Art & Photography

Kutluğ Ataman: Journey to the Moon

William Kherbek takes a final look at the “mockumentary” and documentary photography before the exhibition closes

Kutluğ Ataman, Journey to the Moon, 2008

There was an election a few years ago in Switzerland wherein one of the parties that now passes for “conservative” in Europe campaigned against the building of a mosque by depicting minarets as rockets. The message couldn’t have been clearer: they’re coming to get us with their crazy minaret thingies; hide the cuckoo clocks! Kutluğ Ataman may have had the controversy in mind when he put together his ambitious, powerful, lovingly rendered, and completely fake “documentary”, Journey to the Moon on show at Thomas Dane Gallery until Sunday.

In the film, a group of villagers in deepest darkest Anatolia have a bright idea about sending a man to the moon in a rocket made from a converted minaret. Hilarity, pathos, poignancy, and courage ensue. The tale is set in 1957, more than a decade before the real moon journey taken by Neil Armstrong and company. Tantalisingly plausible, the story has a Marquezean humour about it and the “archival” footage evokes the Méliès brothers’ early cinematic special effects masterpiece of the same title. So it works as a satisfying little mockumentary, but is it art? It’s a multi-channel video so that makes it art, right? That’s increasingly the logic: if you don’t show it on multiple channels, people will think, why am I in a gallery and not in my underwear watching this on Youtube? Ergo: not an art video, just a stopping point between sneezing aardvarks.

I’m pleased to say that the multi-channel approach isn’t just a short-cut to artiness. In keeping the photographic images of documenting the “original” flight on one channel and the talking heads – in this case, the heads of historical scholars, aviation engineers, legal experts and animal rights activists, on the other – Ataman essentially reifies the difficulty of reflecting on past events. Contemporary theories proliferate, and the bare facts of any given historical moment in the pre-cameraphone age are rendered in sketchy if tantalising exaptations which inevitably leave out more than they reveal. Into these interstices we pour our own needs, concerns, agendas and desires, Ataman seems to be saying.


There are more specific narratives of course. Ataman’s historical scholars reflect on the 1529 Siege of Vienna by the Ottoman Empire, and, the spirit of Atatürk can never be far from a story about the foibles and fortitude of a hyper-modern and evolving Turkey. There’s probably more than a few sly references to the-moon-landing-was-fake conspiracy theories as well if you look hard enough. This kind of background knowledge will certainly enhance any viewing of Journey to the Moon, but it’s not necessary, just 80 minutes of your time and a willingness to believe.

Kutluğ Ataman: Journey to the Moon runs until 6 April at Thomas Dane Gallery, 3 & 11 Duke Street, London SW1Y 6BN