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French Version

Industrial splendor...

Unesco exhibition captures singular vision of German pair

There is a considerable amount of lore surging through the international art world about Bernd and Hilla Becher, the notoriously reclusive German couple who have been working together for 40 years and have spawned an entire generation of art stars - including Andreas Gursky, Thomas Struth and Thomas Ruff - from their posts at the Dusseldorf Academy of Art.

Perhaps most telling is the story about what happened when Bernd Becher retired. After 20 years of teaching, he stepped down from the faculty at Dusseldorf in 1996. He was the first person to teach photography at what had previously been an academy devoted to painting and therefore had no predecessor, nor was it clear who his successor should be.

The accomplished Canadian photographer Jeff Wall was ultimately hired to replace him. On his first day at the academy, Wall walked into his new classroom to find a former Becher student waiting for him there with a cocked and loaded gun in hand. Wall quit on the spot. Eventually, another Becher student, Thomas Ruff, was tapped for the job, a choice that fell short of seamless continuity but at least kept the Becher legacy alive.

This example of extreme loyalty and unshakable reverence illustrates the profound and peculiar impact the Bechers have had not only on German photographers but on contemporary artists worldwide. From now through February 15, Beirutis have the rare opportunity to assess that impact for themselves with an exhibition of original photographs by the Bechers and eight of their students on view at Unesco Palace.

"Distance and Proximity" is organized by the German Institute for Foreign Relations (IFA), part of an extensive series of exhibitions conceived of by Wulf Herzogenrath exploring the history of Germany photography. It comes to Beirut as part of the Goethe Institute's celebration of 50 years in Beirut.

The Beirut branch of the Goethe was one of the first of its kind and the first to open anywhere in the Middle East. It was also the only foreign cultural institution to never close its doors during Lebanon's 1975-1990 civil war. Over 1,000 people turned out for the opening of the "Distance and Proximity" exhibition at Unesco, which also featured speeches and musical performances. The strength and quality of this show attests to the stamina and commitment of the Goethe's programming overall, which is unrivaled in Beirut.

Bernhard Becher was born in 1931 in Siegen, Germany. He grew up against a backdrop of the steel boom, coal mining and agriculture. He studied painting in Stuttgart and then transferred to the art academy in Dusseldorf, where he began photographing industrial sites that were slated for demolition because he wanted to paint them but couldn't document them fast enough in drawings.

When he was 26, he met Hilla Wobeser at an advertising agency in Dusseldorf. He was seeking a job to finance his studies; she was on the agency's staff but growing disillusioned with advertising and toying with the idea of going back to school.

Wobeser was born in 1934 in Potsdam. She started taking pictures on her own as a teenager and picked up a few tips from her mother, who had trained as a photographer in her youth. Eventually, Wobeser apprenticed herself to a local photographer named Walter Eichgrun, whose father and grandfather had taken all the official pictures for the Prussian court. She had access to Eichgrun's extensive nineteenth-century archives, and helped him to document the Rococo accoutrements of the Sansouci Palace.

Then she defected to Dusseldorf from what had by then become the German Democractic Republic. Becher and Wobeser began working together in 1957. They married in 1961. Their first major accomplishment was the publication of a book called "Anonymous Sculptures: A Typology of Technical Constructions" in 1970. That same year, their work was included in a high-profile group show at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. Two years later, they mounted their first solo exhibition at Sonnabend, the storied New York gallery that has represented them ever since.

The Bechers' longstanding position in the art world stems from the uniqueness of their artistic project, which, when they started, wasn't really considered artistic at all.

Since the 1960s, they have set out to meticulously document examples of anonymous industrial architecture that were falling into obsolescence. They grouped their subjects into typologies - water towers, blast furnaces, grain elevators, coal bunkers, gas tanks and factories. They sought out particular types of structures across Europe and the United States and shot them with extreme precision, always within highly systematic and clearly delineated compositional rules.

For example, the Bechers always shoot their buildings against grey winter skies, thus eliminating the drama of cast shadows. They always take their pictures from an elevated vantage point, halfway up the height of the structure, with a wide-angle lens to restore what they describe as "a normal view." They choose their subjects carefully. Their industrial structures must be freestanding, without fussy or decorative additions and located in a landscape that allows them enough distance to picture them fully. Then they divide their prints into series, usually in groups of nine images arranged on a strict grid.

Reviewing a major exhibition two years ago in Dusseldorf of some 650 Becher photographs, the art critic Daniel Birnbaum wrote approvingly in Artforum: "How gray and monotonous. How totally repetitive and devoid of surprises. And yet, as a whole ... as grandiose and mesmerizing as a piece of serial music - cold and detached but still exuding a strange melancholy."

There are two such series on view at Unesco: a motley assemblage of seven "portraits" of industrial structures shot between 1967 and 1992 (although you'd never guess the time gap by looking at them), and a tight representation of the "factory" typology (nine images of peak-roofed factories shot each in exactly the same manner).

The Bechers insist their approach involves no interpretation whatsoever, whether aesthetic, political or philosophical. Their strategy is not to romanticize industry or mourn for its passing. They insist they are not photographing relics, but merely documenting types.

"Our idea," Hilla Becher told Ulf Erdmann Ziegler in 2002, in their first-ever full length interview, "has much more to do with the nineteenth century, with the encyclopedic approach used in botany or zoology, where plants of the same variety or animals of the same species are compared with one another on the individual pages of the lexicon."

Bernd elaborated on the artists' vision. "It's not a case of photographing the entire world, but of proving that there is a form of architecture that consists in essence of apparatus, that has nothing to do with design, and nothing to do with architecture either," he said.

It is the precision of their approach, their systemization and their devotion to series - in effect to the construction of archives - that the Bechers passed on to their students. This legacy is in evidence at Unesco - in Simone Nieweg's quirky portrayal of utilitarian vegetable gardens (including leak patches and compost piles), Thomas Struth's meticulous cityscapes (each punctuated by a V-shaped street in perspective and a central column of sky between tall buildings), Candida Hofer's elaborate but chilling interiors, Jorg Sasse's emphasis on retro kitsch and Petra Wunderlich's study of quarries.

Like the Bechers, their proteges tend to concentrate on anonymous and idiosyncratic things that will inevitably disappear without much fanfare. Andreas Gursky's image of ski bunnies in St. Moritz, for example, is strangely, inescapably dated. Struth's family portraits are equally odd, as encyclopedic as the Bechers' blast furnaces. In terms of scope and influence, there is a tangible thread from the monumental work of German photographer August Sander, through the Bechers and their students, to Lebanese photographer Gilbert Hage and his 1,000 portrait project.

Bernd Becher once said, "When you stand in front of an original print, you can walk around it. In terms of precision and of the range of shades, it is in a class by itself." That holds palpably true for this exhibition especially. And opportunities to see work like this in Beirut don't come often.

"Distance and Proximity" is on view at Unesco Palace through February 15. For more information, please call the Goethe Institute at +961 1 740 524.

Beirut 13-02-2006
Kaelen Wilson-Goldie
The Daily Star

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