Stranger Than Fiction

Joan Fontcuberta’s first major UK show, Stranger than Fiction, at the London Science Museum is currently running from 23rd July until 9th November 2014.

 

Inquiring into religion, biology and even the role of the museum itself, this understated retrospective presents six bodies of the artist’s work, which span over three decades. Through interweaving the visual expressions of museum display, scientific findings, advertising and journalism, the works mix both fact with fiction and science with art, investigating into the authority of photography and our disposition to trust what we see.

 

From the Herbarium Series, Joan Fontcuberta, 1984. Courtesy of The Science Museum, Exhib. Stranger Than Fiction.

From the Herbarium Series, Joan Fontcuberta, 1984. Courtesy of The Science Museum, Exhib. Stranger Than Fiction.

The first and largest body of work, Fauna (1987) greets you upon entering the space. It sets the tone for the rest of the works, taking on a slick, authentic style of display – in keeping with the rest of the museum. Formed of uniform framed black and white photographs with accompanying fact-files for each individual finding, it is also accompanied by typical museum supporting information, such as sound and video recordings, taxidermy animals and sketches. Presenting itself as a historical scientific breakthrough which meticulously documents zoological discoveries made from the work of Professor Peter Ameisenhaufen. Every element – from the professor himself, to detailed notes and taxidermy animals, is a collaborative artistic fabrication. Fontcuberta and Pere Formiguera (1952-2013) question the authority of museum display, and the power institutions hold to provide factual and educational information for an audience willing to learn. From snake-tailed rodents, to winged-deer, we are transported through fact files of animals with enlarged legs, to the mythical centaur, finding our deepest childhood fantasies coming true.

 

Following suit, Herbarium (1984), Sirens (2000) and Karelia, Miracles & Co (2002) are presented in the same way: framed documentary images, research information and even ‘found remnants’. Exploring biology and belief, these three bodies of work really take advantage of the trust of the museum viewer.

 

The Miracle of Dolphin Surfing, Joan Fontcuberta, 2002. Courtesy of The Science Museum, Exhib. Stranger Than Fiction.

The Miracle of Dolphin Surfing, Joan Fontcuberta, 2002. Courtesy of The Science Museum, Exhib. Stranger Than Fiction.

Simply formed from a set of framed black and white photographs, Herbarium appears to be a collection of rare discoveries of exotic plant. It is unlikely for the majority of viewers to be an expert on plant biology, so to most these images depict unusual, yet not ridiculous, plants. The artist has in fact used litter such as electrical wires and textiles to form shapes mimicking pre-existing human and inanimate forms. It is especially important to consider the specific museum here, for many visitors wouldn’t expect a critically interventionist exhibition, within a family-friendly, popular, free museum space.

It is often true that the easiest way too fool somebody is to provide them with something they wish to be true – and in this case we’d love to believe mermaids exist and that miracles can be performed. Both Sirens and Karelia, Miracles & Co add science to very mythical and belief-based elements of everyday. Suspecting that viewers may question the legitimacy of these discoveries, the artist claimed in Sirens, where the discovery of the mermaid fossil in the Provence landscapehad been vandalised; I suspect that this is the only reason they aren’t currently displayed at the Natural History Museum.

As you reach the final room and body of work, Karelia, Miracles & Co, you are exposed to an exploration into a Finnish Monastery, where monks are said to learn how to perform miracles. It becomes apparent that unless you are a firm and faithful believer, a monk riding a dolphin or developing female breasts, couldn’t possibly be realistic research. This work adds a new dimension to the artist’s critique, for it doesn’t only challenge the viewer and the museum; it unmasks the concept of miracles as a hoax. Fontcuberta has really challenged the strongest rival to science in this particular body of work, but presents it as consistently as the rest of the exhibition. Through challenging the balance between what’s reality and what’s photography, the viewer develops a peaked skepticism towards not only the show itself, but towards photography as a medium constantly engulfing an ideology; the artist chooses the particular vision to present, showing you a particular culmination of concepts.

 

Centaurus Neandertalensis, From the Fauna Series, Joan Fontcuberta, 1984. Courtesy of The Science Museum, Exhib. Stranger Than Fiction.

Centaurus Neandertalensis, From the Fauna Series, Joan Fontcuberta, 1984. Courtesy of The Science Museum, Exhib. Stranger Than Fiction.

Although it is said Fontcuberta is primarily known for his exploration into the truth and reliability of photography, it is the very site in which these meticulous bodies of work are viewed which has been ultimately criticised: the museum. Using this as a platform for critique, the artist has seamlessly displayed six research projects, purposefully using the museum as a validating platform. There is an expectation associated within a gallery, of order, attached to conventions of cognition, within a prescribed and predictable way, where the interaction of the audience and the forms of the museum, are in an infinite cycle of change that is influenced entirely by one another. It is this cyclical process that Fontcuberta highlights throughout his exhibition, and leaves you questioning your involvement as a viewer within the museum. It could seem that these works cannot comment, or even exist, outside of an institutional structure, yet being within it immediately elevates its acceptance of the display, language and criticism of what it means to exhibit.

 

The Art Magazine


FMG Arts MonthlyNow I needn’t ask if you’ve read an art magazine, because you’re clearly reading one right now, but are they becoming the compact, convenient alternative to art exhibitions? I know this sounds far-fetched (and it is a little bit) but there is reasoning behind it.

Firstly, an art magazine is a publication whose main topic is art. They exist in both print form, online or sometimes even both, and are often aimed at different audiences, including galleries, collectors, amateur or professional artists and the general public. As a reader myself for both leisure and research reasons, I am aware of the importance of these magazines within the art world as a whole. However, if we take a step back, are these journals providing such an insight to the visual, theoretical and creative content of exhibitions, that we no longer need to experience them first hand?

We are spoilt with glossy, high resolution images when reading these magazines. This is even more prominent since the transference into digital form, where HD screens allow photographs to mimic reality. It makes you wonder, since the fast development of technology in the past twenty years, how we can read about and see images of exhibitions on our mobile phones. We can access this on the train, in bed, and on the way to work – every reason to not see the real thing.

The reproduction of popular exhibitions within magazines adheres to the fast-paced (yet often lethargic) lifestyle we lead, where often it is hard to set aside time to experience art in all its glory; experience being the operative word here, for a magazine cannot capture this. Imagine reading about a Rothko exhibition, or a Tino Segal performance in one of these journals – you’d never be able to imagine how it feels to speculate the art first hand. Don’t get me wrong, different art is hated by some and loved by others but if you are reading a biased article then you’ll never get any personal feeling about the original work.

The publications themselves are branded in a similar way to how galleries are – they adhere to a particular audience and are formed of a certain kind of content. With branding in mind, both exhibitions and articles are chosen to represent a core set of ideas or concepts. Sadly, many journals are clogged up with advertisements (often about galleries or exhibitions), which dilutes the flow through article to article. I guess it’s obvious to state that if you view art physically, you would have no problem with pages and pages of unnecessary, similar adverts with the odd perfume campaign.

It seems that in contemporary society we may be running the risk of compacting experiences into digital or object forms. I’m not saying in anyway that it captures the essence of these experiences, nor do they pose a threat, but I know I’m not the only one guilty of skipping the latest box office movie in exchange for a review and a trailer or simply looking at the pictures of current popular exhibitions. Art has developed alongside art journals, magazines and monologues so these aren’t new additions to the workings of the art world, yet does convenience, lower cost (or buying something you can keep) and a commentary neglect an afternoon spent in the company of art itself? Probably not, but I wouldn’t be surprised if I’m not the only one reading this magazine and not viewing the art in its full glory.

Brighton Degree Show – Art Fare

The degree show is a very awkward tradition set in place by the institution as self-branding for themselves and upcoming graduates. This conventional expectation takes place every year, whereby every student is expected to muster up a penultimate creation to sum up their entire art school education. Its safe to say that this is a doomed prospect from the outset. This almost unquestioned element of art education is what I wish to explore in this article – do we make work that plays to a high traffic public, rather than question what it means to present a defining artwork vital to our exposure as an artist?

My feelings towards the degree show, admittedly, stem from the nature of my course. Fine Art: Critical Practice at the University of Brighton which places theory and practice as equally important, where you develop a practice which tests itself against discussion and analysis, considering the mode of authorship, the context of the work and how it engages with an audience and society. As part of a group of fourteen students, we all agreed that it has always been a flawed process whereby each year the studio is transformed into aquasi-gallery space, purely to accommodate the degree show. I just want to clarify that we were all aware the necessity of a degree show (for logistical reasons) and the platform it gave us to expose our previous post-studio show, Art Fare.

Art Fare was a two-week exhibition attempting to remove contemporary art from inside of the gallery, and took place across the in-service Brighton and Hove buses. By engaging with a wider audience in a public and accessible space, the exhibition explored the value of art in the everyday. Many works were advertised, whereas others deliberately slipped under the radar, allowing an element of uncertainty on some journeys. Due to the unique transit, post-studio nature of this exhibition, the works were difficult to capture in its entirety. This exhibition captured the ideas we wanted to challenge; so to then create a degree show two weeks later would always exist in the shadow of Art Fare.

Being aware of the exposure the degree show presents allowed us to collectively produce a documentation show of the exhibition. We did, however, actively refuse the conventional form of a documentary gallery exhibition and instead we continued the trajectory of show through Art Fare: The Shop. For those who saw the bus-show, the items in Art Fare: The Shop functioned as souvenirs, and for those who didn’t see the show, they were compensation for the missed opportunity. The work in the show took the understated forms of postcards, key-rings, cushions, posters, and other merchandise – each documenting the essence of the context-specific works.

The exhibition was inside a purpose built white cube, set inside the studio and leaving the majority of the space empty to place emphasis on the structure. Often there is no acknowledgement of its role for the previous three years as a functional, cluttered studio – it was this exact issue that we firstly wanted to avoid, and then came to directly address in our show. Aspiring to this, the white cube structure played on the false pretence given during the degree show; that the work is in a legitimate gallery environment, when in fact it has just been remodelled to appear so.

It often seems that London art schools set the precedent for expectations for work within a degree show – most likely instigated by the YBA’s. Through their use of shock tactics, throwaway materials, and wild living, they achieved considerable media coverage and dominated British art during the 1990s. Famously, many of the artists were supported and collected by Saatchi. For many people, the degree show acts as a platform to uncover their identity as an artist to collectors, potential employers and the press. Now don’t get me wrong, this works very favourably to a lot of people, I just think it leaves a strong reputation for expected spectacular works of art like Damien Hirst’s The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living, a shark preserved in formaldehyde in a vitrine, and Tracey Emin’s My Bed, a disheveled double bed surrounded by detritus.

Brighton Art Fare

 

 

Crippling the Blacksmith Part Two: The Boundless Museum

As the second installment of his Arts Council England funded project, Jon Lockhart’s Crippling the Blacksmith examines institutional display, artifacts and our relationship with them through unspoken insight. In its broadest sense, the exhibition embraces the suppressed nostalgia within us all, bringing each and every viewer into an immediate and eternal relationship with every object displayed.

Its charm begins with the sheer visual wealth in the exhibition’s most prominent work, The Boundless Museum, made from stainless steel scaffolding which accommodates an abundance of found items – adopted and hoarded by Lockhart as a generous pool of reusable creative objects. Through carefully and systematically displaying the countless amounts of things in a static motion, the items appear as though they are frozen amidst a monumental storm of decades past and present. The vast installation has the ability to swallow up the viewer, yet instead it poses as a delicate shelter during a process of looking and discovery. There are chairs elevated on protruding tubes of scaffolding, piles of vinyl records on the floor, coloured cord snaked around poles and the most insignificant clutter ordered with precision. As the core of the exhibition, this installation engulfs the baffling and normalizes it, providing a continuous narrative from object to object; resulting in a tangible collage.

This obscure fictional journey continues throughout both Fanton Walk and Beat, where both works almost become entirely overlooked. In most exhibitions, this would be a bad quality, however in Lockhart’s case, it draws strong attention to the exhibitions use of accidental placement. Fanton Walk, made from a discarded road sign arranged with abandoned pieces of wood and cardboard, seems to be so strategically placed (near the exhibition entrance) that many viewers overlooked it entirely; unlike camouflage, this work is so obvious that it simply acts as a milestone to continue the visual journey. This exploration lingers also within Beat, where its obvious subtlety – a purposeful oxymoron, in fact reveals an uncanny quality to Lockhart’s practice that is neither purely childish nor purely humorous. Beat intensifies everyday objects such as a calculator, screwdriver and an aerial by arranging them as bizarre objects that are no longer simply novelty retro household items, but formed into a sculpture transforming them from invaluable, non functioning items into milestones of technological history. Even though it is clear that these objects don’t work – there are no visible plugs and are not serviceable in their displayed position; they become a believable contraption that echoes make-and-do decades from the past.

Jon Lockhart

 

 

Breaking up the inquisitive murmurs from visitors is This Love of Mine, installed in an enclosed space; the super 8 projector sequentially turns on, along with Frank Sinatra’s renowned song. It is important to note here that the projector did not in fact project anything except the light without a slide. This work – outside of its romantic associations, became a duet between two elements from the cultural past. As the most cryptic work in the show for me personally, the use of Sinatra’s song combined with the projector (not projecting), only hints towards Lockhart’s love for old technology. I think it is fair so say that the absolute wealth of discarded objects is really encompassed within this work, and also in his other work, Flag; a work drawing attention to the passing of time through amplifying the ticking of a clock through several speakers.

Together, the composition and spacial installments within Crippling the Blacksmith: Part Two, guide the viewer through not just the gallery (where the works exist), but through time. Time is not only key to the experience of the works and the duration of becoming immersed within Lockhart’s loosely orchestrated narrative, but it makes us aware of the history behind the objects themselves, craftsmanship and the immediate elevation of the objects into artifacts.

Whats The Point Of It?

What’s The Point of It? is Turner Prize winner, Martin Creed‘s, first major retrospective at the Hayward Gallery, 29 Jan – 27 April 2014. As part of the programme of events surrounding this exhibition, Creed hosted an evening talk about his work and life in general.

It is important for me to begin by stating that I purposefully didn’t view Creed’s retrospective prior to the talk with the intention of exploring the relationship between an Artist’s talk and live exhibition. Without the exploration into a proper definition, you’d assume that an Artist’s talk usually consists of an insight into the practice and experiences of the artist in question, perhaps with more detail about projects they are working on or a commentary of the exhibition. Creed did not attempt to meet any of these assumptions where it was announced that, “the performance will be starting in ten minutes”. This created a confusion between whether it was purely an ironic mis wording by the gallery or if there was actually a performative element to the talk itself.

The talk began with Hayward Gallery Curator, Cliff Lawson, entering the stage in the Purcell Room to introduce Creed. Lawson began with a typical introduction to the success of Creed’s career and brief insight into his practice, which all seemed very ironic considering the success of his practice is apparent in the context of the retrospective, but none-the-less we were all informed of Creed’s presence in many noteworthy galleries and wealthy cities. As an active and successful member of the art world, Creed is an artist I have always been aware of, yet admittedly I know very little. This was even more obvious to me once I discovered he was the awkward character stood behind the curator for fifteen minutes whilst he was introducing him by a more eloquent version of his CV.

FMG Arts

I have only experienced Andrea Fraser in conversation at the Tate Modern prior to this, and while this shaped my expectations, Creed’s talk was so alien in comparison. It caused me to feel detached, particularly since I was unaware of the extension of his practice into music. This poses the question of who the artist talk is directed to: is it Creed who is assuming the audience knows his work in detail, or does it allow people to discover more from an artist they know little about, or a middle-ground between both? It is these particular intimations that I was curious to unveil in order to question whether Artist’s talks are composed with an existing knowledge of their practice in mind, which I found became quickly answered as the talk progressed. Creed’s presence further contributed to this uncertainty, as his slap-dash charisma was not as you’d expect– his talk appeared quite awkward, almost as if public speaking was not a strength of his. Audience members picked up on this and consequently began forming questions as a way to structure the gawky ambience in the room. This resulted in some very profound questions, probing the artist for a definitive insight about certain works which produced an almost grovelling situation where the audience members became a comforting mother to Creed as the child with two left feet.

FMG Arts

It was the lack of visual description around the work which separated me the most and this is when I began to connect the least with the partnership exhibition and the works within it.Questions were asked about the ‘work where the lights went on and off’ and the ‘mothers piece’ which – without basic assumption of what they were – I couldn’t mentally participate in the discussion around these works. I suppose that without projecting my own personal ideals onto the talk, even on a very primitive level there should have been some supporting images provided to illustrate any discussion – even if I had known about the works spoken about, it is always a refreshing optical addition to see the work as it is often assumed that those present had seen the exhibition or know his work.

Speaking of this talk retrospectively and in comparison to Andrea Fraser’s, I came to conclusion that Creed’s talk exists only very loosely amongst knowledge about his exhibition. In the case of Andrea Fraser, my familiarity with certain works provided me with the insight to access works I did not know, which were presented by Fraser in image form, videos or a vivid description, creating a strong overview of her practice as whole and the importance of the works in relation to each other. It is safe to say that it is unlikely for someone to attend an artist’s talk without prior knowledge of the said exhibition or elements of their practice and in this instance my lack of this awareness resulted in a feeling of exclusivism towards Creed’s practice as a whole. Unless I had seen What’s the Point of It? preceding the talk, I was not invited to see a brief overview of Creed’s practice, ideas or external works for it felt more of a fan-show for all those who knew about these beforehand.

 

Written By Catrin Andrews