New York

Andrea Robbins & Max Becher

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.

Directly opposite this grouping, a further sequence of four photographs with a less delimited visual focus allowed for partial views of the gas chamber within the crematorium. One image provided a view through the doorway into the darkness of the chamber; another positioned the viewer within the murky darkness of the place, staring through barred windows at the glaring light outside. Both images reworked photography’s perpetual tendency to allegorize its own procedures when faced with architectural spaces: the gas chamber as a camera obscura, a reading that again completely integrates the photographic process into the logic of this social horror. The key image in this sequence, however, was a photograph of the sign currently hanging in the space, stating for the benefit of contemporary visitors that this chamber was never used. Occasioning their only lapse into the declamatory tradition of concerned documentary photography, Robbins & Becher countered this claim with the image’s title: This Gas Chamber Was Used. The image foregrounded the ultimate inadequacy of the photographic traditions engaged by the duo, the mismatch between the visual and the verbal in their images, in a manner also underlined by the pair’s use of wall text to accompany the exhibit. Despite these shortcomings, the photograph successfully pointed up the loss of historical accuracy at the very site of an attempt at commemoration, the incapacity of both the photograph and the memorial to represent certain realities of history, and the falsification inherent in the contemporary packaging of historical memory. The final image in the exhibition raised the stakes of this critique: Memorial Stone Barracks 30 presented a simple numerical marker commemorating the original site of one of the camp barracks, structures that were destroyed during the transformation of Dachau into a memorial site. Melancholic, fixated on the dying flowers strewn upon the memorial, this piece linked the photographic still image to an inadequate form of memory that only operates through absence, through physical eradication: the memorial as tombstone, an instrumental process still evidently piling destruction upon destruction.

George Baker