‘Double Bind’, Max Pinckers’ first museum retrospective, at FOMU Antwerp Photographic Museum, presents five of the Belgian artist’s projects of the last half-decade. Each embodies their critical stance on photography’s assertions of truth, an approach Pinckers calls “speculative documentary.” Designed with fellow artists Thomas Bellinck, Michiel De Cleene and An van. Dienderen (a grouping that refers to themselves as the school of speculative documentary), Theory seeks to problematize various documentary formats – from photography and film to theater and performance – by blurring the line between reality and fiction .
“Double Bind” allows visitors to experience “speculative documentary” in practice. In the opening section, “Margins of Excess” (2018), we meet six characters whose 15 minutes of fame involved some fabrication or embellishment scandal. Ethere is a dignified studio portrait oF Rachel Dolezal (2018), the civil rights activist who claimed to be black, and of Ali Qaissi (2018), an Iraqi man who falsely insisted he was the tortured “hooded prisoner” in the infamous photographs taken at Abu Ghraib prison in 2003. In some cases – such as that of Herman Rosenblat, the holocaust survivor whose made-up love story won and then lost him lucrative book and movie deals – an image of the subject’s concocted tale is featured instead of a portrait. In the case of Rosenblat, it is a Orange flying over a barbed wire fence (The apple that wasn’t, 2018). Whatever their subject, however, the harsh lighting and glamorous sheen of each image seemingly opposes the trial of public opinion that each subject has endured, perhaps even suggesting a hint of admiration for the disturbing imagination of the models.
The photos featured in the next section, “Red Ink” (2018), are from Pinckers’s 2017 New Yorker mission to North Korea at a time when it looked like a Twitter spat between former US President Donald Trump and Kim Jong-Un could escalate into a full-fledged geopolitical dispute. To circumvent the close surveillance and careful orchestration of foreign press visits, Pinckers used delayed multiple flash, producing forensically lit images that seem unnatural both in terms of kitschy settings and attitudes. subjects alerted to the presence of the photographer. With these deliberate formal choices and the title of the section, which alludes to an anecdote about scarcity and censorship in the former German Democratic Republic, Pinckers strongly suggests the artificiality of the situations it presents to us.
After sections “Controversy” (2017) and “Trophy Camera” (2017), which further explore Pinckers’ interest in the artifices and ambiguities of documentary photography, “Double Bind” ends with “Unhistories” (2015 – ongoing), a series framing the colonial violence perpetrated by the British during Kenya’s independence struggle in the 1950s. VSColorful photographs of former Mau Mau resistance fighters punctuate the dense rhythm of a frieze of archival documents, military reports and original photographs that winds its way along the walls at the back of the gallery. In a small picture from 2015Mau Mau veterans squat with their hands on their heads, re-enacting how the British forced them to sit during raids on villages. The effect is no less haunting to be re-enacted.
However, the exhibition ends on a hopeful note. Prophecy of Mũgo wa Kĩbirũ (2021) shows a sapling surrounded by a large metal drum. The wall text identifies it as the site where one of the greatest mügumo (fig trees) in Kenya once stood. According to a prophecy, this giant tree would fall at the end of British colonial rule, prompting British troops to guard it 24/7. In 1963, the day the British withdrew, the tree was struck by lightning. The story seems too incredible to be true and yet here is photographic evidence, backed up by archival documents – yet another example of a reality too fantastic for fiction.
‘Double Bind’ by Max Pinckers is on view at the FOMU Photo Museum in Antwerp until March 13, 2022.
Main picture: Max Pinckers, Members of the Mau Mau War Veterans Association, Murang’a Branch, 2019, photography. Courtesy of the artist and MMWVA