Is photography really immortal? Fontcuberta at Museo Fortuny

Twelve lightboxes created by the Catalan artist are the result of the dialogue between Fontcuberta and the historical collections of the ICCD

“We are no longer used to looking back at something once it is out of the news cycle” says Carlo Birrozzi, Director of ICCD – Istituto Centrale per il Catalogo e la Documentazione, speaking at the opening of the exhibition Cultura di Polvere (Culture of Dust) by Spanish artist photographer Joan Fontcuberta. Especially on social media, we are constantly immersed in an ever-running stream of images, videos, contents. Users then tend to apply this sort of behavior to all other aspects of life. Our attention always caught by something new. Even though “there is an archive section even on Instagram,” as ICCD rightfully remarks, one must admit it is hardly appealing. Why lose time looking at something old, something we’ve already seen, when platforms constantly feed you bright new contents? So, we end up living without ever looking back – permanently present, and at the same time permanently lost in the flux. In this context, what is then the meaning of Archives?

The ICCD as it looks today was founded in 1975, but its history dates back to a hundred years beforehand, in 1895, when, right after the unification of Italy, systematic surveys of the territory begun, with the aim of creating a census of the historical and artistic heritage of the new Italian state. It was one of the first projects that started using photography, born in 1939, for institutional purposes. Decades after its foundation, today the Institute owns an archive of more than 7000 phototypes, ranging from 1840 to today. Since 2018, the ICCD has been organising yearly artist residences with the aim of investigating the role of the archive in contemporary society.

For the 2023 residency, the Institute decided to invite Joan Fontcuberta, though “aware of the risk this choice implied”. Fontcuberta had indeed worked in conjunction with archives before and each and every time challenge has been his signature figure. In general, Fontcuberta’s practice has always focused on questioning the most common assumptions regarding photography, and the relationship of the medium with Truth, Memory and Matter. His time at the ICCD was no exception. The residency resulted in the exhibition Cultura di Polvere, on show at Museo Fortuny in Venice, from 24thJanuary to 25th March 2024.

Joan Fontcuberta, Trauma #1838, 2022 © ICCD Roma

As curator Francesca Fabiani recalls, it all started with a question, or rather a demand, from the artist: “May I see the most degraded photographic material you have in your collection?”. Of course, Fabiani admits, this is a pretty embarrassing request to make, especially to an institution that “has been producing, acquiring and preserving photographs since the late nineteenth century”. And yet, “skeletons there are, even in the best of families, as they say” – and out of the cupboard they brought them. Which ended up initiating “an operation full of meaning and repercussions from this otherwise rather awkward material”.

So Fontcuberta started working, as per his request, on some really old and degraded glass slides by Prince Francesco Chigi Albani della Rovere (1881-1953), mainly capturing Italian natural landscapes. After selecting portions of the original glasses, Fontcuberta created large lightboxes that show the negative images, untouched, in all their glorious degradation, with fungi and microbes all over them, creating new, implausible but breathtaking landscapes. The scenes the negatives originally depicted are almost unrecognizable, made invisible by the slow but relentless passing of time.

Describing the project, Fontcuberta speaks of “Amnestic photography”. We generally give for granted that photography is a way of capturing a moment, an object, a person or a place, making it immortal, suddenly untouchable, invulnerable to the passing of time. And yet, Fontocuberta seems to be asking with this series, what if this wasn’t the case after all? Photographs are made for us to remember – but “what happens”, the artist asks, “when photography itself forgets, loses its memory”? These, he says, “are photographs with Alzheimer’s, pictures with dementia”. As we outsource so much of our memories to digital devices (who can honestly say they never checked their cellphone photo gallery to remember what they did last week?) – the realization that photography might fail us that way is quite frightening. In fact, though Fontcuberta works with the material, using physical slides, the digital is not immune to this line of thinking either. “As we know” writes David Campany in the preface to the artist book that accompanies the exhibition, “digital storage has its own frailties and has not been in existence long enough to be truly trusted over time”.

Joan Fontcuberta, Trauma #3227, 2022 © ICCD Roma

The notion that photography is a means to capturing reality is also called into question. Truth, according to Fontcuberta, “is always constructed, a human fabrication,” never a given, never objective. In his practice, photography is more a means to construct reality than one to capture it. From passive to active. “Fontcuberta,” writes Campany, “is less interested in high art than in photography as a complicated set of activities that shape and mediate culture, and” perhaps most significantly, “provide us with the means of understanding and misunderstanding the world”. The images Fontcuberta selected, are “giving way to abstraction”. A reality to be inexorably misunderstood.

The exhibition space does not come out unscathed either. Quite the opposite, it is literally overturned. We are used to seeing pictures on display neatly hung on the wall and lit, usually on a white or otherwise light background. The exhibition at Fortuny gives a completely different perspective on photography and display: a dark room with light boxes sticking out of the walls. The light does not go to but come from the pictures, giving more the impression of being in a darkroom than in a gallery.

It is a show intended to raise questions – and maybe that is the answer (and Venice, with its complicated relationship with the old and the new is the perfect frame and framework). The role of the archive in a society obsessed with the bright and the new may be raising doubts, with a darkroom full of light, coming from old, decaying plates. The old, the decaying, the ruins, can no doubt turn into a whole new artwork of their own. As the famous Picasso saying goes, “Good artists copy, great artists steal,” but, Fontcuberta seems to be suggesting, stealing in the digital age has almost become banal. Today’s great artists, if they really want to be revolutionary and transformative, in a rather more elegant version of the saying, are those who appropriate, giving a newly fertile voice to the inevitably decaying.

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Matilde Moro
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