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Issue 226

Max Pinckers's Fantastic Fictions

At FOMU Photo Museum Antwerp, the artist reveals the contrivances and ambiguities of documentary photography

BY Wilson Tarbox in EU Reviews , Exhibition Reviews | 10 FEB 22

‘Double Bind’, Max Pinckers’s first museum retrospective, at FOMU Photo Museum Antwerp, presents five of the Belgian artist’s projects from the past half-decade. Each embodies his critical stance on the truth claims of photography, an approach that Pinckers terms ‘Speculative Documentary’. Conceived with fellow artists Thomas Bellinck, Michiel De Cleene and An van. Dienderen (a grouping that refer to themselves as The School of Speculative Documentary), the theory seeks to problematize various documentary formats – from photography and film to theatre and performance – blurring the line between reality and fiction.

Max Pinckers, The Apple That Wasn’t, from the series ‘Margins of Excess’, 2018, photograph. Courtesy: © the artist and Gallery Sofie Van de Velde

‘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. There’s a dignified studio portrait of Rachel Dolezal (2018), the civil-rights activist who claimed to be Black, and of Ali Qaissi (2018), an Iraqi who falsely insisted he was the ‘hooded prisoner’ being tortured in the infamous photographs taken at Abu Ghraib prison in 2003. In some cases – like that of Herman Rosenblat, the holocaust survivor whose invented love story won and then lost him lucrative book and movie deals – an image from the subject’s concocted tale is presented instead of a portrait. In Rosenblat’s case, it’s an orange flying over a barbed-wire fence (The Apple that Wasn’t, 2018). Regardless of their subject matter, however, the severe lighting and glamorous sheen of each image seemingly opposes the trial-by-public-opinion that each subject endured, perhaps even suggesting a hint of admiration for the sitters’ disruptive imaginations.

Max Pinckers, Mother and Daughter at the Rungna Dolphinarium, National Liberation Day (Aug.15), Pyongyang, North Korea, 2017, from the series ‘Red Ink’, 2018, photograph. Courtesy: © the artist and Gallery Sofie Van de Velde

The photos presented in the next section, ‘Red Ink’ (2018), are from Pinckers’s 2017 New Yorker assignment in North Korea, at a moment when it seemed that a Twitter spat between former US president Donald Trump and Kim Jong-Un might spill over into a real geopolitical conflict. To bypass the close surveillance and careful orchestration of foreign press visits, Pinckers used a multiple delayed flash, producing forensically lit images that appear unnatural both in terms of the kitsch decors and the attitudes of subjects alerted to the photographer’s presence. With these deliberate formal choices and the section title, which alludes to an anecdote about scarcity and censorship in the former German Democratic Republic, Pinckers strongly suggests the artificiality of the situations he presents us with.

Max Pinckers and Michiel Burger, Members of the Mukurwe-ini Mau Mau War Veterans Association demonstrate how people were rounded up and sent to detention camps, Mukurwe-ini, 2015, photograph. Courtesy: © the artists and MMWVA

After the sections ‘Controversy’ (2017) and ‘Trophy Camera’ (2017), which further explore Pinckers interest in the contrivances and ambiguities of documentary photography,  ‘Double Bind’ concludes with ‘Unhistories’ (2015–ongoing), a series framing the colonial violence perpetrated by the British during Kenya’s independence struggle in the 1950s. Coloured photographs of former Mau Mau resistance fighters punctuate the dense rhythm of a frieze of archival documents, military reports and original photographs that snakes across the walls at the far end of the gallery. In one small image from 2015, Mau Mau veterans crouch with their hands on their heads, re-enacting how the British forced them to sit during village raids. The effect isn’t any less haunting for being restaged.

Max Pinckers and Michiel Burger, Mũgo wa Kĩbirũ’s Prophecy, Monumental Uhuru Gardens, Thika, Kenya, 2015, photograph. Courtesy: © the artists

The exhibition ends on a hopeful note, however. Mũgo wa Kĩbirũ’s Prophecy (2021) shows a sapling surrounded by a wide metal drum. The wall text identifies it as the site where one of the largest mügumo (fig) trees in Kenya once stood. According to a prophecy, this giant tree would fall at the end of the British Colonial rule, prompting British troops to guard it 24/7. In 1963, on the day the British withdrew, the tree was struck by lightning. The story sounds too incredible to be true and yet here is photographic evidence, undergirded by archival documentation yet another example of a reality too fantastic for fiction.

Max Pinckers's 'Double Bind' is on view at FOMU Photo Museum Antwerp until 13 March 2022. 

Main image: Max Pinckers, Members of the Mau Mau War Veterans Association, Murang’a Branch, 2019, photograph. Courtesy: the artist and MMWVA


Wilson is an art historian, journalist and critic based in Paris.