Distance and Proximityat Vadehra Art Gallery, New Delhi
The photographs in the exhibition Distance and Proximity—works in black and white and colour by various German photographers—immediately strike you as banal but arresting nonetheless. Images of industrial structures, concrete building elevations and sparse interiors, and incredibly mundane objects and landscapes, hold your attention despite the fact that, on the face of it, aesthetics don’t seem to have been a consideration when they were taken.
These German photographers, have all been students of the famous photographer couple, Berndt and Hilla Becher, and were influenced by what the literature accompanying the exhibition terms “their clear and austere vision”. The photographs, which aren’t for sale and were taken between 1967 and 1992, showcase leading names in contemporary photography, including the Bechers, Thomas Ruff, Andreas Gursky, Candida Höfer, Jorg Sasse, Simone Nieweg and Thomas Struth.
W-86-02-02 by Jorg Sasse
The Bechers taught at the Dusseldorf Academy of Art from the mid-1970s to the mid-1990s, and became renowned for systematically photographing industrial structures such as storage tanks and towering machinery. The first impression of these images is that of the shock that recalls the childhood fascination with, and fear of, big machines. But the grown-up perspective—that these machines are ultimately benign and at our disposal—takes over almost simultaneously, and as the gaze lingers, one can view them as not ungentle reminders of the preceding decades, when these photos were taken.
The Bechers’ students have inherited their style of “objective” photography, where the primary purpose of taking an image is ostensibly the documentation and classification of the subject. In this exhibition, the subject is almost always inanimate, with the exception of Nieweg’s vegetable farms and Struth’s family portraits.
However, if the sole consideration for these “objective” images was adding to the body of human knowledge, these photos would have been consigned to textbooks and archives. The images of a half-constructed gas tank or a large foyer, potted plant on a countertop or a brick wall, make us pause only because the photographer was paying attention to the aesthetics when shooting them.
University of Bochum by Andreas Gursky
“(The photographers) try to document spaces, architecture and objects of a world that has almost gone by, be it the Bechers’ industrial towers, the 1950s-style buildings clicked by Struth, Ruff and Sasse, or Höfer, who is portraying the charm of old European museums that would soon be modernized,” says Katja Kessing of Max Mueller Bhavan, New Delhi, which helped organize the show.
It is the industrial world viewed from a post-industrial perspective, suffused at some level with tones of nostalgia. For India, where the pre-industrial, industrial and post-industrial often exist cheek-by-jowl, such views can be both relevant and instructive.
Distance and Proximity is on at Vadehra Art Gallery, Okhla Industrial Area, Phase 1, New Delhi, until 31 July
Res Derelictae II at Warehouse on 3rd Pasta, Mumbai
Were you to mistake his sculptures for junk, Peter Buggenhout wouldn’t necessarily be offended. Coated in layers of dust so wondrously thick and layered, his works, careful compositions of discarded material, are indistinguishable from weathered debris you’re likely to find rotting in a shipyard. In a sense, your confusion, and maybe even repulsion, would mean that the Belgian artist had accomplished his goal. “My main intention is to declassify thing,” he says, standing amid his furry installations, currently showing at Warehouse on 3rd Pasta in Colaba, Mumbai.
Buggenhout’s sculptures are not easy to view. For one, they are monstrous looking, great crumbling relics that would seem more appropriate placed in an archaeological museum, a long-hunted tomb perhaps only just excavated. For another, they escape symbolic projections—metaphors for lost things and moral decay are futile, and not a little bit silly. They are in essence exactly what they are (dust sculptures) or as Buggenhout puts it, “The only conclusion you reach is that the thing you see is the thing you see.”
A work from Buggenhout’s The Blind leading the Blind series
It is perhaps apt then, that the exhibit Res Derelictae II (a legal term for abandoned assets) will only feature four of his works spread out across more than 3,000 square feet. The viewer is given plenty of space from which to circle and assess the sculptures. Approached from one angle, the works, priced at around €25,000 (about Rs17lakh), and all titled The Blind leading the blind (referencing a painting of the same name by Flemish artist Pieter Bruegel), are vaguely recognizable, bits of metal shards and ceramic pieces that peep through gaps in the dust coating. They might have belonged to a tub or a shelf, objects that Buggenhout chances upon on his way to his studio in Ghent, Belgium. “It belonged elsewhere and has been withdrawn from its original context, lost its original shape, and, in doing so, its meaning,” Buggenhout says. “We reject it. It’s not classified because when you declassify, you really look at things.”
If you approach the works from a different angle, you are tempted to run your hand over the soft crumbling dust (warning: Don’t, it’s been hardened by fixative, despite appearances to the contrary). Buggenhout had made an art of taking unsavoury materials and transforming them into sculptures both repugnant and riveting. The dust procured from cleaning companies by Buggenhout’s assistant, is probably his most benign medium; his other favoured media include blood and hair and animal intestines that are similarly forced into unfamiliar shapes and structures. “My way,” Buggenhout admits, “is not aesthetic.”
Res Derelictae II will run at Warehouse on 3rd Pasta, Colaba, Mumbai until September 7.