July has gotten a whole lot better since PhotoIreland began three years ago. Transforming Dublin into a photography mecca through its all-encompassing programme of exhibitions, book fairs and portfolio reviews, the festival provides the infrastructure needed to encourage photographic practices in Ireland, as well as some aesthetic nourishment. This year, the programme is loosely held together by a theme of ‘Migration’.
In the past decade hives of artistic creativity have been popping up all over Brooklyn, so it may come as no shock to learn that couple – both artistically and romantically – Andrea Robbins and Max Becher found inspiration for their project 770 in this burgeoning borough. However, less likely was the source of their inspiration – a small collegiate-gothic-style building home to the headquarters of the Chabad-Lubavitch Hasidic Jewish movement located at 770 Eastern Parkway, Brooklyn. Providing one of the more interesting twists on the Migrations theme of this year’s PhotoIreland Festival the project catalogues the architectural offspring of the 770 building. Spinoff 770s are now dotted all over the world, becoming religious beacons for followers of this particular strand of Judaism. Championing photography’s capacity for revealing observation this project presents images of piercing clarity and lucid detail that hint at broader narratives revealed through the shared façade of a Brooklyn building. Totally Dublin caught up with the couple to chat about their upcoming exhibition.
When did you both meet and what was the motivating factor to start working as a collective?
We met in college and often helped each other on projects. This gradually became a more formal partnership. Many people think of collaboration as a blending of identities but our process has always been more complimentary. It is an experimental system whereby one of us will take on a project and see how far it can go and then present it to the other person. We each have unique interests which act as gates for rejecting or editing the other’s ideas. We don’t always travel together, but our photography is a multi-stage process, so there are plenty of opportunities for both of us to be involved.
Can you talk a little about your project 770? Where did the idea for this particular body of work come from?
Long before we got started on the project we heard about the Lubavitch Brooklyn headquarters building that had been reproduced in Israel. The idea appealed to us very much — a mundane Brooklyn structure recast as the sacred original in the holy land. By the time we had the opportunity to focus on it (with financial help and an exhibition provided by the Jewish Museum of New York) the replicas had multiplied around the world. The surprising number of buildings was an incentive to complete the first survey of all of them. We did not find all eleven copies instantly, but gradually through the network of Chabad, the Lubavitch system of outreach to lapsed Jews, which relies on social ties and technology, especially the Internet.
Transportation of place is a central preoccupation in your practice; what is it about this subject that you both find interesting?
Transported places provide a natural experiment where two physical or mental geographies can be compared. Photography adds the possibility of comparing the artist’s vision and the viewer’s projections, because it is a medium that plays with “the real”. We hope these comparisons enrich the experience of history and place.
What are the deeper concepts at play in 770?
The Lubavitch form of Hassidism is a relatively new branch (18th century) of a very old religion. The 770 building represents an even newer aspect of this rapidly developing movement – that is the franchisement a religious motif. The creation of sacred icons in the present reveals much about how religions form generally. It is a kind of mythical history in the making. The project also allows us to consider the identities of the places in which the buildings are recreated, offering a comparison of locales via the thread of a single façade. The recurring buildings are like an old friend you meet in distant places, and that’s actually how they are intended.
What way would you hope people would interpret your photographs?
We hope the images are understood as a study of cultural franchising in the present. Because the buildings are so identifiable and the Lubavitch movement is still relatively small and new (compared to Judaism or Catholicism in general) this development is still traceable, visible.
Will there be explanatory text with the works or do you think your work should be able to stand alone? We generally present our work with a text. It is not so much an explanation as a bridge. We consider it part of the work.
Max – Your parents work is hugely influential does this exert a pressure on you and your practice?
The only thing for us to focus on is our own work, as they have always done. It’s like the old cliché of asking a fish to talk about water. Maybe it’s hard for people to imagine that our relationship with them is familial first, and art is what they do. We don’t know them through their art, but the other way around. Their work is very personal to us, not something that is mediated through the art world.
Your project 770 seems to display a sense of objective recording, something that is also evident in your parent’s work – do you think there are many similarities between your work and that of your parents and how has it diverged?
Well, this question is an example of the pressure you just mentioned. Yes, there are many similarities and differences, which come up whenever you choose to compare.
One similarity: The Bechers and we are interested in contrasting cultural expression. One difference: where they use physical functionality as a basis for tracing variation, we use dislocation.
The idea of objective recording is not really applicable to the Bechers or to us. We are all extremely subjective.
As well as pursuing your own artistic practice you have both taught photography – which do you find more rewarding?
Andrea Robbins and Max Becher will be exhibiting their work as part of the On Migration’s exhibition taking place at Moxie Studios between July 13th and 22nd.