Vast and absorptive, Andreas Gursky's Chicago Board of Trade, is densely packed with crystallised details, yet these kaleidoscopic elements cohere, when seen from this god-like vantage-point, into a glorious, transcendent unified whole. Gursky has revelled in expressing the abstract qualities of both the overarching structure of the Chicago Board of Trade - since its 2007 merger renamed the Chicago Mercantile Exchange - and of the teeming maelstrom of activity in the legendary "Pit," where the traders in their colored jackets are frantically carrying out their transactions. As in all of Gursky's greatest works, Chicago Board of Trade creates an intriguing synthesis between the macro and the micro scales: we can see each face, each movement, each moment preserved in this photograph, order seemingly emerging from chaos. Gursky, watching over this scene from an almost scientific perspective, as though his raised viewpoint has allowed him to see it all unfurl before him, has immortalized and even celebrated the people and the mass to which they belong, capturing fleeting beauty as glimpsed at the heart of the hustle and bustle of contemporary, capitalist life.
Every iota of action in Chicago Board of Trade looms into focus on closer inspection, granting the whole an epic quality. Like the history paintings of yore, his picture represents the grandiose struggles, the legendary battles, that take place every working day at the heart of contemporary commerce. In a topical reflection of the world today, Gursky also reveals the frailty of the miniscule figures who occupy that realm: these individuals, players in this vast arena, appear all the more mortal and vulnerable within the monumental architectonic space that they here occupy. Gursky presents them as a natural phenomenon: they become substitutes for the fallible, interchangeable bit-players who have borne witness to the financial crises of so many eras, from the South Sea Bubble to the Great Depression to the so-called Great Recession of today. In Chicago Board of Trade, then, Gursky provides a memento mori for wealth, a cautionary tale, yet one that cannot help but inspire wonder at both its abstract beauty and the human endeavour in scintillating evidence.
Chicago Board of Trade is an all-too-topical reminder of the virtual insanity and mayhem at the heart of so many of the financial institutions of the United States and, indeed, the world. Bear Stearns, Lehman Brothers and the sub-prime crisis in general have lent Gursky's work a piquant, new historical relevance. Yet it is a tale, a cycle, that has repeated itself with stubborn regularity throughout history, even during the last few decades. Gursky had already become increasingly fascinated by the contemporary workplace as subject matter during the 1980s. Then, on the occasion of his participation in an exhibition in Tokyo's National Museum of Modern Art in 1990, he began to contemplate visiting the Japanese capital; seeing an image of its stock exchange in the media, he realised its potency as a subject. It was all the more fascinating because the group exhibition took place towards the end of that year, just as the incredible value of the Tokyo Stock Exchange began its descent and the bubble of the Japanese economy burst. This, then, was a profoundly current subject, selected in part for its visual impact as perceived by Gursky in the media and partly as the perfect embodiment of the pitfalls of capitalism, a subject of which he was well aware, having grown up in post-War Germany and been acquainted with the work of Joseph Beuys, Gerhard Richter and his "Capitalist Realism."
While Gursky's pictures often explore the abstract appearance of human endeavour and of mankind when seen from a distance, Chicago Board of Trade and its sister stock exchange images also explore the dangerous levels of abstraction inherent in valuing and in trading any commodity. Looking at this picture in 2010, we are intensely aware that history has repeated itself, making Gursky's implicit yet inscrutable critique all the more pertinent: financial systems have become all too topical over the last couple of years, as the abstract and mysterious foundations of these institutions, the formulae by which assets and debt were calculated and exchanged, came tumbling down. Viewed with the benefit of hindsight, Chicago Board of Trade is a searing, prophetic vision of the insane and irrational hurly-burly that underpinned and subsequently undermined so much of the globe's finances.
Gursky's own perspective may have cynical aspects, but is neither simply nor overtly critical. Gursky himself was brought up as the son of commercial photographers, and later was involved in advertising; even his photographs of modern workplaces had begun as part of a commission which he then expanded under his own impetus. That commission, and then his increasing reputation, allowed him to benefit from access to restricted areas, to reveal the beauty in arcane corners of human interaction such as the Chicago Board of Trade or Tokyo Stock Exchange which were hitherto almost unknown to the public. Gursky has himself long explored the boundaries that have divided the world of art from that of commerce. His choice of medium, photography, was in itself a challenge to the usual hierarchies when he began creating his works, and he compounded this by taking everyday, urban and financial subjects as his inspiration, transforming them into something that has the grandeur of an Italian church ceiling yet is emphatically rooted in corners of contemporary existence which are not usually associated with beauty.
The deliberately aloof angle from which Gursky inspects the world allows him to view human activities and constructions - be it in the form of hotels, supermarkets, factories or stock exchanges - in bulk and from afar. It thus clearly recalls the objectivity espoused by his mentors, Bernd and Hilla Becher, yet Gursky introduced several vital new factors to their example: a love of color, the sense of chaotic movement and the overwhelming scale, all of which are evident in Chicago Board of Trade. Here, the building itself, the structure with the screens and windows are all factors that recall the Bechers. However, Gursky has lavishly presented the flecks of red, yellow, green, blue and white of the traders' clothes within a heaving morass of organic life, a vivid contrast to his teacher's sequential chronicling of industrial architecture and engineering. Even the computers and sheets of paper in the lower sections of the picture, though divided in a semi-formal manner, speak of chaos, scattered as they are like confetti throughout the space. This adds an effervescence, a highly appropriate sense of energy, to Chicago Board of Trade, and this is accentuated by the glowing screens embedded within the fabric of the building itself. Contrasted with the work of the Bechers or indeed with Thomas Struth's 1992 image of the exterior of the Chicago Board of Trade, Gursky has clearly encapsulated humanity in terms of constructions and of actions. Despite the seemingly inscrutable, almost scientific perspective that he has adopted looking down upon this mass, he has granted it an intriguing poignancy and poetry.