Magazine article Artforum International

Andrea Robbins & Max Becher

Magazine article Artforum International

Andrea Robbins & Max Becher

Article excerpt

BASILICO FINE ARTS

There can be no doubt about the incisive precision - worthy of the best work of Walker Evans - with which Andrea Robbins & Max Becher edited and sequenced their latest collaboration, a 1994 series of scarcely thirteen photographs of the concentration camp at Dachau. Since 1986, the two have positioned their projects within the vocabulary of documentary and Neue Sachlichkeit photography while critiquing the legacies of both; investigating the tensions between word and image, they continually turn for subject matter to the intersection of global tourism and the increasing desire for an aesthetic of historical commemoration. The "Dachau" series can perhaps be read as the summa of Robbins & Becher's concerns, focusing as it does on the current attempt to transform into tourist memorials the very sites and events that have thrown the concept and traditional logic of History - thought of as progress, supercession, or redemption - into question, if not into complete bankruptcy.

Grouped on each gallery wall in four small subsets, the first images encountered heralded a singular retreat from the historical connections allowed in previous Robbins & Becher images. Lapsing into the mute, precise inscription of technical forms characteristic of Neue Sachlichkeit, these images presented purely functional objects found in any architectural environment: an electric light fixture, some light switches, a metal drain, the clasp on a window. Yet, they eschewed some of the effects typical of Neue Sachlichkeit photography (whether we think of Karl Blossfeldt or of the postwar version in the work of Max Becher's parents, Bernd and Hilla Becher). Absent from Robbins & Becher's photographs is the associational quality of the earlier tradition - the paradox that obsessive concentration on objective depiction actually opened up a range of subjective experience in the images (plants read as architecture, architecture read as faces, a phenomenon Walter Benjamin came to call the "optical unconscious"). Instead, probably because of their strange, miniaturizing scale, Robbins & Becher's photographs remained singularly fixed in their dumb objecthood, registering a visual absence that was only partially filled by the titles of each image. The titles placed these decontextualized fixtures squarely within a very specific architectural ensemble: the crematorium complex built at Dachau in 1942. In these silent images, the social contradictions at the heart of Neue Sachlichkeit were laid bare: the instrumentality of architectural functionalism - its one-sided technical domination of nature - and its aesthetic presentation in photographs has its counterpart in the domination of human beings by technology, by the instrumental logic that partially prepared the Holocaust. …

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