Infinitely extending lines

“For mathematicians, the parallel is defined by lines extending to infinity without intersecting. Gursky invites us to imagine that his lines not only go on forever, but that they are everywhere, underlying not only the disciplined orderings of culture but the unconscious life of nature. His parallels suggest a forever beyond the photograph, a forever of lines extending beyond the frames of each image and, more frighteningly, entirely beyond reason, representation, and calculation. Despite the formal harmonies of these photographs, then, Gursky’s infinitely extending lines evoke the sublime. Thus with their beauty comes a kind of terror…

“Of course, postmodernity has encountered and embraced the sublime before, as theorized in what are now its most classic articulations. Jean-François Lyotard famously pits the postmodern sublime against the eclecticism of “anything goes.” A genuine postmodernism, refusing to value art according to its profits, launches an enthusiastic defiance of conventional forms and expectations, the desire to “put forward… the unpresentable in presentation itself”. If for Lyotard this sublime can happen in Montaigne as well as in Mille Plateaux, Fredric Jameson argues for a sublime particular to the emergence of the vast, decentered complexity of multinational capitalism. Jameson’s sublime, like Lyotard’s, reveals the limits of figuration, but it results specifically from the attempt to grasp the “impossible totality of the contemporary world system”

While Lyotard’s sublime is evoked by unprofitable novelty and Jameson’s sublime emerges from the endless surfaces of a world overtaken by commodification, Andreas Gursky’s parallels seem to offer something older, something more metaphysical. In their extension from frame to frame the lines imply a constant, a depth beneath the surface, an underlying pattern or structure. As if Gursky was a faithful reader of Kant, his work appears to present something like an enactment of the Critique of Judgment: his lines offer a formal harmony and also, in their infinite extension, they rupture that harmony; they frame the world and they also break that frame. Thus unlike Jameson’s bewildering postmodern architecture, which dislocates and disorients, Gursky’s photographs embrace an order that is disordered only by the fact that the same forms eerily spread from one photograph to the next. In his allegiance to a venerable formalism, Gursky also seems to invoke an older philosophical paradigm. Indeed, his loving references to Romantic painters reinforce the notion of a sublime that belongs to the late eighteenth century. We see echoes of Caspar David Friedrich in “Seilbahn, Dolomiten” (1987), and we find J. M. W. Turner’s mysterious and illegible landscapes neatly framed by parallel lines in “Turner Collection” (1995)…”

Review of: Andreas Gursky. The Museum of Modern Art, New York. 4 March – 15 May 2001.
Peter Galassi. Andreas Gursky. New York: The Museum of Modern Art, 2001.

Image: Andreas Gursky, 99 Cent Store, 1999.

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