|People at the exhibition|
Art is at least as much about what's left out as what's included. A sketch of someone can be all the more moving for excluding their surroundings; a photograph can highlight neglected details by zooming in on parts of a whole.
This also mirrors how the human eye and mind work. Our eyes can focus on only one small area at once, while our brain generally limits our attention to what matters most at any given moment, filtering out the rest.
But this is not how the world really is, and that's part of the point of the Andreas Gursky works currently on display at London's Hayward Gallery.
Many of Gursky's works are very large, and depict monumental scenes of people interacting with their environment on an epic scale.
More than that, he uses post-production techniques to splice together multiple images of the same scene, so that he can capture and reproduce more of it - and all with the same sharpness of focus, rather than with any blurring, curving or fading away at the edges.
This is not how we perceive the world, and yet it represents the world as it really is. Objects we aren't focusing on at any given time don't really become blurry, just as background noise doesn't really reduce in volume as we eavesdrop on a particular conversation - it only seems that way to us. In reality these things carry on as before, just as big or small, just as important or unimportant, regardless of who's looking.
Similarly, the things that seem monumental to us are actually hardly any more or less so than the things that seem inconsequential. The different threads in a carpet, as depicted abstractly in one Gursky photograph, are barely any different in size to the glacier and mountains depicted in another if considered on the scale of subatomic particles or the distances between galaxies.
Even when Gursky takes more egregious artistic liberties, such as when he manipulates the capture of two Formula 1 pit crews to make the team members more multitudinous and their exertions seem simultaneous with each other, he gets closer to the real truth by doing so. A single snapshot of a pit stop wouldn't convey the frantic speed of the action or the competitive importance of it as brilliantly as the hyperreal, toyed-with version.
In collapsing several moments and perspectives into a single work, like David Hockney did with his Polaroid collages, Gursky gets closer to the reality of multidimensional spacetime.
Not that Gursky always wants to portray everything as it really exists in the world. His depiction of the Bahrain grand prix circuit chops the track up into multiple kaleidoscopic pieces that lead to nowhere, while the one of the pit crews intensely isolates the cars and people in a sea of black space like a computer game emphasising a highlighted character or object selection from an array of options.
But even here one could argue that Gursky is getting closer to the truth. Even if, in the real world, photons fall from the sun onto surfaces at the same rate regardless of what those surfaces are made of or how they got there, likewise raindrops and wind, and even if all materials are ultimately made up of the same subatomic stuff, the deeper truth is that some things are different by virtue of their origin or emotional resonances. A Formula 1 car is different to a mountain because of the thousands of hours of human effort and ingenuity that have gone into its design and manufacture, while a tarmac loop in the desert deserves attention for the sheer absurdity of its having been forced into being.
Gursky somehow captures that. One of the many things he does with his pieces - as well as documenting the interplay and mutual impacts of people and the environment - is make us think differently about the world and our place in it. And that, again, is what art - some great art, if not all - is about.