The Media Space at the London's Science Museum has recently opened a retrospective of photographer Joan Fontcuberta's work. The series on show explore constellations, geography, natural history and many more science-related topics. Each of the body of works exhibited would deserve its own blog post but i'm going to focus on the Fauna series because it brings to the attention of the broader public the long-lost archives of a German zoologist called Professor Peter Ameisenhaufen.
Fontcuberta discovered the archives by chance during a trip to Stockholm with his friend writer and photographer Pere Formiguera. Ameisenhaufen gained fame in the first half of the 20th century for his controversial research on rare animals. Many of his colleagues refused to believe these creatures were real but Ameisenhaufen spent decades collecting evidences of their existence. The archives uncovered in the late 1980s by Fontcuberta were surprisingly rich and well detailed: photos, field notes, dissections drawing, audio clips documenting the calls and other sounds of these truly exceptional animals. Several specimens were even remarkably preserved by taxidermy.
Here are a few examples of the creatures the professor discovered over the course of his career:
Alopex Stultus- An herbivorous animal, completely inoffensive and very timid. When it senses the proximity of an enemy, it finds a shrub of the species Antrolepsis Reticulospinosus and digs a hole in the earth, into which it sticks its head, leaving the rest of the body suspended in a vertical posture in an attempt to mimic the shrub. Unfortunately, the outcome is not particularly satisfactory and both men and predators usually capture it at this point.
Solenoglypha Polipodida- Extremely aggressive and venomous, it hunts for food and also for the pleasure of killing. It is quite rapid and moves forward in a curious and very rapid run, thanks to the strong musculature of its 12 paws and the supplementary impulse which it obtains by undulating all of its body in a strange aerial reptation. When facing its prey it becomes completely immobile and emits a very sharp whistle which paralyzes its enemy. It maintains this immobility for as long as the predator needs to secrete the gastric juices required to digest its prey, which can vary between two minutes and three hours, as determined by the size of the victim. At the end of the whistling phase, Solenoglypha launches itself rapidly at its immobile prey and bites the nape of its neck, causing instantaneous death.
Cercopithecus Icarocornu- the sacred animal of the indigenous Nygala-Tebo tribes, for whom it represents the reincarnation of Ahzran (he who came from heaven). The females give birth inside a large cabin in the village to which only the great shaman has access. The baby animals remain inside the cabin until they have completely developed their ability to fly, at which point the tribe celebrates a lavish ceremony during which Cercopithecus undergoes an operation in which it is grafted with the skin of the silver fish of the Amazon, which covers all of the pectoral and abdominal zone. Once this has been done, the animal is set free, although it never strays very far away from the village, and participates by its presence in all of the sacred festivals of the NygalaTebo. During these festivals the animal is given a spirituous beverage which it drinks eagerly, sinking into a state of complete inebriety, at which point it begins to flap its wings so madly that it hovers in mid-air with its body immobile, singing like one possessed.
Of course none of these animals have ever existed and i knew of the hoax before i entered the show. Yet, i wasn't sure. Fontcuberta is such a master in deception and seduction that i needed to remind myself that this wasn't 'documentation'.
In fact, when Fauna was shown at the Barcelona Museum of Natural Science in 1989, 30% of university-educated visitors aged 20 to 30 believed some of the imaginary animals Fontcuberta devised could have existed.
I didn't know at the time what Fontcuberta looked like, otherwise i might have detected that Hans von Kubert, the assistant of Professor Ameisenhaufen bears an uncanny resemblance to Fontcuberta himself:
More evidences of the existence of the creatures, i just can't resist:
Joan Fontcuberta grew up in Spain under the dictatorship of General Franco, at a time when propaganda shaped what people should believe and trust. Like many other members of his family, Fontcuberta worked in advertising until the late Seventies, when he decided to learn photography by himself and investigate how the medium constructs truth and untruth.
The other photo series shown in the exhibition Stranger than Fiction are as amusing and deluding as Fauna. The show closes on the hilarious Miracles & Co series which shows Fontcuberta in the guise of a monk living in a Finnish monastery school specialized in teaching how to perform all kinds of wonders. By the time i exited the show, there really remained no doubt in me that photography shouldn't be trusted unreservedly.
"Photography is a tool to negotiate our idea of reality. Thus it is the responsibility of photographers to not contribute with anaesthetic images but rather to provide images that shake consciousness."
Views of the exhibition space:
Stranger than Fiction is at Media Space Gallery, the Science Museum in London until 9 November 2014.
A few weeks ago, i discovered the existence of the Barts Pathology Museum. And then i visited it so you don't have to.
The museum was opened in 1879 and its collections of organs and tissues were used to train medical students. The museum is located in a charming wood, steel and white shelves space with three mezzanine levels and a spiral staircase. The 5,000 specimen collection, however, is even more gruesome than i had suspected.
The jars are filled with all kinds of deformed and diseased body parts: a gout-swollen hand, an inguinal hernia from around 1750, the bound foot of a Chinese woman, the skeletons of conjoined twins, a liver dented by years of wearing tight corsets, a brain perforated with an ice pick during a frontal lobotomy, a rat that died of tuberculosis, a cabinet of surprisingly voluminous objects that people inserted into their bodies (more about that one in the video below), etc.
I loved the place and i hope it will be open to the public more often in the future. Even though that museum will haunt my nightmares for years to come. Photos were not allowed on my visit. I've therefore stolen as many images as i could online (with due credit wherever i could find it, of course.)
Here's a quick presentation of some of the specimens. Some with comments, others with only the shortest description:
On the afternoon of 11 May, 1812, John Bellingham, a bankrupt businessman, walked into the lobby of the Palace of Westminster and shot prime minister Spencer Perceval, making him the only UK prime minister to be assassinated. Bellingham was sentenced sentenced to death by hanging. As was customary for the time, his body was donated to hospitals to be dissected and anatomized. His skull is preserved at Barts Pathology Museum.
These vertebrae were damaged following a method of judicial hanging called The Long Drop or "Measured Drop" which takes the person's height and weight into consideration. It meant that the rope was the right length to ensure an instantaneous death caused by 'a broken neck' but didn't result in the decapitation of the victim which did occur frequently.
This pot contains a large portion of the liver of a 52 year old female. It is supposedly exhibiting the deformities caused by prolonged 'tight-lacing' of corsets and is dated 1907. The liver is on its side in the glass pot, and the deformity can clearly be seen in the form of a cleft splitting the right lobe of the liver in two.
"A fracture of the mandible. The jaw is broken between the canine and the first bicuspid teeth on either side. This is the common seat of fracture. It was wired during life. (1886)
I'll close this post with a little gem. Carla Valentine, Assistant Technical Curator at the museum takes us through some of the dangers of inserting foreign objects into orifices:
The Barts Pathology Museum is located at the St Bartholomew's Hospital in Smithfield in the City of London. The museum is usually closed to the public. Except for a few afternoons in August and for special events and taxidermy classes. Unfortunately, The Gordon Museum of Pathology which seems to be bigger and fascinating is not open to the public either.
The Victoria and Albert Museum in London has recently opened an exhibition that "examines the powerful role of objects in movements for social change." It is called Disobedient Objects. That's the kind of title that chic and cheerful designers would use to describe how their work is 'subversive' but, thankfully, this is probably the most un-designy show the V&A has ever organised (except for the whole communication and setting which was orchestrated by the studio of Jonathan Barnbrook.) Disobedient Objects is not one of those fashionable activist art exhibitions either. This is a show about activism with a capital A, a show inhabited by artefacts that had never graced the venerable rooms of a museum or art gallery until now.
Many of the items exhibited are often mundane objects that were either given a new purpose or modified in haste in answer to an emergency situation. As modest as they might seem, these artifacts show the resourcefulness and ingenuity of people. They testify of their courage as well. Confronted with the sophisticated (except maybe in London where our good Mayor favours cut-price water cannons that are being phased out in Germany amid concerns about their safety) and potentially harmful equipment used by security forces, these artefacts look almost pitiful. But that doesn't make them less efficient.
Disobedient Objects focuses on the period from the late 1970s to now, a time that has brought new technologies and political challenges. The items displayed range from the very rudimentary to the sophisticated, from a slingshot made from a Palestinian child's shoe to mobile phone-powered drones for filming demonstrations or the police, from textiles sewn by women to communicate the atrocities they have experienced under the Pinochet regime in Chile, in particular the 'disappearance of their children to a robot that spray paint slogans on the pavement.
I entered the show ready to sneer at V&A's grand attempts to glamourize popular protests and turn evidences of genuine and at times violent dissent into food for cool hunters. My fighting mood quickly vanished. Disobedient Objects is a show that invites visitors to get out and raise their heads, to be inspired and fight for their rights. And that's what matters to me.
As the curators wrote: "Peaceful disobedience only works when protesters have cultural visibility and the government acknowledges their right to protest. Without this, struggles for freedom can sometimes take other forms."
Here's a very small overview of the stories you can discover in this ridiculously crammed with visitors but invigorating exhibition:
As usual, I bow (me saco el sombrero?) to Spanish wittiness. No one does protests as eloquently and astutely as they do these days. TAF! and Enmedio worked with Plataforma de Artefactos por la Hipoteca (a platform for mortgage debt victims) against dehumanizing media representations of people affected by Spain's mortgage crisis. The group pasted portraits of evicted homeowners on the facades of banks responsible, showing evicted people, not statistics.
The inflatable cobblestones were rolled across the streets in Berlin and Barcelona to confuse police and generate sympathetic media attention.
When many people run the program FloodNet (1998) together, they can target and overload websites. The Java applet was created in response to the massacre of 45 peaceful supporters of the Zapatistas in Mexico. Ten thousand protestors disturbed the website of the Mexican presidency and the Pentagon. FloodNet has since been adopted by many groups and movements.
The first Bike Bloc was part of the mass civil disobedience organised during the 2009 Climate Summit in Copenhagen. Moving in swarms, bikes helped protesters breach the summit's security cordon and hold an alternative People's Assembly. The leading bike carried a sound system and pirate radio antennae. It broadcasted via other bikes around it with independent speakers, each on a separate channel. The sound could jump between bikes inside the crowd, and change in tone to respond to different situations.
The banner was made for the 2009 Climate Camp at Blackheath, London. It identified capitalism as the source of climate chaos and as an ongoing crisis of inequality and injustice.
One of the banners hanging over the exhibition space was designed and hand-stitched by Ed Hall (whose name appears in almost every single post i've written about Jeremy Deller's work.) Hall has been making banners used by union groups for over 30 years. This one was used in a protest march in support of the NHS in Manchester in 2013. It features the Thatcher quote 'Still the enemy within', which is surrounded by iconography referencing the miners' strike, poll tax rebellion and welfare cuts.
Andy Dao and Ivan Cash circulated dollar bills stamped with fact-based infographics that communicate the widening economic disparity in the U.S.A. The designs were also released on the Internet enabling anyone to participate.
The artists/advertising experts were commissioned by the museum to design stamps about the UK's wealth disparity on the £5 note: in 2011, 1% of the UK population earned £922,433 while 90% earned £12,933. Any visitor can use the stamp to make their money a bit more riotous.
There is a long, long tradition of bank notes used for protest. The show also reminded that in 1990, a Burmese currency designer very subtly painted the face of Aung San Suu Kyi onto a new note after she had been democratically elected then placed under house arrest by the military junta. The designer softened the features of Gen. Aung San (the father of Aung San Suu Kyi) so that his face resembles the one of his daughter. People could thus hold up their bank notes to the light and see a hidden portrait of the opposition leader.
In 2013, the Turkish government used record amounts of tear gas against people protesting against the redevelopment of the Gezi Park in Istanbul. Protesters devised their own makeshift gas mask using plastic bottle, surgical face mask, foam and rubber bands.
Greek protesters adopted an equally cunning strategy. People resisting government austerity discovered that a solution of antacid and water sprayed onto the face offered relief from the burn of tear gas. However, it left a white residue that market protesters out.
The protest shields painted to look like books were first made in Italy, in November 2010. Students were protesting against the drastic cuts to the public university system. The oversize books were held up at the front of demonstrations so that when the police hit the students with sticks, it looked as if they were attacking literature.
Students in London produced their own book shields after they saw videos of the actions online. The tactic quickly spread to other parts of the world.
A couple of artworks did sneak into the exhibition. I guess that the Graffiti Writer doesn't need any introduction....
The gallery also featured Molleindustria's Phone Story, a free game app that players win by forcing children to mine coltan in the Congo, preventing worker protest-suicide in China, managing rabid consumers in the West and disposing of electronic waste unsafely in Pakistan. The game was banned from Apple's iTunes store four days after its release.
The Guerrilla Girls was formed in 1985 to protest against the ridiculously low number of works by female artists in the most prestigious galleries and museums of New York. Their fight is as relevant as ever today (and not just in NYc obviously.)
More images from the show:
The museum has PDF guides to DIY some of the objects exhibited.
Disobedient Objects was curated by Gavin Grindon and Catherine Flood. The show is at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London, until 1 February 2015.
I'm one day late (how lame!) for my wrap-up of the exhibitions i enjoyed in London in July.
Starting obviously with the favourite one. Men y Men by TrujilloPaumier at New Art Projects. Joaquin Trujillo and Brian Paumier went to Oxaca to portray two communities who communicate radically different ideas of masculinity. Paumier's Moros are cowboys standing next to their horses, while Trujillo's Muxes shows a community of mixed gender people living in the indigenous Zapotec culture of Oaxaca.
Trujillo Paumier: Men y Men closed on 20 July.
British Folk Art at Tate Britain is bizarre, quirky but thankfully never condescending. Instead of wasting time speculating on is it art/is it not art?, the exhibition celebrates people's creativity and resourcefulness. Expect gigantic boots that served as tradesmen's signs, a cockerel made by prisoners from the Napoleonic Wars out of mutton bones, imposing ship figureheads, embroidered remakes of classic paintings, etc. I'd be more enthusiastic if folks didn't have to pay £13.10 to enter.
The show is up until 31 August 2014. Happy Famous Artists has a great flickr set.
One of the most interesting galleries in London, Calvert22, is showing the work of photographers and video artists who explore identity and place in early 21st century Russia alongside the pre-revolutionary works of Sergei Prokudin-Gorsky.
I liked the work of Alexander Gronsky a lot. Especially the series Pastoral, which looks at the desolate spaces where the urban and the rural meet.
Close and Far: Russian Photography Now is at Calvert22 until 17 August.
I also went to the Horniman Museum in Forest Hill, London. The building and botanical gardens opened in 1901 to host the collection of a business man who traveled the world to gather objects related to world culture, natural history and music. Among the 350,000 objects, there are lots of stuffed animals, a Spanish Inquisition torture chair and a charming little Merman (the husband of the mermaid?)
I never found the merman, alas! But i discovered doublepreps: half the animal is shown as taxidermy, the other half is stripped to its skeleton.
One of the Horniman galleries has a fascinating photo exhibition that documents the lives of indigenous peoples in the Russian Arctic. The photos were taken by British photographer Bryan Alexander who has been travelling to the Arctic since 1971.
Whisper of the Stars: Traditional Life in Arctic Siberia is at the Horniman Museum until 07 September 2014. Interview with the photographer. More photos in The Guardian.
I'll end with An Idiosyncratic A to Z of the Human Condition at the Wellcome Collection. The exhibition offers a selection of some of Henry Wellcome's objects, medical artefacts, paintings, photographs and sculptures, along with a couple of contemporary artworks.
I wasn't as impressed as every single journalist who published glowing reviews of the show in their newspapers but i did enjoy some of the artefacts. Such as this photo of rubber beauty masks that removed wrinkles and blemishes.
Or this fetching corrective ear-cap, patented by Adelaide Claxton in 1945 to wear at night in order to 'correct and prevent the disfigurement of outstanding ears'.
The exhibition is up until 12 October 2014.
I entered the PEER gallery a bit by chance and quickly realized that the exhibition involves one artist whose work i admire, an interesting-sounding organization called Archive of Modern Conflict and a photographer who has won numerous awards for his work on AIDS in Uganda, the conflict in Kosovo, the war in Lebanon, anti-terrorism in Algeria, etc.
The artist is Fionna Banner and the photographer is Paolo Pellegrin. Banner asked the photo reporter to explore the City of London and to reflect its activities, behaviours, customs and costume through the lens of conflict photography.
The photos are every bit as good as you would expect from Pellegrin and the way Banner has orchestrated them in the exhibition only adds depth, humour and an extra layer of information. Hundreds of the images are sequenced in a short and gripping film, accompanied by a mixed soundtrack of open cry trading at the London Metal Exchange, melded with a persuasive and hypnotic drumbeat. The other photos are either displayed in museum-type vitrines or inside frames hanging on the walls of a second gallery. Floor to ceiling graphite drawings magnify traditional City pinstripe suits to the point that they become overbearing (or maybe it's just me who's uncomfortable with having a drawing of a banker's crotch at eye level.) The iconic pattern of the financial district even finds itself, absurdly, turned into nail art design. An amusing juxtaposition if you think that the financial sector in London has been relentlessly accused of being sexist.
Speaking of sexy sex, i had to smile in front of the map that shows how strip bars are surrounding the Square Mile. The City of London Corporation has its own electoral system and its own laws. One of them forbids the presence of strip bars in the City. :
The title of the show is Mistah Kurtz--he not dead. Mistah Kurtz is a character from Joseph Conrad's book Heart of Darkness. Kurz is a shrewd and corrupt ivory trader in Africa who has managed to turn himself into a demigod of all the tribes surrounding his station. Towards the end of the book, the death of Kurts is announced by a 'manager boy' with the words 'Mistah Kurtz - he dead.' The City culture of excess, greed and aloofness from society offers indeed parallels to Conrad's narrative.
It is not the first time that Banner references Heart of Darkness. Two years ago, she organised a performance of Orson Welles' screenplay Heart of Darkness, based on Conrad's story. It would have been Welles' first film but it was rejected. He made Citizen Kane instead.
Mistah Kurtz - He Not Dead, 2014, High definition digital film projection and mixed media wall drawing, 6.19 minutes, 2014. Image Fiona Banner
Mistah Kurtz--he not dead is at PEER in London until 26 July 2014:
Previously: Fiona Banner at Tate Britain.
I see far more exhibitions than i can blog (i could but i'm fairly lazy, you see.) So this morning, i went through all the photos i took in London galleries and museum in June and threw them hastily in this almost laconic post in case you're in town and bored. Being bored in London seems to be my latest obsession but that's another story.
Here we go...
The ever fabulous Science Museum has a small show about the work of scientist and inventor James Lovelock. I spotted this apparatus to test if a detector would work on Mars. Lovelock built it in his home lab in the 1960s while working on NASA's Viking Mission to Mars. It is made with an ordinary kitchen jar and lid. The detector was sealed inside the jar and air was removed via the valve on the left to replicate Martian atmospheric pressure.
Check out the Exponential Horn while you're in the building.
Speaking of wild inventions. I caught the very last day of the Paul Granjon exhibition at Watermans. It was called Is Technology Eating My Brain? and it was very very funny. It's not every day that i laugh my face off all alone in an art gallery. The show was the result of the artist's residency in the art center. He had a couple of works in the gallery (including a magnificently visitor-unfriendly Biting Machine), the rest were works made by participants of Granjon's Wrekshop. They included a slicing photo booth and a geranium survival kit.
I spent far too long watching the videos of Granjon's fancy inventions and performances:
I watched this one three times:
And I now need this book: Hand-Made Machines [Includes DVD]
The show's already closed alas! but here's a few images. And a video.
The Victoria and Albert museum was showing the short listed artists and the winner of the Prix Pictet. The theme was Consumption in all its disastrous relationship to environmental sustainability.
Abraham Oghobase photographed hand scribbled texts advertising the various informal services offered by people living in Lagos, a city of over ten million inhabitants and the commercial capital of Nigeria.
In Lebensmittel, Michael Schmidt portrayed the mechanized, industrialized food system of contemporary Western culture. From pigs standing skin to skin in a factory farm to piles of discarded food. Seeing the images one next to the other up on the wall was both shaming and mesmerizing. No wonder the series won the prize.
The exhibition closed a couple of weeks ago.
Talking in the context of her Post-Surveillance Art series, she said that: "What has altered for me post Snowden, is not an awareness and negotiation of a changed condition, but the knowledge that now almost everybody else knows something which was clear as day if you did a bit of research, and it's great to no longer be called a conspiracy theorist."
I have no time for design products, except when they come with a Soviet aura. The GRAD: Gallery for Russian Arts and Design is showing all kinds of plastic toys, a dial-less Telephone, red velvet flags, retro futuristic vacuum cleaners, etc.
Work and Play Behind the Iron Curtain is at the GRAD: Gallery for Russian Arts and Design until 24 August.
I also visited The Human Factor: The Figure in Contemporary Sculpture during the press view. I can't say that was the show of my life. AT ALL! But there were a couple of works i was glad to see again....
The Human Factor: The Figure in Contemporary Sculpture is at the Hayward until 7 September.
Gun Architects's rainforest-inspired pavilion at Bedford Square for the 2014 London Festival of Architecture.
Photojournalist Nick Danziger visited North Korea in 2013. He recorded the everyday life in the DPRK and was given rare access to cities outside Pyongyang. The story behind each photo is probably more interesting than the photos themselves. The subjects are doing very ordinary things (getting their hair done at the hairdresser, sunbathing by the sea with their kids, etc.) only it does look like the photos were taken in the past.
According to the British Council the exhibition is "the first cultural engagement of its kind" between the UK and the Democratic People's Republic of Korea. The Guardian adds that it opened in London with no advance publicity, for fear that the dire relations between North Korea and the west might sink the first cultural project of its kind.
Above the Line: People and Places in the DPRK (North Korea) is open at the British Council HQ in London until 25 July.
I spotted this one in the street.