ESSAY ON ROOMS
Gerhard Richter: Ein Saal und ein Kabinett für die Sammlung, Kunstmuseum Winterthur, 1998
Andreas Gursky: Photographs 1994-1998, Photomuseum Winterthur, 1998
Andreas Gursky, Kunstmuseum Basel, 2007-2008
I still remember how the room was hung:
the student nurses, black-and-white, adorned
the farthest wall but caught the entering eye
as much as the painted-over copies of Titian,
the 1,024 distinct squares
of color in the color field, the flat
expanse of an all-gray painting, or
the Technicolor smearings of abstraction
pursued in the vertical painting at the near end.
I'd gone to Winterthur to see that room,
so the impression that it made was partly
merely satisfying expectations.
But art remembered even ten years later
as vividly as victory or trauma
has done what it's supposed to do: become
experience, not opinion, an idea
that one has felt, a feeling one has thought.
There was a second room that day that did
the same, becoming vivid memory,
without anticipation as a factor.
In another museum, photographs:
a stock exchange, at the height of trading;
computer operators in their rows;
a night-time high-rise, so many windows lit;
a hotel's open, layered atrium;
a plain of snow in front of mountains, crossed
by Nordic skiers—escaping, I first thought,
from the everyday stress depicted in
all the other photographs. But later
I learned it was a skiing marathon,
a race that made the room into a place
with no way out, between the mass of skiers
and endless lines of sellers, terminals,
skyscraper windows, and hotel floors and doors.
The mass experience put into a room
for individuals to recognize.
It stuck with me for years, that room, a vision
of the world in which we've come to live.
Exaggerated, even simplified,
but brought down to the level of perception;
too general, abstract, but palpable,
returning as a feeling in the mind
in every place where rows and lines would form;
in airports and railway stations; on beaches and highways;
wherever I took a ticket to be served.
And now, a decade later, room after room
of photographs that have expanded with
the artist's stature—one room first and foremost:
a Grand Prix racetrack in the Bahrain desert,
seen from so high up the cars are lines
of brightness barely seen against the track;
the Tour de France, a climbing stage, the switchbacks
ascended by as many cars as bikes,
past the greetings painted on the road;
and "Cheops," nothing but stones so neatly stacked
three thousand years ago. If the skiers seemed
at first to be a way to get away
but then became one race among so many,
the pyramid seems at first anomalous,
a remnant from a time before races.
But history is no escape; the lines
constructed by the Pharaoh's slaves reveal
how long the races have been run already.
(And if I did not feel the same about
the other photos in the new exhibit?
They made me think about the spectacles
the artist chose to photograph—the pit stops;
the North Korean festival with endless rows
of gymnasts forming one enormous bouquet;
the artificial islands in Dubai
that you can buy if you can pay the price—
but all those thoughts were not the kind one feels,
which make a room into a memory.)