Until May 8, 2022, you can visit the exhibition Jorge Ribalta. Todo es verdad. Ficciones y documentos (1987-2020) in the Fundación MAPFRE Recoletos Hall in Madrid. This is the first retrospective exhibition of the Catalan photographer and shows his transition from staged illusionist photos, which began in 1987, to documentary photography.
TEXT: FUNDACIÓN MAPFRE CULTURE AREA IMAGES: © JORGE RIBALTA, VEGAP 2022
Jorge Ribalta (Barcelona, 1963) is a curator, art critic and photographer, activities that he has been combining since he started his career in the 1980s. In 2005, his work underwent a radical change that divided it into two opposing periods, at least in its basic conception. During the first, his work focused on poetically exploring the constructed naturalism of photography, while in the second he has redirected his projects towards a reinvention of the documentary.
Jorge Ribalta’s first exhibition was held at the Metrònom Gallery in Barcelona during the Primavera Fotográfica Festival in 1988. In the late 1980s and early 1990s he enjoyed several stays in the United States, mainly in New York and Chicago, and in 1994 he organized his first exhibition at the Zabriskie Gallery, coinciding with his participation in the New Photography 10 exhibition, the influential annual international selection of emerging artists organized by The Museum of Modern Art (MoMA).
As part of his role as a cultural manager, between 1999 and 2009 he was director of the Department of Public Programs at the MACBA (Museum of Contemporary Art of Barcelona) and editor of several books on photography that have become a reference today, including La fotografía en el pensamiento artístico contemporáneo (Photography in Contemporary Artistic Thought; 1997) and El movimiento de la fotografía obrera, 1926-1939 (The Working Class Photography Movement, 1926- 1939; 2011). He has also been a regular contributor to the newspaper La Vanguardia, advisor to the photography collection of the Gustavo Gili publishing house and regularly publishes articles and essays in various media. His work has been seen in numerous group exhibitions and has had monographic exhibitions in Madrid, Barcelona, New York and Paris, as well as Salamanca and Cáceres.
The exhibition presented by Fundación MAPFRE in its Recoletos Halls on the artist, Jorge Ribalta. Todo es verdad. Ficciones y documentos (1987-2020), takes its title from the famous but unfinished Orson Welles documentary It’s All True (1941-1943), a work that has been the subject of numerous debates in recent decades. The project is his first retrospective exhibition and traces the passage from illusionistic staged photography, which began in 1987, to his documentary photography, which began in 2005 and which he continues to pursue today.
Based on large sets and a serial logic, this chronological exhibition brings together 14 series of work from the late 1980s to 2020, including a screening room and documentary material that offer a broad overview of the artist’s work.
First staged works (1980s and 1990s)
In 1987, Jorge Ribalta began to work on his first stagings with miniatures in the studio, a task that took him fifteen years. The results were small-format images with which the artist criticized representation and in which we find veiled references to the history of photography.
The larger photographic canvases focus mainly on faces, but they also include some landscapes, as in the series “Árctico” (Arctic; 1991-1996), where Ribalta developed a serial logic for the first time.
On his first trip to Chicago in 1994 he visited the Art Institute of Chicago, where he discovered the Thorne Rooms, a collection of miniature rooms that represent a history of decorative styles. After this trip he began to work on other series such as “Habitaciones” (Rooms; 1994-1996) and “Pacífico” (1996).
In 1997, in New York, he began to use 35 mm color slides to photograph the stagings and then film them with a Super 8 mm camera, which allowed him to create the effect of movement and the passage of time in the still images. In his exhibition Habitaciones y proyecciones at the Estrany-de la Mota Gallery in Barcelona in 1998 he showed these last works, including Super 8 projections, short loops of continuous projection, indistinctly in color and black and white.
Last stagings (1999-2004)
The type of camera he uses, an adapted large format camera, allows him to get very close to the subject and increases the verisimilitude of the photographed motif, which often produces a strange sensation of disturbing ambiguity. The spectator is not always fully aware of what they are looking at, not even realizing that they are looking at a staging.
Despite his desire to discontinue the stagings, that same year he actually made more of them, focusing on Barcelona’s Chinatown. He reconstructed places that were in the process of disappearing due to the urban planning operation that was to change the physiognomy of the place for good, while at the same time criticizing the urban history of the area. From this came the series “La Dalia Blanca” (The White Dahlia; 1>1999-2002), one of his few color works, which takes its name from a flower shop in the neighborhood affected by this renovation and which is also a nod to The Black Dahlia, by the acclaimed crime writer James Ellroy.
His final series based on stagings is “Antlitz der Zeit” (2002-2004), a homonymous quotation from August Sander’s book (in English, Face of our Time) published in 1929 with a selection of 60 photographs and an introduction by the writer Alfred Döblin. Ribalta’s portraits, on the other hand, consist of a set of “anti-portraits” of celebrities and mass media personalities, made with miniature figures, a way to selfcriticise the photographic practice that he himself had developed up to that moment.
Inflexion, works on Barcelona (2005-2020)
The year 2005 was a turning point for Ribalta, who began to photograph the urban transformation of Barcelona. Since then, one of the main thrusts of his work has been to critically represent the city’s evolution in the era following the Universal Forum of Cultures in 2004, an event in Barcelona’s urban history that the author interprets as being the symbolic end of the period that began with the Cerdà Plan of 1860 and culminated, a century and a half later, with the recognized “Barcelona model” of the 1990’s. Studying the urban history of Barcelona is his way of bearing witness to the times.
The initial core of his works on the city of Barcelona are “Trabajo anónimo” (Anonymous Work; 2005), which captures details of machinery and tools used during the campaign in the Poblenou neighborhood to preserve the last of its metallurgical factories in Can Ricart; “Sur l’herbe” (On the grass; 2005-2008), which responds to an observation of the audience of the Sónar music festival, one of the paradigms of the new cultural policies; and “Futurismo” (Futurism; started in 2005 and still ongoing). The set of these works also includes others, such as “Litoral” (Coast; 2009), a survey of the surroundings of El Prat airport, and “1888” (2012-2013), which documents the remains of the 1888 Barcelona Universal Exposition and its current uses.
Field works (2007-2020)
In 2007, Jorge Ribalta received an invitation to photograph Tarragona as part of a project on the historical legacy of this city, declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site. This gave rise to the “Petit Grand Tour”, an observation of the various processes, from museographic to touristic, that converge in the production of discourses on the past and which argues that history is a fabrication.
In this way, the author undertook an analysis and critique of artistic institutions and cultural work. One of these “field works”, as the author himself calls them, is “Laocoonte salvaje” (Wild Lacoon; 2010-2011), a title taken from a verse of the book Poema del cante jondo by Federico García Lorca, which criticizes the folklorizing and neorealist rhetoric dominant in the representations of this art. Another was “Scrambling” (2011), made in the Alhambra in Granada, through which he intended to represent the production mechanisms of the monument, understood in terms of a factory: the processes of security, restoration and maintenance, gardening and irrigation, marketing and commercial use.
Documentary tragicomedies (2009-2020)
In 2009, after ten years in the position, Ribalta left his post as head of Public Programs at MACBA and began an intense curatorial task in which historical research gained great weight and archival work offered him a new perspective of the role of photography in modern art.
The set in which this condition reached its most radical is the trilogy dedicated to Carlos V, a controversial symbol both from the point of view of the history of the Spanish nation and from the imperial-financial logic of capitalism in Europe. In addition, this work acquired a great deal of importance and current relevance in Spain after the abdication of Juan Carlos I in 2014, and the global crisis that kicked off with the great recession that began in 2007.
This trilogy is made up of the series “Imperio (o K.D.)” (Empire (or K.D.); 2013-2014), which deals with the abdication and retreat to Yuste of Carlos V; “Renacimiento. Escenas de reconversión industrial en la cuenca minera de Nord-Pasde- Calais” (Renaissance. Scenes of industrial reconversion in the Nord- Pas-de-Calais mining basin) (2014), in the Hauts-de-France region; and “Faute d’argent” (Lack of money; 2016-2020), which is presented for the first time in this exhibition. This last series, developed along the geographical axis Augsburg- Seville-Mexico, completes the symbolic geography of the empire. The first two are set in Spain and Europe, and the latter, along the mentioned Ausburg-Seville-Mexico geographical axis. The series, a reflection on the relationship between Carlos V and the Fugger dynasty of German bankers, also deals, in a discourse not lacking in humor, with the economics of silver and cocoa in the colonization of America.