After a successful London run at The Science Museum, conceptual artist and photographer Joan Fontcuberta’s Stranger than Fiction exhibition moved north to The National Media Museum in Bradford where we visited on a cold and wet December day. I had already researched online and seen some videos and read a bit of background information before going to this exhibition but despite doing this I was still surprised at how much was revealed. I knew that the exhibits we were going to see had been created and were not real though pretended to be so. The National Media Museum is split over several floors and this exhibition was also split up into two galleries (Galleries One and Two) over two floors. We visited in reverse order, seeing Gallery Two before Gallery One. Gallery Two featured two displays, Sirens (2000) and Karelia, Miracles & Co (2002). Unfortunately you could not take photos so the images I provide here are not from the actual exhibition.
Out of the entire exhibition, my favourite area was most certainly Sirens (2000). Sirens was mostly comprised of a series of large photographs of fossils of Hydropithecus alpinus (human skeletons with a fish tail or mermaids). Hydropithecus alpinus (a form of sea cow) was said to be discovered by Father Jean Fontana (a play on the artist’s name) in 1947 in the foothills of the French Alps. These creatures or ‘mer-people’ were presented in the exhibition as verified by anthropo-palaentologists to be a link between the evolution of the sea and land animals. The site where they were found were stated as being a UNESCO World Heritage site.
Fontcuberta had so convincingly portrayed these discoveries, the large photographs were stunning and the way that they appeared to cling quite precariously to the side of eroded cliffs or appear to be discovered on the seabed was very cleverly portrayed and extremely playful. Some of the photos had stories attached to them about their discoveries and the lives that they might have lived Cerro de san vincente was a photo of a Hydropithecus and child and was accompanied by a description saying that they may both have died as a result of childbirth. The photo of The Bes rock shelter with two adult Hydropithecus skeletons had a description from Fontana’s diary stating that these were “…the Bes lovers, petrified and together for all eternity.” This brought to mind the evocative Cave of Swimmers scene in The English Patient where they discovered ancient cave paintings to people swimming in what became a desert. The Beaujeau skeleton was said to feature evidence of bone-making techniques and suggested that the hydropitheque had tools and perhaps had murdered the individual found.
Scientific archaeological techniques were presented as having analysed the age, sex and teeth of the hydropitheque where possible and had discovered that some had dietary deficiencies. The first skeleton discovered was from the Saint Benoit Waterfall preserved in the limestone and discovered due to erosion of the rock. The description accompanying this states that: “This landscape represents prehistoric life in its infancy where our ancestors used natural shelters as frail protection against the raging elements.” The language used here ans in other places of the exhibition was very poetic.
Aside from the huge photos in Sirens, there were two glass cabinets, one had a resin cast of a Font Chaude hydropitheque skeleton which looked remarkably realistic on the way that it was created it brought to mind many fossil casts that I have previously seen in museums and on television. I think this was because instead of creating a tail-fin out of bone he had printed an imprint of the tail on the rock which is just how you would see fossilised fish remains. A glass cabinet of curiosities relating to the finds was used to further anchor the exhibit to reality. In the cabinet amongst other items was a mocked up but very realistic looking and faux aged copy of National Geologic magazine (obviously based on National Geographic) with the seabed hydropitheque remains on the front cover. There were also Fontana’s pencil sketches of the hydropithecus skeletons, his rosary bead and wooden crucifixes. These cabinets of evidence further made the exhibit seem to appear be a real archaeological find or at least make people wonder if it was.
There was something incredibly haunting and poetic about Sirens that really resonated with me I think it was the combination of the huge glossy photos and the attempts to anchor these into a form of reality which was playful and created an inventive story that I really enjoyed. I think that Fontcuberta was trying to play with our idea of photography as representing the complete and utter truth, this is so pervasive in our culture and can be seen in the increasing reliance of photo and video identity to prevent and identify criminals but also in fashion photography where models are routinely airbrushed but we often forget this, hence the rise of depression, self harm and eating disorders in Western society.
The increasing availability of camera technology also increases the extent that people can create their own truth and fiction. The predominance of selfies and image adjusted photos that people create and then use to represent as pictures of themselves which are not real but are presented as being so online. Therefore, Sirens was ahead of its time in this respect. I think it resonates even more today than it did fourteen years ago.
It seemed liked Fontcuberta was also making a statement about authority in society and that it was a monk who had first discovered this species was perhaps making a statement about religion and that a monk could be perceived as being the authoritative truth as a man of god and that these remains should not therefore be questioned. If he was making a comment on this then it was interesting that Sirens led into the next exhibition which had much to say about religion.
Karelia Miracles & Co (2002)
Karelia Miracles & Co (2002) was a investigation by Fontane who went undercover as a novice monk to expose the fraudulent miracles that were said to be performed at a monastery. Karelia (an area between Finland and Russia) was said to be the location of the interdenominational Valhamonde Monastery where monks learned to perform miracles. Fontane was dressed as an Eastern Orthodox Priest though the exhibition seemed to be commenting on this and Catholic religion.
A video displaying short films of Fontane performing miracles was very comedic, my favourite clip was of him smoking in front of a tomb with an effigy of a man on top and when he inhaled the cigarette the smoke exhaled from the effigy! There was also a clip of him performing a speech which could not be heard or translated but was orated at a plinth very expressively with his hands bringing to mind dictators speeches and the accompanying subtitles at the end said although we couldn’t translate what was said it was a very important speech (or words to that effect). Again, in a different way this part of the exhibition was playful, with Fontacuberta making commentary on what he saw as the fraudulence of religion and its beliefs and perhaps people who steadfastly stick to these and take everything that is presented to them as the gospel of truth without question. He looked at the absurdity of this belief through pencil sketches of the Karelian Tarot of Sound Advice which displayed cards such as: 1. Avoid at all costs being decapitated and 4. Do not take part in the fratricidal disputes of trolls. He then presented a selection of photos of ‘miracles’ most performed by Munkki Juhani (the undercover monk) which began with a photo of him teaching a group of Laponian meerkats to read and getting more and more bizarre and absurd including such miracles as The miracle of the flesh where an image of Che Guevara (confused with Jesus Christ) appears in a leg of Iberian ham. Apparently, “…depending on the sort of acorns the pig was fed this can also reveal the face of Adolf Hitler and, even more rarely, Osama Bin Laden…”
Other photos displayed showed the monk in a block of solid ice The miracle of cryonisation, or on fire on a boat in The Miracle of will ow the wisp and even walking on water and dolphin surfing! Two glass cabinets of other items from the investigation were displayed on top of aged stone tables that looked very catherdral-esque. One cabinet contained items such as a Mirror (Juhaney Grey) with a description beside it stating: ”…curiously it is an ordinary mirror that reflects what you put in front.” The other cabinet contained small photos from the investigation of journalist Joan Fontuberta from: Demystifiers without borders which is obviously a play on doctors without borders. The interesting objects in the second cabinet were relics consisting of what looked like small bird bones and a ring and also in a small box what was stated as being carcasses of Insects and arachnids from the third plague of Egypt.
This part of the exhibition was playful and the most comedic part of Stranger than Fiction I feel that it gave the idea of being able to discover who Fontcuberta is in terms of his sense of humour and felt like the most revealing part of the exhibition in that sense.
Gallery One exhibited other parts of the Fontcuberta exhibition. The first exhibition was Fauna (1987) which I have to admit I myself and my accompanying visitor had strong reactions to. This part of the exhibition was completely different to what I was expecting. I was expecting to see lots of images of photo-shopped animals or creatures like a kind of photo bestiary. There were photos and descriptions of the animals, however there was also quite a lot of taxidermy of bits of different creatures stuck together! The visitor I went to the exhibition with had to leave the room as they instantly felt nauseous and I must admit I couldn’t spend as long as I had planned to in this part of the exhibition as I too started to feel ill. I do wonder if this was part of the intention of Fontcuberta for people to have a strong reaction to Fauna as no other visitors seemed to linger in this part of the exhibition and hurried through. My instant reaction was revulsion and disgust and it was incredibly grotesque. The parts I did manage to make notes of were that the narrative of Fauna which was that it was all the work of Professor of Tetraology (abnormal development in animals) Peter Ameisenhaufen (1895-1955) who catalogued and investigated all of these strange creatures but who disappeared mysteriously in the Scottish Highlands in 1955. I did wonder if Fontcuberta was making a commentary on this by inventing a sort of punishment for this Professor, was it that the same or a different strange animal(s) came for him in the lonely wilds of Scotland in revenge? He made it sound very ominous as to how and why this man had disappeared and does make you think how did this created narrative for this man actually end? Thank goodness the rest of the exhibition reverted back to photography again!
Herbarium (1984) was the first set of photos you encounter and is comprised of a number of black and white botanical looking photos each said to represent a specimen of exotic plants. In actual fact the photos are comprised of a series of objects put together to represent a flower such as a rubber hose and pieces of plastic. These images were described as being influenced by the work of Karl Blossfeldt (1865-1932) a botanical photographer who specialised in detailed clos-ups of plants. I found this part of the exhibition fairly interesting as I love botanical illustrations. Again, Fontcuberta was displaying his playful and inventive nature here by trying to disguise the flowers as being real and not invented. You could not tell if the plant was real or not in a number of the photos which showed how successful his endeavour was in challenging the nature of truth.
Orogenesis (2002) was a beautiful series of computer generated mountain-scapes that were created by using a program called Terragen which was originally created for geographers and surveyors that created maps of three dimensional landscapes. This series of mountain images were beautiful and were split into colour images and black and white ones. They did bring to mind Lord of the Rings landscapes with their powerful rocky mountains and sheer valleys which looked even more stark in black and white. Some of the images used paintings as their inspiration such as Orogenesis: Turner which was a stunning photo of what looked like a Bronte-esque Wuthering Heights moor-like terrain except it was covered in a dusting of bright red heather instead of purple heather and was inspired by William Turner’s The Burning of the House of Lords and Commons (1835). Fontcuberta also used paintings by Gainsborough and Cezanne to influence the images created in Orogenesis.
Constellations (1993), was the last part of the exhibition and consisted of several photos that were starkly black with white dots on said to represent the night sky. Several of the images though did look like bird deposits on a car windscreen! After reading about this exhibition I found out that Fontcuberta actually did use his car windscreen to create these images with dust, deceased insects and other debris, some of which may have been bird-related to create these images. I am not sure how well these images did actually represent the night sky but it was an interesting experiment nonetheless.
In summary, I would say that the Stranger than Fiction exhibition was a mixed bag. I really enjoyed the Sirens exhibit which I thought was inventive in its narrative and beautiful in the imagery created. The Karelia Miracles & Co exhibit was also playful and very satirical take on authority and religion. Both of these exhibits I would happily go to see again. I also thought that Orogenesis was beautiful and creative and would go to see this again. Constellations and Herbarium were less interesting to me personally but I wouldn’t mind going to see these again if I was going to another exhibition. Fauna however, though it was a creative narrative and I liked the story behind it, especially the mysterious disappearance of the Professor, I was repulsed by the grotesque taxidermy and feel it went too far as the narrative could have been retained through photo-shopped images instead. I do know that this exhibition has been acclaimed internationally and this is just my personal reaction and is no reflection on the artist or his work. I felt that by including the taxidermy this may have possibly been the deliberate intention of the artist to create strong reactions amongst visitors. Overall I would go to visit Stranger than Fiction again and especially recommend Sirens, Karelia Miracles & Co and Orogenesis.