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by Donald Kuspit
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The notion of primordial waters and of an ocean from which all things began is virtually universal. It is to be found in Polynesia, and the peoples of Southern Asia localize cosmic power in water.

-- The Penguin Dictionary of Symbols

Water, you are the ones who bring us the life force. Help us to find nourishment so that we may look upon great joy. . . . Waters yield your cure as an armor for my body, so that I may see the sun for a long time. Waters carry away all of this that has gone bad in me.

-- Rig-Veda

The element of water assumed an awesome potency in Leonardo’s thought. It combined both mobility and heaviness, unlike buoyant fire, light air and inert earth. It was the supremely dynamic element. . . . On one occasion he attempted to formulate a descriptive vocabulary of water movements, but his classification was rapidly inundated by a surging cascade of categories: ‘Rebound, circulation, revolution, rotation, turning, repercussing, submerging, surging, declination, elevation, depression, consummation, percussion, destruction. . .’ and so it goes on until the impetus of his thought has consumed itself -- but not before 64 terms have poured forth.

-- Martin Kemp, Leonardo da Vinci:
 The Marvellous Works of Nature and Man(1)

Oceanic feeling: a term employed for a sense of expansion of the self beyond its customary temporal-spatial limits, leading to a feeling of merger with the universe at large. The feeling is believed to recall very early infantile states of being where all experience of time and space is coextensive with the subject’s ego. Hence, in adult life, the experience of oceanic feeling is considered a regressive phenomenon. Oneness of the self and its object world is regarded as a narcissistic illusion underneath which lurks split-off hostile destructiveness. Less comfortable to the Western mind is the possibility that recapturing the infantile bliss of oneness with the universe might be a positive and transcendental occurrence. It should be remembered that Sigmund Freud was introduced to the concept by Romain Rolland, the French biographer of Bengali mystics Sri Rama Krishna Paramhansa and Swami Viveakanada.

-- Salman Akhtar, Comprehensive
Dictionary of Psychoanalysis(2)

Does one get an oceanic feeling looking at Andreas Gursky’s photo-shopped images of Oceans (2009-10), C-prints sourced from satellite viewings of the earth, or his “hand-made” photographs, taken one year later, of the Chao Phraya River that flows through Bangkok, emptying into the Gulf of Thailand? I don’t think so. Or, rather, one gets a sort of negative oceanic feeling -- an insidious feeling of despair suggesting the split-off destructiveness under the narcissistic illusion that is the oceanic feeling. The waters look black and bleak, all but overwhelming the earth-colored terrain -- it seems desolate -- of the islands that appear in it. Even the rugged whiteness -- the stark raw light -- of the continent of Antarctic (2010), does nothing to alleviate the aura of bleakness, not to say isolation. Seen from outer space, it’s hard to bond with Mother Earth, to fantasize oneself back in the liquid of the womb, which one “mystically” experiences as “limitless, boundless, oceanic” space (since it’s the only space one then exists in, and the space in which one was created, the space in which one began one’s life), and as such the source of what Romain Rolland called the “sensation of ‘eternity’” implicit in oceanic feeling.

In Gursky’s space one is too far from the earth to blissfully bond with it, too far from the ocean and the river -- which occupies the whole frame of the picture, in effect turning it into a limitless ocean -- to intimately engage them. Gursky never falls from his perch in the sky, suggesting that he thinks he’s a sort of god; if he did he would die and drown, or else freeze to death, like a mere mortal. He’s always above the scene -- perversely panoramic by reason of the absurd distance from which it is viewed -- however much his perspective on it may seem to suddenly change, as it does in the river photographs. We have a sort of double perspective, making for a distorting mirror effect -- a sense of space being manipulated for ironical effect. The pieces of debris floating in the river are described down to last precise detail, as though Gursky wanted to preserve the memory of each one, as though it was a very particular, precious museum piece that moved him deeply and that he had to see close-up, while the river remains peculiarly “unmoved” however moving, strangely distant and estranging however near-by.

(I am suggesting that Gursky has a sort of Mannerist-Surrealist sensibility, however manqué. His scenes seem more designed than spontaneously seen, technocratic ingenuity creating the illusion of aesthetic genius, however ironically abstract his works are, to the extent that many have an uncanny resemblance to Clyfford Still’s flat paintings, with their rugged “Grand Canyon”-like look -- wide open, seemingly endless, raw nature, with its rough and rolling surfaces, cracks and crevasses marking its space. It is as though both Still and Gursky were taking a hint from Gertrude Stein, who said she finally understood Picasso’s planar Cubism when she saw the earth from an airplane. I also think that Gursky has a sort of pre-Socratic conception of the primordial, “elemental” universe, as his focus on the elements -- the element of air, in the form of wispy clouds, as well as the elements of earth and water, in various states [thus the ice of the Antarctic] -- suggests.)

There are no human beings in Gursky’s images, only their remains, in the form of the objects floating in the river -- floating towards the ocean, where they will return to “the primal, undifferentiated state of primeval formlessness,” which is what the ocean traditionally symbolizes. “Sea symbolism is [also] linked with that of water in the context of the origin of all life . . . . In sum, the sea is a symbol of the dynamism of life. Everything comes from the sea and returns to it. It is a place of birth, transformation and rebirth. With its tides, the sea symbolizes a transitory condition between shapeless potential and formal reality, an ambivalent situation of uncertainty, doubt and indecision which can end well or ill. Hence the sea is an image simultaneously of death and of life.”

More death than life in Gursky’s imagery: his sea is dead -- as cold as death as the Antarctica image makes clear. His water lacks “the dynamic potency” water had for da Vinci; it looks sluggish and undifferentiated compared to da Vinci’s water, with its sixty-four different, if intricately related, qualities. Gursky is not the greater observer of water that Gursky is.

Looking into its blackness we are looking into an abyss. That is part of Gursky’s environmental message: the ocean has become polluted, perhaps irreversibly. Life originated in the ocean, but in Gursky’s imagery it seems to have lost its generative power: no new life will evolve in it. If it does, it will not have much of a foothold on the earth, which seems incidental and peripheral in Gursky’s ocean pictures. They are implicitly apocalyptic, and his river pictures are explicitly apocalyptic. However true to modern times, and topical by way of their technology -- for life on earth is threatened, and nature has been said to be dying, losing its biodiversity (there is no biological life in Gursky’s pictures), and we live in a technological society, a society in which machines seem to matter more than human beings (death-dealing drones depends on the all-seeing camera’s indifferent eye to carry out their missions) -- Gursky’s pictures have a peculiarly Germanic character. How can one look at their blackness and not think of the blackness surrounding the crucified Christ in Grünewald’s Isenheim Altarpiece (1506-1515)?

In NASA’s famous photograph of “the earth from space,” the earth appears fecund and alive, colorful and dynamic. The blue oceans are veiled by swirling clouds, and the earth is passionate red. Gursky’s oceans look sterile, blank, and static in comparison. We can bond with NASA’s earth, which truly seems like a warm, spirited, mother, while it is impossible to feel any bond with Gursky’s cold, dispirited ocean and harsh earth -- the dregs of a ruined earth. Explaining oceanic feeling, which affords a sense of “bond[ing] with the universe,” Freud wrote that it was the “primary ego-feeling” or “primitive pleasure-ego” of infancy, in contrast to the “narrower and more sharply demarcated ego-feeling of maturity” that comes with the “recognition of an ‘outside,’ . . . a strange and threatening outside” that is often a “source of unpleasure.”(3)

It brings with it a feeling of separateness and, sometimes, carried to an extreme, isolation and alienation. Psychoanalysts tell us that we all suffer from separation anxiety, that in psychic fact it is the primary anxiety -- that separation from the mother is the most difficult developmental task, all the more so because it involves recognizing that she’s outside us however much she may emotionally remain inside us -- and that unless we do so we cannot come into our own, however limited rather than boundless the ego-feeling we are left with.

Gursky seems to have a wide-eyed camera lens, but the visual world it brings into consciousness is rather narrowly conceived: the paradox or irony of his work is that it looks at a very particular subject matter -- the ocean -- from a seemingly universal point of view. Thus his photographs are doubly deceptive: the ocean is not limitless, but bound or limited by the land, and the satellite point of view is not limitless, but bound or limited by its position -- and what it happens to be seeing at a certain, deceptively fixed moment in its rapid movement around the earth. I suggest that Gursky is suffering from separation anxiety from the ocean in which life originated -- more broadly from nature -- which is why his ocean seems lifeless, as nature as a whole is no doubt becoming. It can no longer be romanticized as Mother Nature, which is part of the inhuman point of Gursky’s photographs. They are about failed mysticism -- mysticism defeated by a brutally stark reality. Water has gone bad: it no longer has the healing magic -- the spiritual power -- the Rig-Veda ascribed to it.

“Andreas Gursky,” Nov. 4-Dec. 17, 2011, Gagosian Gallery, 522 West 21st Street, New York, N.Y. 10011.


DONALD KUSPIT is distinguished professor emeritus of art history and philosophy at SUNY Stony Brook and A.D. White professor at large at Cornell University.


(1) Martin Kemp, Leonardo da Vinci: The Marvellous Works of Nature and Man (Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 2007), 125

(2) Salman Akhtar, Comprehensive Dictionary of Psychoanalysis (London: Karnac, 2009), 195

(3) Sigmund Freud, “Civilization and Its Discontents” [1929], Standard Edition (London: Hogarth Press and the Institute of Psycho-Analysis, 1961), XXI, 66-67