‘The camera’s enormous distance from these figures means they become de-individualized ... So I am never interested in the individual but in the human species and its environment’.
Stretching over five metres in width and two in height, Andreas Gursky’s May Day IV offers a vast, panoramic spectacle of humanity. Viewed from a staggering aerial vantage point, a sea of semi-clad revellers pulses to an unheard beat. Executed in 2000, it is the second from an edition of six photographs, examples of which are housed in the Kunstmuseum NRW, Düsseldorf, the Kistefos Museet, Oslo and the Castello di Rivoli, Turin. It was included in the artist’s 2001 touring exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art, New York – Gursky’s first American retrospective – where it featured on the front cover of the catalogue. Capturing a split-second of frenzied activity in intoxicating detail, the work is a consummate example of Gursky’s ability to distil the chaos of contemporary human experience into a single, crystalline image. Encapsulating the pace and mood of the German underground rave scene during a time of economic recession, it depicts the subversive, anti-establishment celebrations of May Day – one of the country’s most politically-charged holidays. The image fluctuates between crisp figuration and all-over abstraction: the outstretched arms and beaded brows of the festival-goers proliferate across the composition until they melt away into a morass of undulating shapes and colours. Multiple linear and chromatic narratives evolve, entangle and disintegrate across the picture plane, creating a polyphonic tapestry of order and discord. Replete with art-historical allusions – from the debauched revelries of Hieronymus Bosch, to the frenetic surfaces of Jackson Pollock and the cool detachment of Minimalism – the work demonstrates Gursky’s reinvention of the possibilities of photography. Placed in dialogue with strategies previously consigned to the realm of painting, it becomes a means of re-envisioning the arenas and structures that define our existence. Combining epic scale with vivid, enhanced pixilation, May Day IV transforms its everyday subject matter into a vision of sublimity and grandeur. Frozen in a state of rarefied ecstasy, the dancers seem impervious to the capitalist system crumbling around them. In Gursky’s hands, photography becomes a powerful conceptual medium, in which the complex narratives of globalisation are reduced to unique moments of transcendent visual clarity.
Gursky was originally taught by the celebrated photographic duo Bernd and Hilla Becher, who sought to document the industrial German landscape through a series of ‘typologies’. Whilst their encyclopaedic approach is reflected in Gursky’s thematic subject groups – stock exchanges, airports, factories, hotel lobbies, sporting events – his adoption of digital technology in 1993 allowed him to
depart from purely observational concerns. Merging and manipulating multiple different shots, his works play with radically intensified colour, overlapping perspectives and dramatically enlarged scale. As Peter Galassi explains, ‘Gursky begins with one or more conventional (chemical) negatives … the negative is scanned to produce a digital file that may be displayed on the computer monitor and revised at will – pixel by pixel if necessary. The file is then used to produce a new negative, which is printed conventionally, making use of the usual darkroom techniques to control contrast, colour balance and so forth. In other words Gursky’s method, like his art, is a merger between old technology and the new. That is precisely what the software was designed to achieve: a fluid continuity between the relatively young vocabulary of photographic description and the immemorial vocabulary of pictorial invention in all its variety’. In the same text – now sixteen years old – Galassi appraises Gursky’s method in uncannily prophetic terms: ‘The result may eventually be that, while adults of today will never shed the visceral notion that photographs belong to a distinct class of imagery, children born tomorrow may grow up in a world in which the flavour of photography is wholly integrated within an unbroken continuum of pictorial options’ (P. Galassi, ‘Gursky’s World’, in Andreas Gursky, exh. cat., Museum of Modern Art, New York, 2001, p. 39).
Gursky’s signature adoption of omnipotent, God-like vantage points bears witness to his fascination with the economical ordering of Minimalism. Viewed from an elevated perspective, his figures merge into vast, single organisms, marshalled by overarching patterns, geometries and structures. ‘The camera’s enormous distance from these figures means they become de-individualized’, he explains. ‘... So I am never interested in the individual but in the human species and its environment’ (A. Gursky quoted in V. Gomer, ‘I generally let things develop slowly’, partially reproduced at www.postmedia.net). In the present work, Gursky’s chaotic rabble is underpinned by a sense of all-encompassing, near-spiritual harmony. The heightened grain structure of the photographic surface amplifies the vibrant colours of the figures, generating a rich chromatic resonance across the swelling horizon. The dancers hold their hands outstretched in unison, as if in prayer to a higher being in the new cathedral of modern-day religion. Enraptured by the music, they are unified by a rhythmic synchronicity that pulses through the composition. The fragmented crowd becomes a composite, diversified single mass, alive with the flux, simultaneity and dynamism of global expansion. The seemingly objective medium of photography becomes a means of envisioning alternative, sublime states within the everyday constellation of our existence. In the hyper-real euphoria of May Day IV, we are brought face to face with an enhanced reflection of our own reality. ‘It is Gursky’s fiction’, writes Galassi, ‘but it is our world’ (P. Galassi, ‘Gursky’s World’, in Andreas Gursky, exh. cat., Museum of Modern Art, New York, 2001, p. 41).