Douglas Huebler (1924-1997) was a pioneer of Conceptual Art. He started as a painter, moved towards sculpture and then to making his series that he called ‘Duration Pieces’, ‘Variable pieces’ and ‘Location Pieces’ in which he documentaries places, people or everyday activities using photographs, maps and drawings. One example of this is Variable Piece # 101. In this piece he took 10 pictures of Bernd Becher who was asked to pose, in the following order, as: “a priest, a criminal, a lover, an old man, a policeman, an artist, Bernd Becher, a philosopher, a spy, and a nice guy.” Some months later, when Becher had presumably forgotten exactly what he did, he sent the images back to Becher and asked him to identify each face. Huebler then exhibited these pieces together with the list of what he had asked Becher to act out and the list of Becher titles. He was very clear “Ten photographs and this statement join together to constitute the final form of this piece.” The whole work of art was constructed from both the images and the list – but he only identified the images by number and did not say whether the list of titles belonged to his original order, Becher’s order, or indeed a completely different order. It was further confused by the fact that the work was exhibited twice, once in the Los Angeles Museum of Contemporary Art and once in Limoges and catalogues lists exist showing both of these, but the images are shown in different orders in the two places and only numbered in the Limoges catalogue. Two of the images are actually different between the two catalogues.
Bernd Becher himself was a notable typologist, usually working with his sister Hilla Becher. They photographed industrial structures such as water towers, and factories, always in black and white. They showed the images in sets (typologies), usually layed out in a grid pattern. A quote from them on the Tate website says ‘We photographed water towers and furnaces because they are honest. They are functional, and they reflect what they do – that is what we liked. A person is always what s/he wants to be, never what s/he is. Even an animal usually plays a role in front of the camera’ (Tate, 2016).
Huebler’s work in Variable Piece 101 plays on the typology work of the Bechers, both by using Becher himself as a participant and also by laying the black and white images out in a grid. However, unlike their work where there is no ambiguity, the piece by Huebler is full of it. Which image is which? Which image did Becher identify as what? And why did he change the pictures between the two exhibitions – and which set did he show to Becher to be sorted? The title causes confusion rather than clarity. In an illuminating essay by Hughes, he points out that Becher turns the whole exercise back on the Bechers, confusion not clarity, a person rather than buildings (Hughes, 2007).
Huebler also comments photographically on the earlier work of August Sander and his typologies. The ‘types’ that Becher is asked to perform are some of the types that Sander divided his portfolio into; philosopher, policeman, priest, old man, criminal, and artist. However, Sander showed his images as individuals, rather than in a grid pattern. Huebler is subverting Sander’s work in that it is impossible to tell which face is supposed to be which character, and, of course, they are all images of one person. It is possible, and an interesting exercise, to cut out the faces from some of the less well-known photographs by Sander, present them to another person in a random order, and see what ‘type’ they would be identified as. Even if you gave a list of possible types I suspect that everyone would order then differently.
This piece of work emphasises how crucial it is to know the intention of the artist. The meaning of the images here are elusive. The titles are potentially misleading not clarifying. The piece needs to be seen as a whole. What is Huebler telling us? The clearest reading is not to believe the obvious. To be aware of potential for confusion. Nothing is fixed, all is variable. The meaning is what you see which may be different from what the person next to you sees.
Hughes, G. (2007). Game Face: Douglas Huebler and the Voiding of Photographic Portraiture. Art Journal, 66(4), pp.52–69.
Tate (2016). Who are Hilla and Bernd Becher? | Tate. [online] Tate. Available at: https://www.tate.org.uk/art/artists/bernd-becher-and-hilla-becher-718/who-are-bechers.