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Issue 41

Andrea Robbins and Max Becher

BY Rebecca Dimling Cochran in Reviews | 06 JUN 98

Photographers Andrea Robbins and Max Becher twist notions of displacement, dislocation and cultural hybridisation, locating situations in which alien cultural identities have been imported. Their photographs of the Namibian town of Lüderitz, for example, highlight the Germanic architecture built in the desert landscape in an attempt to recapture the native homes of its 19th-century colonisers. Robbins and Becher were also drawn to Holland, Indiana. Founded by Dutch immigrants over a century ago, the city hopes to attract the tourist trade by exploiting its name: the current inhabitants have imported an original Dutch windmill and planted tulips throughout the town.

The artists' newest series, 'German Indians', investigates an extraordinary German fascination with the life and culture of American Indians. This may have begun with the 19th-century German author Karl May, who wrote a series of adventure novels which pitted the hero, an Apache brave named Winnetou, against the evil white invaders. Today, there are an inordinate number of 'Indian' clubs and societies throughout Germany. Historians have suggested that the attraction may lie in both societies' belief in the integral relationship between man and nature. Others attribute the proliferation of interest to the fact that one of the only places in which the East German Communist Party allowed free participation was the Indian Clubs.

Whatever the reason, scores of adults and children don their home-made beaded costumes and re-enact ancient Native American lifestyles in summer festivals each year. Everything they exhibit (clothes, tools, wigwams, trades) has been crafted from examples seen in books, films, and other second-hand sources. Most of the participants have never met a real Native American.

This paradox lies at the heart of Robbins' and Becher's work. Almost every photograph in the 'German Indians' series juxtaposes symbols of the modern-day world with the 'historical' impersonations taking place. Whether it is the folding plastic chair hidden unsuccessfully under a woven blanket in Chief and Tribe (1997), or the socks that peek out between the 'chief's' beaded buckskin pants and moccasins, the lack of true authenticity is plainly visible. The seriousness with which the subject of Brave (1997) takes his role is undeniable, yet it is undermined by elements such as his wedding ring and the ice box in the background.

The artists' practice cannot help but begin a conversation on the subjectivity of documentary photography. Robbins and Becher reveal the innocuous clues that question the authenticity of their representations, but they leave evident the fact that, with simple repositioning, a different story could be told.

Their 'Dachau' series, also represented in this exhibition, focuses on just that issue. The antiseptic condition of this tourist site has little in common with the original work camp where many were killed by starvation and disease. This Gas Chamber Was Used (1994) questions the truthfulness of a sign posted along the tour route that declares the shower was never actually utilised, despite survivors' reports to the contrary. Execution Range and Blood Ditch (1994) documents the location of such atrocities, but a bed of flowers and a tall hedge planted in front of a brick wall obscure the horrors of the past.

Integral to the notion of capturing these anomalies in everyday life is the artists' choice of composition. Most photographs appear much like tourist's snapshots, merely recording a place or event at a particular moment in time. Only the super-real colour and clarity of focus hint at the professional attention given to each detail. Even the frames speak of the artists' desire to present a cohesive interpretation: natural wood for the 'German Indian' series and barbed-wire grey on the 'Dachau' photographs.

This strength can also be the artists' failing. Their tight control denies the photographs any spontaneity or serendipity. If the complexities and contradictions of the scenes are not evident, the works (like many of the photographs of children dressed as Native Americans at a festival outside of Cologne) lack the ability to surmount the purely snapshot quality. The pictures also rely too heavily on accompanying text. But where the artists prove capable of capturing the cultural cantilevers that fascinate them, a single image can speak volumes.