Tuesday 25 March 2008

Bernd Behr - Alexia Goethe Gallery, London.
29th February – 7th April 2008
Daniella Saul

German artist Bernd Behr films and photographs his subjects much like an archaeologist might exhume his subjects for closer exploration and investigation. Part documenting and researching, part poetic meditations, his camera finds architectural sites steeped in history and recently abandoned, models for an investigation of failed structures. His method also acts on another plane, gradually unfurling the potential of such structures to be released from their architectural functions, testing their performative possibilities in front of the camera.
Behr’s 35 mm photographic slide installation “Amoy Gardens” (2007) was filmed in the eponymous residential and shopping complex in Hong Kong, found to be at the centre of the deadly SARS outbreak in 2002 when the faulty ventilation system was found to have freely spread the virus throughout the extensive complex. Behr films quick snapshots, the salient feature being the lack of human presence due to the mass evacuation that ensued following the disaster. The car park ramps, a ground floor doorway, a harbour shot from a balcony, a crumbling exterior staircase, broken plumbing, interminably long escalators and numerous ventilation shafts. A voice over accompanies the piece, of a Chinese woman stuttering through an English reading of Le Corbusier’s treaty on “Exact Air,” for the development of an efficient ventilation system for his housing projects in the 1930s. The camera simply records the empty aftermath of the evacuation, the building now a hollow shell. While the moving image element of the work retains a degree of independence from the audio, the voice over creates a proposition for the building, a possibility to rehabilitate it through twentieth century modernist architectural building practices. The incongruity at this point is emphasised subtly, yet unmistakably– despite, or as a result of massive Chinese economic expansion, lessons might still be learnt from older, European experimental practices that deal with such essential practicalities as an efficient plumbing system.
Also exhibited is a large photograph, “Topographic Obscenities” (2007) in which a vertical landscape of rocks, debris and plumbing are fused together with sprayed on grey metallic concrete. Not only does this work magnify and condense the effects of the disaster at the housing complex, it “fossilises” them, amplifying the pull of history and mystery to Behr’s chosen sites.
The interest in the idea of fossilising, or a kind of architectural sedimentation is an aspect of Behr’s work that reveals itself through a focus on structures that have entered the transitional stage between use and subsequent abandonment. Robert Smithson’s idea of the “de-architecturalised” structure feeds visibly into the “Amoy Gardens” work and into Behr’s other works where the structure in question becomes an entropic entity. It embodies a notorious history, but with no apparent future use it further encourages fascination and mystery. Similarly, another of Behr’s works “Hotel Palindrome 2006, before Robert Smithson” not on show here, directly references and borrows notions of cultivating mystery or allure to entropic, transitional sites, as originally explored in Smithson’s work “Hotel Palenque” (1969-1972) an old, stylistically aberrant Mexican hotel built on the site of Mayan ruins undergoing several cycles of renovation and subsequent decay.
Behr explores the idea for the Hong Kong housing complex to revive its actual potential and therefore its filmic characterisation as being not strictly documentary, through the introduction of the audio voice over enacting a developmental proposal.
Borrowing from historical examples, successful or failed is one method Behr uses to offer up the potential to resurrect architectural sites of abandonment, if not in reality then for their filmic presence and resonance.

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