Bernd and Hilla Becher, "Photographs from the 1960s and '70s, Apr. 20-May 31, 2001, at Zwirner & Wirth, 32 East 69th Street, New York, N.Y. 10021.
Oh what a problem it is to be German, and Bernd and Hilla Becher's photographs of industrial sites are so very German. Not the tortured Germanness of the pre-World War I Expressionists and post-World War II Neo-Expressionists, with their romantic sense of the primordial subject, but the bleakly objective Germanness of the New Realist (Neue Sachlichkeit) artists who flourished between those wars, and in whose art the subject has been reduced to what we today call a social construction -- an epiphenomenon of everyday life, as it were. Which is more German? I don't know, but it seems that both are equally critical of German society: the Expressionists protest its suppression of the subject, and the Realists show its seamy underside.
The Bechers' industrial sites are indeed seamy -- a sordid wasteland of abandoned utilitarian structures, all now ironically "esthetic" because of their grim uselessness. "Sachlichkeit" is usually translated as objectivity or impartiality, and the Bechers' photographs are indeed objective and impartial, as their sober, gray, straightforward character suggests. But "Sache" is also the German word for thing: the Bechers bring out the thingness of the factory structures -- their forbidding givenness -- rescuing them from nondescriptness and vacuousness, that is, oblivion. Indeed, the Bechers have an uncanny knack of transforming all kinds of industrial buildings into site-specific constructivist sculptures: what ordinarily seem filled with indifference become awesome, bizarre abstractions, at once formally innovative and materially adventurous, and intimidating by reason of their monumental
The Bechers have gone out of their way to find their desolate "objects," ironically suggesting that once something no longer works in the world it can work as art -- become an intriguing play of evocative forms, however ostensibly deadpan. Thus we note the intricate geometrical patterning and suddenly subtle details of the industrial structures, making for a certain weird, unspecifiable, subliminal expressivity. The build-up of an expressive undertone -- a certain sense of repressed subjectivity -- is intensified by the serial way in which the Bechers arrange their photographs: each becomes a comment on the previous one(s), making for a certain synergistic momentum, but with no climax in sight. In the depths, the Bechers' New Realism links up with the old Expressionism, although on the surface they remain at odds.
Among other things, the Bechers' photographs are a kind of understated social commentary on the German economic miracle (the so-called Wirtschaftswunder of the '50s and '60s) during which most of the factory structures were built. It has left an industrial wasteland in its wake, a world of ruins recycled as artistic relics by the Bechers, which ironically redeems them by remembering them. At the same time, their photographs remain a depressing ecological statement, if also a kind of archaeology of the modern experience.
But the photographs are full of even more conceptual innuendos: they also suggest, with a kind of dry wit, the entropy -- stagnation and inertia -- to which the German economy, and by implication, German society is susceptible. Centered in the Bechers' photographs, the old-fashioned, decaying factory structures -- the forgotten, "unthinkable" physical residue on the margins of industrial society -- are exposed as the secret center of German society. They represent the drag on it -- the sinking center of gravity that represents its undertow of anxiety about its future.
In other words, the Bechers' photographs form a Triumph of Death, that old German theme. They may thematize a variety of old industrial sites, but at bottom they are variations on a rather narrow, insidious theme. Germany remains haunted by Death, the Bechers imply. It remains expert at produced specimens of Death, which is what the factory ruins are.
It has been said that Warhol humanized the inhuman even as he dehumanized the human. Similarly, the Bechers' dead industrial structures seem strangely human, however skeletal. They are in fact the skeletal remains of human endeavor -- the decadence and catastrophe in which all ambition ends. More immediately, they are the wasteful remains of capitalist endeavor -- discarded buildings emblematic of discarded human beings. They are in effect symbols of the high unemployment in Germany. Factories that no longer work are no longer places in which human beings can work. Thus they no longer make social sense: they are also ironical symbols of post-industrial society -- a society in which industrial practice has been pushed to the periphery. Who would have thought that the obsolescence of industrialism itself was built into it by reason of its efficiency?
It is worth noting that the domestic frame structures the Bechers also photograph have been stripped of all signs of human life in the process of being brought to artistic life. They, too, are ghostly ruins. In fact, there are no human beings in the Bechers' world. It is a ghost town ruled by Death.
The Minimalist dimension of the Bechers' photographs is, then, not entirely what it seems to be, unless Minimalism is implicitly about the death of the human spirit. The serial format through which the Bechers create what they call their "typologies" -- reminiscent of the realist typologies of the great German photographer August Sander, whose archival-descriptive approach the Bechers emulate -- is not as straightforward as it seems to be. It, too, is thoroughly German: its new objectivity signals old-fashioned German obedience, conformity, and orderliness -- the German bureaucratic-mechanistic frame of mind. The Bechers' photographs are the product of a well-administered society, however sloppy it is around its edges -- it is as though the photographs are asking Germany to clean up its act -- and as such the ironical by-product of German nationalism.
DONALD KUSPIT is professor of art history and philosophy at SUNY Stony Brook and A.D. White professor at large at Cornell University.