Bechers @ Tate Modern

Arriving at Tate Modern, I make my way into a labyrinth of galleries showing an exhibition entitled “Citizens and States”.

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Pause for a moment to admire the simplicity and directness of Piet Mondrian‘s abstract yet simultaneously formal works involving primal colours and lines, geometric studies reflecting the mental activity of his time, the early 20’th Century when Modernism was being developed.
The gallery I want to see contains work by the Bechers; this is not the work that had originally drawn me yet seeing it here, displayed in groups of different typologies and surrounded by a great deal of white wall space, helps to emphasise the uniqueness of the work. This is work that does not rely on a strong sense of contrast for effect rather there is a much more even distribution of tones that emphasise the intricate detail these images contain.
Some Becher references …
Typologies is a book about their work that I see downstairs
Basic Forms is the book I go for; it is a more recent publication as well as much cheaper and seems better as a book about the Bechers as a whole.
Bernd and Hilla Becher were a couple, he died in 2007 and she some years later in october 2015, who photographed over 200 industrial plants in Europe and North America which they described as “anonymous sculptures”. Their work is characterised by the use of large format cameras, emphasis on detail and a flat neutrality which was ensured by photographing on overcast days. The presentation of their subjects in grid format references minimalism, seriality and conceptual art practices.
Often, in black and white photography, one is encouraged to create a print in which there is a full range of tones from deepest black to brightest white. However, the Bechers seem more concerned with the accurate representation of tones so while there is less drama, there is a greater sense of the real although in photography particularly with black and white representation, the real is always going to be surreal in nature.
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Blast Furnaces (1969-1995)

These photographs are equally concerned with the historical significance of structures that are rapidly becoming obsolete yet also their formal qualities. The latter aspect is further emphasised by placing the photographs into groups to form grids that strike up dialogues between the different structures, furthering a sense of their uniqueness for they are all in fact different. While here is an aesthetic appeal to these images in the way they have been skilfully recorded, there is also a fascination enhanced by the manner of their presentation.
The Becher’s are an example of photography creating art rather than photography being used to make art; the uniqueness of the photograph is in evidence rather than mere use of the photographic medium. This is not an easy point to clarify but there is a difference between an accomplished photographer making art and an accomplished artist such as a painter or sculptor using a camera to make art! This exhibition can be enjoyed for the rich play of tones each image contains as well as the inherent melancholy of the subject matter for these are mostly structures whose days are limited.
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Water Towers (1972-2009)

It is difficult to say if I have a personal preference for any of these. The series of 9 curvaceous Watertowers (1972-2009) are simpler in appearance and hence easier to absorb than the three groups of 9 angular Winding Towers from Britain, Germany and France (see top); the set of 24 Blast Furnaces (1969 to 1995) (see above) are more intricate with each image showing a wealth of ingenious detail informing one of scenes one is never likely to have seen even when contemporary, scenes that help create an industrial sublime by their powerful size.
Other works on show here are Gas Tanks (1965-2009) and Coal Bunkers (1974). Seeing the Becher’s work here in this spacious uncluttered gallery is an eye opening experience quite different to seeing originals bunched up together in a reception area at Arles or the paucity of book reproductions which although impressive can never be as rich as the originals. I guess seeing this exhibition has to be “my Becher moment” though I have known of their existence for years.
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school children directed to colourful photos from Malaysia with people’s heads substituted with fruit

Shortly before leaving, a group of over 50 uniformed school children walk through the gallery with barely a glance at the work; it is apparently not helpful criteria. They spend their time looking at large colour photographs from Malaysia, portraits in which the heads have disappeared into different forms of fruit morphed onto their heads.
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Taking Photographs in a Public Place

The following is taken from a Police website

Taking photos in a public place is not illegal. The only time an offence is committed is if the photographs being taken are considered to be indecent.

There is no law preventing people from taking photographs in public. This includes taking photos of other people’s children.

It is an offence to take indecent photographs.

If you are taking photographs from private land, you need to have the land owner’s permission.

Please note: No one has the right to ask a photographer to stop, to ask for a copy of the photos or to force them to delete the photographs, unless the images that have been taken are indecent.

If someone is consistently photographing you when you are in public against your will, it may be considered an issue of harassment or stalking. To find out more go to the Harassment and Stalking page.

OMO change in the valley

OMO book launch-20151204--2Matilda talking about her work in Ethiopia

This is not a romantic book about African tribes” warned Matilda Temperley at the beginning of her talk to mark the launch of her book, OMO change in the valley, “but it might be considered another political book about water!” In fact, it is much more than a political tract rather it is a record of the native peoples who inhabit the Omo valley in Southern Ethiopia whose identity is under threat from globalisation in particular the construction of a large dam which “a couple of weeks ago” was opened. The effect this will have for those people whose livelihood depends on regular flooding of the river is yet to be experienced but an ecological disaster along the lines of the Aral Sea in Central Asia is possible. The World Bank who initially agreed to fund the project in 2006 later pulled out because of concerns about the treatment and lack of support being given to local people affected by the building of the dam.

Matilda first visited as a tourist when she was working in the area for the Hospital for Tropical Diseases based in London. At that time, road conditions were appalling but these have since improved with tarmacking. Living conditions though are not necessarily safe with the necessity of travelling with an armed guard.

Matilda set up a mobile studio and there are a number of photos in the book that show her working in this fashion with some of her subjects acting as assistants. A remarkable feature of some of the women, those from the Suri and Murzi tribes, is the wearing of wooden plates within the lower lip which is gradually stretched over time; size matters here and some of the women sport large plates that are said to signify beauty. The practice does however result in both lisping and dribbling; the government have banned the practice though more remote groups still observe it.

Of the 12 tribes that Matilda documents in her book, the Donga tribe are known for their ritual fighting which is largely an initiatory rite involving sparring although death, far from encouraged, can occur. The men attack each other with sticks and this more violent behaviour is no longer open to the touristic gaze.

Tourists are however, welcome to photograph people in controlled circumstances. The tribals dress up not in traditional colours but sporting designs that appeal to photographic cliches. For this the local people are paid yet they wash off the decorations soon after. Matilda’s photographs are much more interesting and real such as the man who bears scars and is said to have killed another.

My own interest in Ethiopia centres around wildlife and so I put this question to her. There is not a lot of evidence of birdlife in the area but there are elephants that are now being exploited for their ivory, a trade that has become more widespread in the last 5 years and is directly related to the presence of Chinese workers. There are leopards in the area but the only sign of a leopard one is likely to see is as a skin wrapped around a human body.

Matilda’s photographs are stunning and one can not help but feel the presence of globalisation and the adverse effect it is having on theses people.

OMO book launch-20151204-Matilda signing copies of her book after the talk

A more comprehensive review with photos from the book can be found in The Daily Telegraph.