'Andreas Gursky's best pictures of the past decade knock your socks off, and they're meant to. They're big, bold, full of color, and full of surprises. As each delivers its punch, the viewer is already wondering where it came from-and will continue to enjoy the seduction of surprise long after scrutinizing the picture in detail'
(P. Galassi, Andreas Gursky, New York, 2001, p. 9).
Glowing with a warm ethereal beauty, the simplicity and enigmatic composition in Andreas Gursky's Prada II induces an almost spiritual sense of calm and contemplation in those who stand before it. Yet this palpable sense of wonderment is accompanied by an unassailable intellectual curiosity as the mind tries to decode the sparseness of a composition devoid of people or products. The strict geometry, sanctified lighting and hallowed atmosphere clearly has its roots in the art historical traditions of minimalism and conceptualism, yet the sparse interior of the eponymous luxury goods store also prompts questions about the role of commerce and globalisation in modern society. Tackling complex and challenging issues in this way confirms Gursky as the pre-eminent contemporary photographer of the modern world.
Part of his iconic Prada series, the gleaming white shelves of the luxury boutique are almost sculptural in the purity of their form. Unlike his iconic 99 cent, whose shelves groan under the weight of cheap mass-produced goods, the empty and vacant shelves of Prada II celebrate the pared-down aesthetic of the Church of luxury goods consumerism. In our modern twenty-first century society shopping has become the religion we all follow. Instead of the spiritual guidance of the Church and Temple or the cultural enlightenment of museums, the high-class shopping districts of the world have become the new places of pilgrimage. As part of this process the likes of Prada and Louis Vuitton have adapted the presentation style of museums to display their consumables as the new icons of the modern age. In Prada II Gursky is returning their 'museum-style' presentation back to the artistic domain and in the process restoring art's rightful place in society and giving it the ultimate seal of approval.
Despite the resolutely contemporary setting, underlying Gursky's strict geometry is a deep appreciation of art historical narratives. Traces of the American painter Barnett Newman's naked embodiment of the absolute are clearly visible, as are the essence of Donald Judd's Stacks which redefined notions of space using the materials of commerce and industry. Prada II even recalls the strict horizontality of Andy Warhol's own act of worship at the altar of consumerism, his 32 Campbell's Soup Cans which launched him to Pop superstardom when they were first exhibited in 1962. Gursky's takes these traditions and reinvents them further in the light of the purity of his own aesthetic, "God and Mammon are discovered to have used the same geometric template, both creators simultaneously inciting us to wonderment and excluding us utterly from their realms of protection" (P. Galassi, 'Gursky's World, Andreas Gursky, New York, 2001, p. 35).
The rigid regularity and formality of this display is heightened by Gursky's frontal perspective; the present work eschews the almost bird's eye view he uses for some of his motifs, yet the nature of the interior shot means that the subject nonetheless fills the entirety of the picture surface. Gursky has accentuated the formality of this display through digital means as well, extending the shelves in order to increase the emphasis upon the composition's horizontality. This work dates from a period during which Gursky was increasingly relying on digital interventions in order not only to sharpen, but also to manipulate, his images. At the same time, he has deliberately undermined what used to be assumed: the veracity of photography. Gursky, in undermining the credibility of his own medium of choice, has also opened up whole new plateaux of representation, granting himself free rein to add a hint of subjectivity to his depictions of the hidden orders of everyday life.
Andreas Gursky is one of the first truly international contemporary photographers. From New York to Hong Kong, Cairo to Brasilia and Chicago to Dubai, Gurksy has chronicled the rapidly changing face of the globe through the lens of his camera, "Local sites of Sunday leisure have been replaced by enormous industrial plants, apartment buildings, hotels, office buildings, and warehouses. Family outings and small-gauge-tourism have given way to the Olympics, a cross-country marathon involving hundreds of skiers, the German parliament, a boxing championship in a vast arena, and midnight techno raves attended by casts of thousands. Gursky's world of the 1990s is big. High-tech, fast-paced, expensive, and global. Within it the anonymous individual is but one among many. (P. Galassi, Gursky's World, Andreas Gursky, New York, 2001, p. 29). This international perspective is what helps make his Prada series so successful, as thanks to globalisation these luxury boutiques are now commonplace in major cities around the globe. From the glittering streets of Shanghai to boutiques of New York's Madison Avenue, the 'identikit' interiors, as viewed through Gursky's lens, become as much the global symbols of brand identity as the goods that they contain.
Prada II clearly demonstrates Gursky's ability to create such a commanding and engaging image with the minimum of detail and stands as testament to his skill as a photographer. Within the confines of this seemingly simple image he manages to meld technical skill with a powerful examination of forces of globalisation across the globe. The size and scale of this work, when combined with architectural motifs of this particular image, does more than most to meld together the medium of photography and sculpture and buried within it is the idea that the high priests of fashion have, without any product, created a temple of ravishing beauty and desire. SJ