Mountains of Kong

Jim Naughten’s latest project takes the viewer back in time to
fabled place, which may or may not have ever existed. Acting
as an explorer, scientist and photographer Naughten has
documented a world that existed in the popular consciousness
for over a hundred years.

The Mountains of Kong could be found on the worlds most
prestigious maps of Africa from 1798 through to the late 1880s
when they were finally declared to be non-existent. Naughten
has created a series of stereoscopic images that tell a very
different story as he imagines a fictitious record made for
posterity and scientific purposes during an expedition to the
mountain range. The resulting images are viewable in three
dimensions by using the same stereoscopic technology made
popular in the late 1800s which allowed Victorians to travel
to the four corners of the world whilst sitting at home in their
armchairs. Naughten presents us with the evidence for the
existence of the mythical kingdom in irrefutable three-
dimensional form.

Jim Naughten says: “In the Mountains of Kong I discover
extraordinary, otherworldly landscapes, encounter strange
exotic creatures that dwell in a parallel universe. A magical
Shangri-La ruled by animals. The work aims to be engaging
and playful but also functions as a comment on the mutability
of history and our ever evolving and malleable relationship
with the past”

Michael Hoppen Gallery


* * *


Neither Here nor There

Photographers were required to provide equally
the neutral accuracy of the photographic trace,
the show-window spectacle of the exotic, and the
epiphanous engagement with the sacred. Each
of these effects was expected to carry viewers
beyond their everyday existences and yet confirm
their most central assumptions concerning the
word in general and the non-European world in
particular.
— From Travelling Light by Peter Osbourne

The above quotation lays out some of the high expectations
of Victorian commercial travel photography, whilst also
hinting at Ninetieth Century fascinations, desires and
obsessions. Such aspirations are all woven into Mountains of
Kong
by Jim Naughten — not only in subject matter, but also
in medium and how one looks at the photographs. Tapping
into the wonder and magic of the time, Mountains of Kong
takes the viewer on a journey to a mythical mountain range
in Africa. Historical descriptions of these fertile lands were
lush and hallucinogenic, described by a series of Chinese
whispers that became all the more paradisiacal with each
Western explorer’s version. Gold and scarlet rivers and trees
existed on cerulean mountains where the luscious vegetation
jostled with fantastical beasts. Human desire for mythical
kingdoms and the creatures that inhabit them are plentiful
in literature and folk lore: from the hanging gardens of
Babylon and Atlantis, to more contemporaneous beasts
such as the Loss Ness Monster and of course King Kong.
Such desires continue the promise of a Shangri La, or the
capturing of mythical untameable animals that seem locked
forever in our imaginations and cultural consciousness.

What makes the ‘real’ Mountains of Kong different was
they existed on maps of West Africa right up until the 1880s.
They did not come from the imagination of popular adventure
novels by authors such as H. Rider Haggard or Jules Verne,
but were instead marked and mapped by cartographers,
a fact that gave them the authority of truth. Similar expect-
ations were (and still are) also made of photography, but as
the above quote suggests photography also has to entertain,
and in the 19th Century, it had to take the viewer far away
from damp and miserable English winters into exotic lands
that were simultaneously known and not known.

Nobody grasped photography’s ability to entertain more
than one of its first inventors Louis Daguerre (1787–1851),
who neatly double backs into this tale by being a key
developer of the diorama theatre: a key development
in three dimensional viewing of still images for mass
entertainment invented earlier in the century. In these
photographs Naughten has photographed dioramas in
museums in both Europe and the US, taking artificial
scenes that often don’t quite add up and presenting them
as ‘scientific’ proof of the Mountains of Kong. Naughten
is exploring and reinventing the fabled mountain range
questioning the veracity of the photograph; the
authenticity of map making; the fantastical desires
for reality and fantasy; and the malleability of history.
He ties these investigations back into a key moment
of photographic history by making the images stereo-
scopic and thus echoing the excitement not only of the
explorations and literature of the time, but also the
wonders of the new invention of photography that was
able to dazzle and amuse viewers with its transformative
ability to turn photography three dimensional.

Breathing fresh life into the myth of the Mountains of
Kong
, Naughten is a modern day explorer filled with the
same thrill of the chase and desire for the exotic as
those ninetieth century heroes that filled the pages of
Lost World Novels. His work holds the same excitement
and wonder as early travel photographs. As we look at
these three dimensional colourful worlds we know in
our heart of hearts they are not real, just as a journey
to the centre of the earth is impossible, but for a tiny
moment, we hope it could be true.

Susan Bright