The Hayward Gallery was originally designed with 68 pyramidical roof lights, in 1968. Half a century on, the skylights that Henry Moore helped design are being restituted, replete with the mirrors that reflect the low southern arc of our London sun into the upper gallery.

The Catholic Herald witnessed the fabulous refurbishment on launch night. Sadly there was no refracted daylight, but there was lick of lacquer on the cement floor, and on display were the photographs of the German artist Andreas Gursky (until April 22). They are on a monumental scale, teeming with detail, homing in on the order and geometry that humans create around them, full of deadpan humour and a complex union of gigantism and seemingly nanoscopic detail. The Hayward has clearly designed this display as a homage to the Brutalism of the Southbank Centre (which was initially savaged by Daily Mail readers in 1968), and it works well. After the Hayward’s famous championing of sculpture in recent years, this is a pleasurable return to two dimensions.

One picture had me poring over the details – May Day V (2000), a photograph of Dutch revellers at an electronic music rave. We feel the switchbacking motion of crowd and imagine a mathematical formula to map it. There must be nearly a thousand revellers. At first we see how the crowd is more tight-knit at the top, and the spaces are more marked in the lower part of the frame, leading us to wonder if this has a relation to the character of the revellers – some repel neighbours, others actively seek confinement in a crowd. You then see the bottlenecks of scarier-looking revellers, or agglomerations of men in dark clothes surrounding a woman wearing a bikini top. The other more prevalent factor is the grotesque, bacchic variousness of it all – we think of Bruegel, or even Hieronymus Bosch, or any painter of the horror and curiosity of the market-square vices of village life.

In Maloja (1989), Gursky depicts a mountain. In the foreground, as consequential as their smallness will allow them to be, are a group of hikers sitting down. Gursky admirers say that the profound disconnect between “fresh-air lovers” and nature is what he achieves here. What I found amazing was the parity of focus in the picture. The hikers are delineated, sharp – our focus reaches out to them for the “human angle”. Somehow, though, the picture is poised as if for a joke. Compared to Caspar David Friedrich’s Wanderer Above the Sea of Fog, with the wanderer finding his Romantic individuality in nature, this is a reversal. The focused and purposeful attitude that they, as hikers, are said to posses, is evidenced by their perch in mid-centre, and their pellucid focus in the picture. And yet their very focus and purposefulness is what is denying them true communion with ethereal nature – which they are comically dwarfed by.

What Gursky fought for was to be “the encyclopedia of life”. There is some hubris in this – he holds us in the palm of his hand, detachedly like some cataloguer, and we can only hope that his clutch is benevolent. His work reminded me occasionally of Wolfgang Tillmans’s photographs, exhibited recently at Tate Modern. There Tillmans showed a lurid contraposition of culture and ideas, his message – a wryly evoked dissonance. Here the gross, clanging cornucopia is displayed in a similarly Teutonic, dispassionate way. But in these detached gatherings of our thrilling human hearts, it is the resemblance of some sort of destitute geometry, of order, that makes them compassionate.


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