Imaginative Truths: Joan Fontcuberta, David Lynch

JF05

From the exhibition Camouflages © Joan Fontcuberta

Still images can contain stories…the mind and emotions can become engaged by looking at a still image and small stories can grow into huge stories. It depends, of course, on the viewer.

—David Lynch

There is a fascinating, if ultimately unequal, pair of exhibitions which just opened at the Maison Européenne de la Photographie: Camouflages, featuring the work of Joan Fontcuberta and Small Stories, with photographs by David Lynch. While nothing explicitly links them, implicitly each casts an illuminating light on the other.

Fontcuberta’s work, throughout his long and productive career, has centered around the theme of storytelling. But Fontcuberta’s stories have always been of a particular variety, mixing fact, fiction, myth and farce in constantly changing measures. Fontcuberta grew up in Spain under the dictatorship of Francisco Franco, an experience which left him painfully aware of the illusory powers of photography. Thus, beyond the individual flights of fancy present in each of Fontcuberta’s projects, we can sense a larger mission: to make us see how easily manipulatable and false photography can be, despite its long-standing reputation as a medium of truth.

JF03

From the exhibition Camouflages © Joan Fontcuberta

In Camouflages, we see the full range of Fontcuberta’s wide-ranging and wildly imaginative ouevre. From display cases containing previously undiscovered flying monkeys with horns on their head (Cercopithecus icarocornu), to the untold story of cosmonaut Ivan Istochnikov (who, coincidentally, looks eerily similar to Fontcuberta) to pictures of the cosmos (which are actually rain on a car windshield (see above)), to the story of Osama Bin Laden’s doctor, who turned out to actually be an actor (Dr. Fasqiyta Ul-Junat/Manbaa Mokfhi aka Fontcuberta again). In each series, Fontcuberta constructs a self-contained, fantastical world, but cumulatively, in our world, he is consistently chipping away at our belief in the veracity of any kind of photograph [hear the prankster/thinker himself  describe his methods and intentions].

JF04

From the exhibition Camouflages © Joan Fontcuberta

The second exhibition, Small Stories, is both more opaque and, in the end, much more straightforward. Based on the opening quote from above, it seems that Lynch’s works are deliberately puzzling. With titles such as Head #15 or Thinking of Childhood, it seems that Lynch is intent on letting each viewer’s mind wander into its own space. If there is a larger project, like Fontcuberta, it is hard to discern. Rather, Lynch leaves everything up to the viewer.

DL04

From the exhibition Small Stories © David Lynch

So, what links these two exhibitions? Story-telling, but in two very different forms. One seems carefully staged and directed, causing the viewer to think one thing (“Is this true?”) and then, reliably, making them realize, “No, none of these are true”. Although Fontcuberta’s work is varied and playful, the exhibition has an internally consistent message which is hard to ignore. But for all the consistency of Fontcuberta’s larger ideas, his images also manage to allow for small stories to grow into huge stories. His alternate worlds are so powerfully imagined, so meticuously executed, so impressively crafted, that our minds do wander towards other possibilities, even though we know they’re not strictly true possibilities. And that’s what makes Camouflages such a fantastic exhibition: it manages to mix a serious intellectual message with whimsy, humor and exploration.

By contrast, Lynch’s theoretically more open-ended images/stories fall flat. Although Lynch claims that “it depends, of course, on the viewer”, it’s hard not to feel that the creator is at fault here. Compared to Fontcuberta’s perfectly realized images (and displays and videos and fake taxidermy), Lynch’s work feels fuzzy, amateurish and incomplete. Since he gives the viewer so little to engage with, the story-making process he promises can hardly begin at all.

—Alexander Strecker

Editor’s note: The exhibition will be running from January 15, 2014 until March 16, 2014 at the Maison Européenne de la Photographie.

JF11

From the exhibition Camouflages © Joan Fontcuberta

Comments are closed.