Christie’s Sells a Great, Big Gursky
A post-Unsensored11 lament
As the UK’s Guardian newspaper reported in November 2011, “a sludgy image of the grey Rhine under grey skies” sold at auction in New York for $4,338,500 (including buyer’s premium). This sale of Andreas Gursky’s Rhein II makes it the world’s most expensive photograph, surpassing the previous record holder, Cindy Sherman’s self-portrait Untitled #96, which sold at Christie’s earlier in 2011 for $3,890,500. For your common or garden-variety photographer, attaching such extraordinary monetary value to these photographs seems a little absurd. In fact, many garden-variety photographers will shake their head, cry silently into their respective caffeinated beverage(s) and hope that one day they will sell a print to someone who is not a family member. Alas we’re not at the Collingwood Gallery any more, Toto – this is the global contemporary art scene and it’s a $12 million stuffed shark none of us can possibly hope to understand.
Back to the $12 million stuffed shark shortly, but if I can remain on the topic of Herr Gursky for a minute. It is a sad fact that much of today’s photography, whether it be the pouting-young-people-these-days on Facebook or the more earnest portfolios of wannabe artists, is mediated almost exclusively through the backlit pixels of a computer monitor. Fewer photographers, from enthusiasts to family happy-snappers, are experiencing their photography through the joy of a physical print. Instead, photographic ubiquity means the posting of endless streams of unedited digital images straight to “social media” with a sameness that would make Hans Zimmer blush. This is not an argument by an anachronistic film user against digital populism, but is rather a statement of fact.
In the realm of the Internet, technical debates on the merits of cameras and lenses are played out through “100% crops”, where a handful of the 12 million or more pixels that make up an image are used to prove once and for all that the latest X-550D is in fact superior to the Y-550C – check it out for yourself – but I digress. The omniscience of the Internet (and “expert” photographers therein) has led to much armchair criticism over the price paid for Herr Gursky’s Rhein II. How could this sad, grey picture be worth anything, let alone $4 million? Uncle Bob’s 24x superzoom could surely take a far better picture (and he’d only charge $10 for it). But then again, how many of these “experts” has ever actually seen a Gursky? Also a valid question is “when was the last time they had a shower?”, although that bares little direct relevance to the topic at hand.
These Internet-dwelling print virgins would be in for a shock should they ever venture outside. They would have an even greater shock if they ventured to the nearest gallery with a Gursky. Indeed, after adjusting to the harsh daylight, some would have to first go to the airport to catch a plane to a city with a gallery that housed a Gursky, but for the sake of brevity (something again lacking on the Internet), let’s say we’re at the Pinakothek der Moderne in Munich. Upon entering, our Internet-dweller may come across an image dominating an entire wall: a 12-foot wide print of Rhein II, one of only three remaining in public hands. The memory of that sludgy brown thumbnail with JPEG compression artefacts would vanish before the vibrancy and clarity of a formidable photographic print. Concepts of “lines-per-millimetre”, mega pixels and sharpness would be rendered inconsequential in the presence of such a work. The seeming mediocrity of Gursky’s image at 72ppi in a Firefox window would be supplanted by the exquisite detail of every element of the photograph, from its control of colour and contrast to the fine structure of its grain. Like the rest of Gursky’s oeuvre, Rhein II is a masterpiece by a master photographer, but more than that, it is a technical marvel printed by the best photographic craftsmen in the world. Naturally, not all find Gursky’s works exhilarating. Some find them impersonal and alienating, but that is the nature of art. Whatever your opinion, however, surely it is the work itself that must be judged, rather than an inferior re-mediated representation. Please exit through the gift shop.
Now that our armchair experts are safely back indoors, tenderly stroking their f/2.8 zooms (the VRII, not the VR1, as the VR1 had known issues with vignetting on full-frame bodies) whilst patrolling the frontier forums of dpreview, it is time we return to the $12 million stuffed shark. This is the title of a book by Don Thompson on the economics of contemporary art. Indeed it is so named because a decaying stuffed shark carcass apparently sold for $12 million (piece specifications: Tiger shark, glass, steel, 5% formaldehyde solution). Art? Some investment banker thought so. Such extraordinary prices for rotting sea creatures, according to Thompson, can be explained thusly: there is a scarcity of “traditional” art on the global market, i.e. that which is universally and uncontroversially defined as art, including works by the Impressionists, the Old Masters et al. These will rarely be seen on the open market again with the majority of “traditional” works owned by public galleries and those in private hands likely to be donated to public galleries in the future. With no classics to buy, the ever growing wealthy of the world (in Asia especially) ascribe value to what the garden-variety human would be unlikely to consider art (including obscenely-priced rotting sea creatures). Include in this equation the “celebrity” art collecting/commissioning power of Charles Saatchi types and you’ve got yourself one odd-looking global art market. This is not to say contemporary art is all hokum, but it is to say its value is ascribed differently in this esoteric market. It is unlikely future humanity will remember the $12 million stuffed shark as fondly as we do the works of Picasso, Rembrandt or Botticelli (if not for any other reason than its natural decomposition), but there is surely a better chance that photography, as the 20th century’s primary medium of record, will be more appreciated as art and as fact in the centuries to come. The greatest concern photography itself faces into the future is its own preservation. Prints and negatives – both physical objects – are subject to the march of time. Sure, Kodakchrome transparencies may look as vibrant as the day you took them, but they won’t survive like stone tablets. They are, at least, a physical record that requires no other technology to interpret or view them. Digital imaging, on the other hand, is merely a collection of bits and bytes on a storage medium. They require often complex devices to view and interpret their data, devices which are subject to the commercial whims of large companies. Retrieving files from a hard drive in a decade’s time won’t be as easy a task as holding a Kodakchrome slide up to the window. Now, where did I place my Zip drive? What’s my MySpace password again??
But back to the topic at hand:
Is Gursky’s image worth it? Probably. Possibly. All I know is that I will not ever be in a position to make that financial decision. Also, my walls are far too small, unless I can justify $4 million worth of photographic wallpaper. Either way, I think Uncle Bob is on to something. I’m off to buy his old negs at a garage sale, scan them and make one-off prints. See you at Christie’s, losers!
Christie’s listing for Rhein II (With audio description!)