Bernd & Hilla Becher’s project to document the industrial landscape of post-war Europe, ongoing for over five decades, is timeless: contemporary photographs of monumental structures that bear no trace of current affairs, past events or future projections. This selection of works exemplifies their rigorous examination of architectural typologies, treading a fine line between similarity and difference, seemingly devoid of both utility and humanity.
This exhibition at Sprüth Magers London brings together five works of black and white photographs arranged in a grid formation and 10 individual larger-scale pictures. The silver gelatin prints give the pictures a shimmering surface that differentiates pockets of near-painterly detail, while the inert, anonymous structures take on a sculptural quality. Cooling Towers (1967-1984), a grid of nine pictures that reflects the mathematical precision of the structures, typifies the constraints of architectural form at the same time as pointing to subtle variations. The resonance of these pictures is in the pure experience of the everyday, rather than in any specialist knowledge.
Occasionally the pictures feature cars or a railway line, but for the most part there is a curious absence of humanity, expressing the indifference of industry to human emotion. Blast Furnace, Boel, La Louviere (1985) exudes a controlled sculptural chaos that seems so contrary to human sensibilities, as if to realise the Hegelian idea of solid, useless geometry in the purely symbolic phase of art. There is also an unsettling absence of nature in these pictures, so tightly focused on the structures themselves, with only a wisp of a mountain or a misplaced tree. These photographs thus strip architecture of its essence, treating it as sculpture whose origins are unworkable and whose continued existence is a cultural force in itself.
Bernd & Hilla Becher, until 4 October, Sprüth Magers London, 7A Grafton Street, London, W1S 4EJ.
1. Bernd + Hilla Becher, Blast Furnace, Rombas, Lorraine, F, 1984, Black and White photograph 60 x 50 cm 91,5 x 75 cm (framed) Edition 2/5MSPM BHB 23216.
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