“Fotografía Ornamental” and “Escenas de caza” consists, apparently, of an extensive series of photographs of warplanes, more specifically of that special type of fast-attack aircraft, which is often referred to as a “fighter”. The planes are accompanied by disturbing landscapes dominated by a sky of clouds that weighs on a thin skyline and the empty space of cement or asphalt takeoff and landing strips. We could say with greater precision that this catalogue of planes, of fighters, is completed with landscapes; even that these strange landscapes accentuate a vision of hallucination and awe. In fact, these landscapes, which have some kind of non-landscape, seem to evocate emptiness.
This series, which appears with a certain documentary style, and which later an attentive gaze could define as false documentalism, is inserted into a broader project, both visual and reflective of the devices and models of representation produced by the emblematic images of power, but also and fundamentally of the conditions of possibility and reception of photography and the image. Valentín Vallhonrat undertook this project a little over a decade ago, within the framework of a reconsideration of 19th century photography, the results of which, under the title of “Fotografía Ornamental”, would form part of the Tender Puentes programme, a project that proposes crossed dialogues between current photographers and 19th century photography, for the University of Navarre Museum.
The starting point of the project is the photographic cataloguing of the Royal Armory of Madrid carried out by Charles and Jane Clifford in the 1860s. Clifford’s photographs show the helmets, helmets and shields or rollers as objects or sculptures, resting on a pedestal and with a wooden card with an identifying number on the side: in general there is an atmospheric approximation but above all we can identify it today as a catalogue style.
The perspective that introduces the parallelism between the numbered images of Charles & Jane Clifford of the Royal Armory and the fighters of V. Vallhonrat explains with a certain clarity the lines of connection and the symbolic planes of superposition between the military and power, both in the past and in the present. Simultaneously, however, photography appears as a critical device that shows us power as an ornament.
The device itself has altered the image and the very meaning of power. On the other hand, today, perhaps since the beginning of the twentieth century, when air war broke out with aviation, the way in which technology, the machine, replaced the figure of man is decisive. Although in the equestrian portraits of the past, the monarchs are covered by steel armor and riding on an armoured horse, they are still men. Airplanes and helicopters, on the other hand, appear as winged monsters or sinister coleoptera.
In the systematic documentation that Valentín Vallhonrat has undertaken of airplanes in military airports, aviation fairs, all or practically all the signs of identification, even the national coats of arms or colours, have disappeared from the carcasses and wings, as well as recognisable contexts and environments. The fighters are in the middle of nowhere, on a track without landscape, on a cement track that is like a “metaphysical” plane, only endowed with an imprecise distant horizon and a sky half covered with neutral clouds. In addition, the fighters are also photographed from behind showing the power of the reactors as authentic black holes and from the front showing the violence of speed and merciless penetration. He also photographs the tracks with cloudy or rainy skies, as empty landscapes, of cement or asphalt, abandoned in nothingness, with hardly any horizon that appears as a thin line of faded reality, these tracks end up functioning as silences, as suspended spaces.
The meaning of these images, from the structural repetition of the machine in the different models, to their variety and aesthetic multiplicity as lethal weapons and weapons of “massive destruction”, places us in a strange space and “state of exception”. The gaze is inserted into the contradiction of ethical consciousness in the paradox of technological beauty that nevertheless produces destruction.
The central theme we are dealing with here is not so much power as symbol, but the need for the power of destruction to be imposed and for it to appear as an imposing “exterminating angel” made of steel.