Gursky, Iron Man and the franchising of low culture by high culture

By CG / On

Andreas Gursky’s recent work on symptoms of globalisation, which has addressed F1 Racing, global fashion brands or high-rises in the United Arab Emirates, takes on an interesting turn with his recent interests in Marvel’s superheroes. In 2013 and 2014, the German photographer has created two of his signature digital tableaus, using as main characters of his large scale photographs, Iron Man and Super Man, in seemingly everyday situations. The images have been exhibited in the summer 2014 in the White Cube Gallery in London and in the Andreas Gursky, Jeff Wall, Neo Rauch show at the Kestnergesellschaft Gallery in Hanover, and are published in the Verlag für moderne Kunst catalogue of the Hanover show. I’m not so much concerned by the shows themselves (review of the London show for example on http://www.independent.co.uk), but by the diffusion on the web of the superhero images, more connected to the issues addressed by this blog. 

Reproduction of Andreas Gursky, SH I, 2013, 307 x 229 x 6.2 cm, taken from Heinrich Dietz & Veit Görner (ed.), « Gursky, Rauch, Wall », Verlag für moderne Kunst, Nürnberg, 2014

As an Art Newspaper article from 28 May 2015 reveals, documents from the Sony leak disclosed negotiations of Gagosian Gallery on behalf of Gursky, in order to secure the rights to use Marvel characters, such as Spiderman, Superman and Iron Man (details of the transaction here). As a consequence of these negotiations, it was forbidden to take pictures in both shows, which resulted in a very scarce presence of the photographs on the web. A quick Google image research only yielded one result of a partial shot of one of the images, published in an article about the Sony/Gagosian tractations on bleeding cool.com. While the « low » culture image of Marvel comics is familiar nowadays through a multitude of films, TV series, toys and merchandising, the « high » culture image is protected and hidden as if – once again – mechanical reproduction would fragilise the aura of the artwork. The question of widespread and often automatic diffusion of images throughout networks, often addressed in this blog, is here countered by legal considerations, which reveal an interesting shift in uses of images with similar source material, but which enter different contexts – and show the role of individuals and institutions, which control a seemingly automatic or autonomous diffusion.  

Promotional image for Iron Man 3, Marvel Studios, 2013
Promotional image for Iron Man 3, Marvel Studios, 2013, used by Andreas Gursky for SH I, 2013

 If Gursky has always produced images based on source images (rather than depicted « reality »)1, it is interesting to note that not only he here appropriates pre-existing material, which he has never done before (I think), but also explicitly addresses a fictional universe, aspect he has only hinted at in the past. Clearly, Gursky’s appropriative approach is reflexive and confronts what we could call the franchised image – it remains open to discussion if such a picturesque strategy participates in or comments such extended visual and narrative universes2.   

Reproduction of Andreas Gursky, SH IV, 2014, 307 x 226 x 6.2 cm, taken from Heinrich Dietz & Veit Görner (ed.), « Gursky, Rauch, Wall », Verlag für moderne Kunst, Nürnberg, 2014

  1 About this aspect of his work see my PhD (sorry for quoting myself) From objectivist paradigm to new documentary forms. digital technologies in the work of Thomas Ruff, Andreas Gursky and Jörg Sasse, University of Lausanne, 2014 (see https://www.swissbib.ch)

2 About such « worlds in expansion » see especially Alain Boillat, « Star Wars », un monde en expansion, Les Collections de la Maison d’Ailleurs 3, ActuSF ; Maison d’Ailleurs, Chambéry ; Yverdon-les-Bains, 2014.

 

Andreas Gursky’s recent work on symptoms of globalisation, which has addressed F1 Racing, global fashion brands or high-rises in the United Arab Emirates, takes on an interesting turn with his recent interests in Marvel’s superheroes. In 2013 and 2014, the German photographer has created two of his signature digital tableaus, using as main characters of his large scale photographs, Iron Man and Super Man, in seemingly everyday situations. The images have been exhibited in the summer 2014 in the White Cube Gallery in London and in the Andreas Gursky, Jeff Wall, Neo Rauch show at the Kestnergesellschaft Gallery in Hanover, and are published in the Verlag für moderne Kunst catalogue of the Hanover show. I’m not so much concerned by the shows themselves (review of the London show for example on http://www.independent.co.uk), but by the diffusion on the web of the superhero images, more connected to the issues addressed by this blog. 

Reproduction of Andreas Gursky, SH I, 2013, 307 x 229 x 6.2 cm, taken from Heinrich Dietz & Veit Görner (ed.), « Gursky, Rauch, Wall », Verlag für moderne Kunst, Nürnberg, 2014

As an Art Newspaper article from 28 May 2015 reveals, documents from the Sony leak disclosed negotiations of Gagosian Gallery on behalf of Gursky, in order to secure the rights to use Marvel characters, such as Spiderman, Superman and Iron Man (details of the transaction here). As a consequence of these negotiations, it was forbidden to take pictures in both shows, which resulted in a very scarce presence of the photographs on the web. A quick Google image research only yielded one result of a partial shot of one of the images, published in an article about the Sony/Gagosian tractations on bleeding cool.com. While the « low » culture image of Marvel comics is familiar nowadays through a multitude of films, TV series, toys and merchandising, the « high » culture image is protected and hidden as if – once again – mechanical reproduction would fragilise the aura of the artwork. The question of widespread and often automatic diffusion of images throughout networks, often addressed in this blog, is here countered by legal considerations, which reveal an interesting shift in uses of images with similar source material, but which enter different contexts – and show the role of individuals and institutions, which control a seemingly automatic or autonomous diffusion. 

Promotional image for Iron Man 3, Marvel Studios, 2013
Promotional image for Iron Man 3, Marvel Studios, 2013, used by Andreas Gursky for SH I, 2013

If Gursky has always produced images based on source images (rather than depicted « reality »)1, it is interesting to note that not only he here appropriates pre-existing material, which he has never done before (I think), but also explicitly addresses a fictional universe, aspect he has only hinted at in the past. Clearly, Gursky’s appropriative approach is reflexive and confronts what we could call the franchised image – it remains open to discussion if such a picturesque strategy participates in or comments such extended visual and narrative universes2.   

Reproduction of Andreas Gursky, SH IV, 2014, 307 x 226 x 6.2 cm, taken from Heinrich Dietz & Veit Görner (ed.), « Gursky, Rauch, Wall », Verlag für moderne Kunst, Nürnberg, 2014

 

 1 About this aspect of his work see my PhD (sorry for quoting myself) From objectivist paradigm to new documentary forms. digital technologies in the work of Thomas Ruff, Andreas Gursky and Jörg Sasse, University of Lausanne, 2014 (see https://www.swissbib.ch)

2 About such « worlds in expansion » see especially Alain Boillat, « Star Wars », un monde en expansion, Les Collections de la Maison d’Ailleurs 3, ActuSF ; Maison d’Ailleurs, Chambéry ; Yverdon-les-Bains, 2014.