Andreas Gursky is showing his series Ocean I-VI at Sprüth Magers Berlin right now. The images are large – all around 2.5-3.5 m x 3m+, and originated in the kinds of views on flight monitors that show whatever the plane is flying over. These are all images of the oceans, the land shows as busy little fragments around the edge: peripheral and of no great mystery compared to the seas which show as deep and silent.
Gursky apprenticed with Bernd and Hilla Becher, and something of their stillness underlies all his work. While Ocean I-VI might look like straight satellite images, and indeed the bits of land are from satellite photos, the oceans themselves have been constructed. There are no clouds or storms, their proportions aren't geographically correct – they take cartographic licence as all maps do.
These pieces of water all have names, but Gursky has called them simply Ocean I, Ocean II; just as land doesn't have all the political and economic markings we understand as constituting land inscribed on its surface, neither do the oceans have pink dotted lines floating on them marking 250-miles limits, or large letters floating across them saying Pacific Ocean. Really, maps as we know them, are very crude.
Gursky has, for many years, done large photographs of large things: immaculate and perfectly regimented crowds in North Korea, flattened screens of social housing projects, any repetitive elements that are so vast in number that they become a kind of colour field, which of course is the thing that pulls him away from the often near-identical photographs of Ed Burtynsky. Repetition and the small shifts in detail in like objects were at the core of the Becher's work: I doubt they were wildly interested in water towers although they photographed hundreds of them. Their project was photographic, setting the camera in a precise and repetitive relationship with the subject, removing all the seductive elements the camera so easily exploits: colour, sun and shade, fast-frame capture of birds, wind, people.
Much is written about Gursky's work as a critique of capitalism: here are capitalism's excesses, with Burtynsky, Gursky and Polidori as a club going about documenting all its evils. I'm not sure this is quite how it is, or all that it is. There is a photographic project here, rather than a documentary project. Oceans I-VI is not documentary, it is a construction of a mystery, of inaccessibility, of understanding something one can only see in the abstract; the near-impossibility of clicking out of the abstract into some sort of existential, phenomenological present, which can only be found at the scale of standing with one's feet in the water at Departure Bay and thinking 'this water goes to Japan'.