustainable development. Gursky’s gargantuan photographs are spectacularly frigid and glossy, massive records of consumerism and capital institutions: stock markets, rock concerts, parliaments, banks, factories, subways, hotel lobbies. Among his other subjects: snowy alpine ranges; Turner, Constable, and Pollock canvases; and a page from a novel. Arthus-Bertrand’s all-outdoor oeuvre spans the globe with aerial vistas of markets, forests, icebergs, atolls, rivers, slums, and skyscrapers. There are no pointed juxtapositions in his show–shots of a refugee camp, nudist beach, and slaughterhouse are far from one another.
Part supertourists, part millennial encyclopedists–Gursky says he shoots “icons of our time,” and Arthus-Bertrand says he’s a “witness of our time”–the pair target different audiences. Gursky’s pristine prints appear in austere white-walled galleries while Arthus-Bertrand exhibits only in free-admission, open-air venues. They have rather different backgrounds too. Before Arthus-Bertrand became a photojournalist and started selling his pictures to National Geographic, Life, Geo, Stern, and Paris-Match, he piloted hot-air balloons for tourists over Kenyan savannas. Gursky, the son and grandson of commercial photographers, pondered suicide in 1978 when he failed to break into the German magazine market. (Eleven years later, he made the highway bridge that was to have been his jumping-off point the subject of a landscape photograph, Ruhr Valley, 1989.) Instead of leaping, Gursky enrolled in the State Art Academy in Dusseldorf; his first exhibit, a study of security guards in office lobbies, was hung in the Dusseldorf airport in 1987.
Gursky’s repertoire of techniques includes making digital scans of his five-inch-by-seven-inch exposures and manipulating the imagery to increase the density of crowds, eliminate depth by creating unnaturally clear focus, and magnify scale by multiplying elements. In Paris, Montparnasse, 1993 he created a leviathan apartment bloc, and in Untitled V, 1997 a monumental shelf of 104 Nike shoes. What he loses in documentary accuracy he makes up for in artful monstrosity. “Once you know he does it, it’s very tempting to guess how he does it–don’t go there,” ordered Peter Galassi, curator of the show and chief curator of photography at the Museum of Modern Art, at a talk a few weeks ago for the Circle Donors at the MCA. Earlier he told me that critics always get it wrong when they try to dissect Gursky’s craft: “They just allow themselves to make it up,” he said. “It’s as if you don’t have to actually learn anything about what you’re talking about.” Neither Gursky nor Galassi seems disposed to reveal the tricks that produce the photographer’s perfect surfaces. Arthus-Bertrand is more forthcoming: he supplied the press with details about his camera models, lens focal lengths, and film speeds. He explained that the “dark reddish ocher” hue in one shot arose from the location’s “ferruginous earth.”
Gursky labels his images with terse titles that usually identify a city, building, or event, followed by the year. Contrary to usual museum practice, he omits the medium and dimensions. (I got dimensions from the curator’s checklist.) Seven Gursky works are untitled. Specks of telling text are legible in many pieces, however, if you peer into the throng. Among some 1,300 Dortmund rock fans (I estimated their number) in Tote Hosen, 2000 is one wearing a T-shirt that says “terror.” In the 6-by-16-foot May Day IV, 2000, picturing more than 800 Germans, one can see a T-shirt that reads “Losing Is Nature’s Way of Saying You Suck.”
Gursky takes another approach to text in his Untitled XII  1999, a photograph of a page of excerpts (in German) from Robert Musil’s The Man Without Qualities. Gursky twice read the 1,100-page experimental novel (unfinished at the Austrian writer’s death in 1942), selected disparate passages, then hired a typesetter to assemble them on a single page. One line from this eclectic precis echoes the nihilist individualism hinted at by the microscopic T-shirts: “What is everything that we do other than a nervous anxiety to be nothing.” A similar sense of splendid detachment is apparent in Gursky’s Cable Car, Dolomites, 1987, showing a tiny red cable car suspended on thin black wires that vanish into mountain clouds. The unseen passengers on this mysterious trajectory seem powerless cargo in an overwhelming natural environment.
Gursky’s photographs share the unease and magisterial vantage point of a character in Musil’s novel, set in 1913 Vienna. In a passage not included in Gursky’s photo, financier Paul Arnheim wonders, “What was not soulless these days?” When Musil describes Arnheim ruminating on a parade below his hotel window, he writes: “The man who knew that empires would sooner or later have to be run just like factories gazed upon the swarms of uniforms and proud faces no bigger than nits down there, with a smile that was a blend of superiority and sadness.” In a forward to their 1952 translation of The Man Without Qualities, Eithne Wilkins and Ernst Kaiser describe Musil’s outlook: it’s “as though some vast bird, slowly wheeling at a great height, were taking its bird’s-eye view of the revolving world.”
While Gursky gets his commanding raised perspectives from elevated earthbound spots, Arthus-Bertrand employs pilots to achieve his geometric patterns. “I’m a photographer who uses a helicopter,” he says in a 15-minute video playing at Millennium Park. Yet he’s constantly aware of the social and political matrix for his shots. He’s often accompanied on flights by military personnel, who examine the exposed film for espionage risks; it can take three months to get it cleared by more sensitive regimes. (Indian authorities kept 10,000 of his slides, some 90 percent of what he shot there in 1999.) But agriculture, not armaments, tends to be his subject. He admires the fortuitous art he flies over: “It’s as though the farmers used tractors as giant paintbrushes.”
Unlike Gursky, Arthus-Bertrand gives his work lengthy titles, such as The Village of Baocolor Under a Layer of Mud. He also identifies the latitude and longitude of each photo, omits the date it was shot, and adds captions he oversees but doesn’t write himself. “Please, please, please read the captions,” he implored Chicagoans at the exhibit’s opening. If Gursky’s photographs offer a mute reflection of the world’s vexed wealth, “Earth From Above” definitely anticipates a catastrophe from overdevelopment. Arthus-Bertrand’s alluring photographs are mere vehicles for captions delivering alarmist predictions: “increasing inequality between rich and poor” in Sao Paulo, “growing pauperization” in Quito. The rainbow array of plastic beverage crates in Bottle Racks Near Braunschweig, Lower Saxony (which resembles the multicolored quilt of new cars and shipping containers in Gursky’s Salerno, 1990) is a pretext to note that alcoholism in Russia is “a symptom of the despair and social malaise caused by poverty and unemployment.” And the scenic Cotton Fabrics Drying in the Sun in Jaipur, Rajasthan, India might not immediately imply “blatant inequality of the sexes,” but a thoughtful caption highlights the injustice.
Where Arthus-Bertrand makes dramatic leaps from abstraction to commentary, Gursky’s abstracted images are insular. The wintry cityscape of Arthus-Bertrand’s Abandoned City of Pripiat is as pretty as any other until you read the caption, which reveals that the town is near Chernobyl and has been deserted since the 1986 nuclear-reactor accident. His Patchwork of Carpets in Marrakech, Morocco is a visual treat, if not quite a transparent indictment of Moroccan labor practices. When Gursky aims his lens at a carpet, it’s to document the minimalist texture of the gray flooring at his local arts center in Untitled I, 1993 (which Galassi straight-facedly lauds as “a picture of radical emptiness”). When Gursky visited the futuristic city of Brasilia, he pointed his camera up at an orange ceiling to capture another abstract pattern in Brasilia, General Assembly I, 1994.
Sebastio Salgado, Martin Paar, and Edward Burtynsky are photographers with an unambiguous agenda: to document globalization. Although critics often say the same of Gursky, he claims he’s never even read a book on the issue. Musil’s Arnheim, though, may voice an insight that’s close to Gursky’s point of view: “This era worships money, order, knowledge, calculation, measures and weights–the spirit of money and everything related to it.” Galassi told the MCA audience to pause before pronouncing on Gursky’s work. “Before we congratulate him for agreeing with us about globalization or fault him for failing to do so, we really should look at his pictures.” Galassi also admitted, “I’m not sure I know what these pictures mean.”
Arthus-Bertrand is no apologist for globalization, but he gets around more than Gursky, whose travels are mostly enabled by his art-world celebrity while Arthus-Bertrand gets grants from UNESCO, Fuji Film, Air France, and Eurocopter. In his book Earth From Above he captions an Edenic vista of Amazonian marshes with “Globalization comprises not only the unconstrained flow of industrial products and capital, but also the impact of the dominant economy on every square meter of the earth’s surface, no matter how remote, inaccessible, and apparently wild.” B-52 Bombers at Davis-Monthan Air Force Base Near Tucson–which is as neat a product display as Gursky’s study of the Nikes–comes with a caption telling of the role B-52s played in the Vietnam, gulf, Balkan, and Afghan wars. “This war plane symbolizes the might of the world’s stongest military power….However, military power is just one of the many facets of the American model which from trade to culture, is spreading throughout the planet.” Arthus-Bertrand also points fingers in his book: “The three richest families in the world have a fortune greater than the total gross domestic product of the 48 poorest developing nations.” Although he must use some diplomacy to ensure continued access to international airspaces, he recently donated 75 of his photos to an issue of For Press Freedom to raise funds for the international press-rights organization Reporters Without Borders.
Arthus-Bertrand’s love-the-earth ideology is as up-front as Gursky’s hyperreal imagery is oblique. “Things will change if we want them to change,” the sunglassed Frenchman pronounced as television crews followed him around on a hot June morning. “We have to blame us. It’s nobody else.” For Arthus-Bertrand, pretty pictures of nature are just leverage for ingesting his weighty captions. Gursky, the cool German mechanic wearing nice Nikes, enshrines our culture and lets us choose between idolatry and iconoclasm.
caption accompanying “Patchwork of Carpets in Marrakech, Morrocco” by Yann Arthus-Bertrand:
In addition to the countries of central Asia and certain countries in South America, major centers of carpet producton are found in nothern Africa (Algeria, Egypt, Tunisia and Morocco.) Morocco has succeeded in maintaining a tradition of manufacture within family units and cooperative craft workshops, although most production is now automated. Carpets are traditionally woven of linen, a symbol of protection and happiness, with silk, cotton, and sometimes camel or goat hair. The colors and designs are characteristic of the production regions, and the High Atlas Mountains, where Marrakech is located, offers the warmest hues, mainly red, orange and yellow. Ninety percent of the High Atlas carpets are created in the cities of Tazenakht and Amerzgane, primarily by women workers. The Moroccan carpet, once reserved entirely for domestic local use, has gained worldwide reputation and enjoys a flourishing export trade.