New York

Andrea Robbins and Max Becher

Basilico Fine Arts

Andrea Robbins and Max Becher take charmingly deadpan, documentary-style photographs in which seemingly nothing much happens, but, in fact, a lot does. Take the series about cigars: seven photos of nearly identical ends of cigars, complete with nearly identical bands. There are two cigars in each frame, laid side by side, as if for the purpose of comparison; there’s also a framed text that goes along with the photos, explaining, in the same deadpan style, that these images juxtapose Cuban and Cuban-exile versions of various cigar brands. Another, equally deadpan, series depicts fossilized dinosaur tracks (one per frame this time) and is also accompanied by “informational” text, explaining the most recent theories about dinosaurs. And finally, there’s a series of photographs showing—according to the accompanying explanatory text—the strange but true perceptual distortions that occur in an area known as the Oregon Vortex. These photos are mostly comparisons of comparisons, with two shots of two people standing, now on one side, now on the other, of a slab of concrete in a clearing in the woods. Whoever’s standing on the right looks larger than whoever’s standing on the left; this wouldn’t be curious at all except that when the people swap sides, they seem to switch sizes. Everyone looks quite cheerful, the way people do in vacation snapshots: the inexplicable as tourist attraction.

In these works, Robbins and Becher present a genealogy of the present: the minutiae, the nervous tics, false starts, and strange breaks that usually escape the more classically minded historian. They construct a kind of museum of social history, putting details that might otherwise elude documentation, or explanation, on display. The story of lives spent in exile is written in the subtle differences between the thin bands of paper that wrap cigars; the history of a revolution in almost identical images, laid out side by side.

Of course, there’s a flip side to this strategy: the point when everything seems elusive, when it’s seemingly impossible to determine anything, even from the most telling signs. So Robbins and Becher give you photos of dinosaur footprints—actual, physical traces of a dinosaur’s passage, as tangible as evidence gets—but in isolation these images effectively tell you nothing. Since most of what they “mean” is a matter of comparison, context, and expert knowledge, the photos, in themselves, offer no clues to the significance of what they show: there’s no way of knowing how big the tracks are, how far apart, no way of intuiting what kind of animal left these traces. Until you get to the wall text, explaining all that scientists believe they’ve learned from the fossil prints. It’s as if Robbins and Becher were reminding us that in history, as elsewhere, context is everything. Except, of course, when things are even more uncertain than that, when even the present doesn’t make much sense, as with the Oregon Vortex series. Again, as if by way of a reminder: origins, and other definitive explanations, are difficult to come by.

Mark Van de Walle