My knowledge and interest in art usually doesn’t go much further than the 19th century. Grand oil paintings of landscapes, domestic scenes, or famous moments in history are more my speed than piles of bandaged boxes that are supposed to represent the struggles of the people of Uruguay. Don’t get me wrong – modern art is a wonderful way for people to articulate themselves against political regimes and cruel and unfair treatment, a wonderful way for the artist to express what they feel is wrong in this world, what needs to be fixed. That, I feel, is rather the point of modern art. Not necessarily art for art’s sake, but art to make a statement.
However, I am not a very political person, so these messages don’t usually reach or interest me. I didn’t expect to be terribly thrilled when exploring the Tate Modern. A few pieces caught my eye, sure – they were aesthetically pleasing enough – but nothing really made me stop until I came to this series of photographs.
I admittedly paused mostly out of confusion. I had no idea what these things were, or what function they could possibly serve. I wandered over to the card that hung next to them looking for answers, and I wasn’t disappointed. My immediate answer was that they were winding towers, which stood above mine shafts to haul up coal and the miners digging for it. However, something interesting popped out at me as I read through the blurb on the card and looked more carefully at the dates attached to the project.
The artists, Bernd and Hilla Becher, took these pictures from 1965 to 1996 – over the course of 31 years. A lot apparently happens in that kind of time frame, as it was specifically mentioned on the card that “The period over which this work was made saw the decimation of the coal industry in the UK; what had been working machines at the beginning of the project were relics by the time it was completed.”
That single sentence is what has made this piece stay with me. 31 years doesn’t seem too long at first – it’s briefer than most people’s lifetimes, after all. But this particular window of 31 years was enough time to not only do away with a major source of energy and revenue, but to have done so long enough ago to merit calling the machinery “relics.” It’s baffling that so much can change in such short periods of time. On one level, we understand that humanity has made more significant, more drastic technological developments in the last 100 years or so than we have during the hundreds of years previous, but to have it so clearly defined and put on display is a little unnerving.
Though this is just one example of many, I felt this one particularly stuck with me because of the cultural implications as well. Coal and its production was a major part of how British people lived and worked for many years. I can only imagine how the miners must have felt, to be deemed relics along with the machinery that had served them so well. To have years of very specific job experience be deemed obsolete and useless.
Thinking about all this made me realize that maybe my response to the pictures was what the photographers intended all along. Coal mining isn’t something that really happens in the UK anymore, so why would anyone be able to identify the accompanying machinery? Maybe they wanted people to stop for a moment, to wonder what those were, read the blurb, and remember part of their history.
No matter what, Bernd and Hilla Becher’s piece, Winding Towers (Britain), can leave you with something to think about. It may seem like an unremarkable assembly of black and white photos of foreign structures, but perhaps the fact that they are so unrecognizable is the most remarkable thing about it.