Note: This is one of my assignments for my Reporting the Arts course here in Prague, where I am currently studying abroad.
Complex and overwhelmingly stark, Bernd and Hilla Becher’s Coal Mines. Steel Mills. exhibit that is currently being displayed at Galerie Rudolfinum’s large hall brings beauty to industrial life. The series of black and white photos share glimpses at coal mines and steel mills, as the title aptly suggests, throughout Europe and America over the last few decades of the twentieth century. Each area has a unique quality and shape to their metal structures that the photographers very carefully document. British mines have an almost carnival-esque appeal; mines in America are terrifyingly animalistic; Belgium and France prove to have strangely beautiful symmetry and Germany’s “post-apocalyptic,” as one visitor commented, vibe is chilling and hard to ignore.
Unlike other black and white photos, there is no underlying vivacity that helps carry the weight of the picture. Nothing is “alive” about the cold metal that occupies the frame, which helps reinforce the dismal nature of the subject. While the beautiful lines are set against sprawling landscapes, the massive structures steal focus from the scenery and display the harsh reality of what industrialization can do to an area. The houses surrounding the mills and mines appear minuscule comparatively and are sometimes seen less than the rubble that peppers the towns.
The composition of the pictures is incredible and the fact that the Becher duo can create a wonderfully interesting and well-developed collection from a typically ignored and boring subject is remarkable. Each photograph draws you in; the shapes and hints of smog in the distance draw you in. The homes provide a human quality that leaves the viewer with remnants of curiosity as to how these structures affected the lives of the inhabitants of said homes. For some, they may provide nostalgia if they had been employed by or knew someone who had been employed by these steel mills and coal mines. The humanism of some photographs juxtaposed next to the animalistic nature of others allows patrons to enter a much more complex visual journey.
While the photographs are obviously gorgeous creations and wonderfully put together by curator Petr Nedoma, one complaint would lie in the execution of the exhibition. The organization is simplistic and does very little to elevate the pictures. To viewers who may not be immediately drawn in by the subject, and honestly, there is not a huge demand today for photographs of coal mines and steel mills nowadays, the colorless photographs may be difficult to connect with and off-putting. Once the initial wall between the art and the viewer is knocked down, the beauty is very easy to take in. In one room of the gallery, however, there is a video accompaniment to the exhibit that explores the original gallery showing of the photos by the Becher duo. This video will be probably be unappealing to foreign visitors since it is in Czech, but to locals, it might offer great insight into the motivation behind the project.
Overall, the exhibit is a wonderful exploration of the “industrial landscapes” across Europe and America. Once the viewer of these simple and gorgeous photos opens himself or herself to the intricacy of the smooth, sleek lines and curves of the structures among ruined hills and natural backgrounds, the result is more than worth it. Through their art, Bernd and Hilla Becher have provided interesting insight into a mundane aspect of society that has become so integrated into our culture that the population has looked over the implications and sad beauty of this modern architecture.
Bernd & Hill Becher: Coal Mines. Steel Mills. will be running in the large hall of Galerie Rudolfinum from March 22 to June 3. The gallery’s entrance is around the corner from the Rudolfinum concert hall and is right off the Staromestska metro stop. It offers discounts for students.