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Joan Fontcuberta and Pere Formiguera, Centaurus Neandertalensis from the Fauna series, 1987

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Joan Fontcuberta, Stranger Than Fiction. Photo by Kate Elliott

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 from the Fauna series by Joan Fontcuberta and Pere Formiguera, 1987 ∏ Joan Fontcuberta.jpg
Joan Fontcuberta and Pere Formiguera, Alopex Stultus from the Fauna series, 1987

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.

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Joan Fontcuberta and Pere Formiguera, Solenoglypha Polipodida, from the Fauna series

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Joan Fontcuberta and Pere Formiguera, X-ray Solenoglypha Polipodida from the Fauna series

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.

Cercophitecus Icarocornu from the Fauna series by Joan Fontcuberta and Pere Formiguera, 1987 ∏ Joan Fontcuberta and Pere Formiguera.jpg
Joan Fontcuberta and Pere Formiguera, Cercophitecus Icarocornu from the Fauna series

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Joan Fontcuberta and Pere Formiguera, Cercophitecus Icarocornu from the Fauna series

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Joan Fontcuberta and Pere Formiguera, Cercophitecus Icarocornu 2, 1987, from the series Fauna

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:

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Joan Fontcuberta, from the Fauna series

More evidences of the existence of the creatures, i just can't resist:

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Joan Fontcuberta and Pere Formiguera, Myodorifera Colubercauda from the Fauna series,1985-1989

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Joan Fontcuberta and Pere Formiguera, Myodorifera Colubercauda from the Fauna series,1985-1989

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Transplant Operation, from the Fauna series (photo via)

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From the Fauna series

Centaurus Neandertalensis from the Fauna series by Joan Fontcuberta and Pere Formiguera, 1987 ∏ Joan Fontcuberta and Pere Formiguera.jpg
Joan Fontcuberta and Pere Formiguera, Centaurus Neandertalensis from the Fauna series, 1987

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Skeleton of Felis Pennatus, 1989

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."
- Joan Fontcuberta

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Joan Fontcuberta, The Miracle of Feminity, 2002

The Miracle of Dolphin-Surfing, 2002, Joan Fontcuberta ∏ Joan Fontcuberta.jpg
Joan Fontcuberta, The Miracle of Dolphin-Surfing, 2002

The Miracle of Levitation, 2002, Joan Fontcuberta ∏ Joan Fontcuberta.jpg
Joan Fontcuberta, The Miracle of Levitation, 2002

Views of the exhibition space:

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Joan Fontcuberta, Stranger Than Fiction. Photo by Kate Elliott

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Joan Fontcuberta, Stranger Than Fiction. Photo by Kate Elliott

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Joan Fontcuberta, Stranger Than Fiction. Photo by Kate Elliott

Stranger than Fiction is at Media Space Gallery, the Science Museum in London until 9 November 2014.

Sponsored by:





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Vincent Debanne, Battleship

On his return from Africa in 46 BC, Julius Caesar organised a naumachia, a staged sea battle on a water-filled basin by the river Tiber. For this water extravaganza, ships of two to four banks of oars representing historical fleets were set afloat. On board were thousands of combatants and rowers, prisoners of war or condemned to death who had to fight and reenact famous battles. All for the joy of the Roman people. Caesar's naumachia was the first documented one. Other, even more grandiose ones would be later organised by emperors in amphitheatres.

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A naumachia held at the Colosseum. Illustration by G. Nispi-Landi, 1913 (image)

In his Battleship photo series, Vincent Debanne transposed this kind of flamboyant spectacle to our days of growing wealth inequality.

The artist sets the scene in well-known playgrounds for luxury yachts: the bays of Antibes and of St-Tropez in France. Using image manipulation, Debanne turns these recreational vessels into formidable warships. The photo series also provides a surprisingly realistic commentary on some of our world's current economic, social and political issues.

I discovered the work of Vincent Debanne at the festival PhotoIreland in Dublin a few weeks ago and i recently contacted him to know more about his work. The artist answered me in french. I translated his text into english but if you scroll down, you'll find his answers in the original language as well:

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Vincent Debanne, Battleship

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Vincent Debanne, Battleship

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Vincent Debanne, Battleship

Hi Vincent! I think what i found most remarkable about the photos (apart from the fact that they are stunning) is that they are completely credible. It took me a while to realize that they were not documenting any actual sea battle. These namachiae look completely logical, that's what the super rich would do to have fun between two parties, i imagine. But as far as i can understand, all your photo series are based on real social or political concerns. So what did you want to communicate with the series?

With the Battleship series, I want to evoke the display of power performed by the super rich in the exclusive centers of world yachting. The Bay of Saint-Tropez remains an important destination for this activity. I think that this display of luxury is made for two audiences: for the poor, as a show, a triumph, as they would have called it in Rome, but mostly for the rich themselves, the game is one that will require the biggest yacht, the longest length to affirm your status, communicate your high rank to other rich people.

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Vincent Debanne, Battleship

What does the use of photomontage allow you to express that could not be conveyed through pure documentation or scene setting?

I show this gathering of yachts as a naval battle, because that's what it is, a balance of power, a fight. Photomontage gives me the opportunity to reveal, to exaggerate this underlying violence, the violence of economic war. These boats, with their aggressive design, their evocative names (unless they have female names), each of them bearing the flag of offshore havens, are already very impressive, but the photomontage makes their warrior appearance even more obvious, and emphasizes their kinship with the military. Furthermore, the world's largest yacht builder, which is German, also manufactures warships. Some of these yachts are armed with defense systems to fight against piracy. Photomontage makes it all visible!

What was the creative process for Battleship? What did you start with? just a few yacht meeting on the surface of the sea and then you add some explosion effect? How do you construct the photos from there?

The series is done in three stages. First, the shots of yachts on the water and then the photographs of the rear of the yachts moored in the port of Saint-Tropez and Antibes, in order to collect warriors names (a very short type), an image of the port of Antibes (a fortified harbor that shelters the largest yachts in the world), and finally the post-production, special effects, additions of explosions, smoke, etc.

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Vincent Debanne, Battleship

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Vincent Debanne, Battleship

The scenes in many of your photo series appear uncannily real, but have there's something about them that makes us question reality itself. Is this something you are conscious of? And how do you manage that?

Yes, my photo series always play with realism: the documentary side of my images is essential. It has to be plausible at first sight. That's because my work is not fanciful but seeks to interrogate reality, often in a sociological and political perspective. It engages in a dialectical relationship with reality.

Some of your photos series are inspired by paintings. this seems to be the case with Battleship as well. Is it painting in general that inspired you or were you trying to evoke the style of a particular painter or genre?

I like to rely on painting. Rather than a painter in particular, it's the genre that interests me, with the archetypes it comprehends. These archetypal images help me show archaisms that are still very active nowadays. I proceed by exaggeration and the pastiche is one of its components. It is true that the marine is a theme that is seldom approached in photography, the major example of it remains Gustave Le Gray.

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Battleship Journal. Design by Lucie Lecomte and Vincent Debanne

Why did you chose to edit the photos in a journal? instead of a book for example?

I chose the form of a self-published newspaper, remembering how newspapers from the XIXth century used printmaking to relate naval battles. With designer Lucie Lecomte, we chose to leave more room for the image, with double-pages and the journal format that opens up flat. The newspaper remains an effective and inexpensive political medium. It can be distributed!

Thanks Vincent!

French version of Vincent Debanne's answers:

I think what i found most remarkable about the photos (apart from the fact that they are stunning) is that they are completely credible. It took me a while to realize that they were not documenting any actual sea battle. These namachiae look completely logical, that's what the super rich would do to have fun between two parties, i imagine. But as far as i can understand, all your photo series are based on real social or political concerns. So what did you want to communicate with the series?

Avec la série Battleship, je veux évoquer la démonstration de force donnée par les très riches dans les lieux privilégiés du yachting mondial. La baie de Saint-Tropez reste une destination importante pour cette activité. Pour moi cet étalage de luxe est effectué pour deux publics : pour les pauvres, comme un spectacle, un triomphe, on aurait dit à Rome, mais surtout pour les riches eux-mêmes, le jeu est à celui qui s'imposera par le plus gros yacht, le plus long métrage, pour affirmer son statut, communiquer son rang aux autres riches.

What does the use of photomontage allow you to express that could not be conveyed through pure documentation or scene setting?

Je montre ce rassemblement de yachts comme une bataille navale, car c'est ce qu'il est, un rapport de forces, un combat. Le photomontage me donne la possibilité de révéler, d'exagérer cette violence sous-jacente, celle de la guerre économique. Ces bateaux, avec leur design agressif, leurs noms si évocateurs (quand il ne s'agit pas de noms de femmes), tous sous des pavillons de paradis Offshore, sont déjà très impressionnants, mais le photomontage rend leur aspect guerrier plus évident, et souligne leur parenté avec le militaire. D'ailleurs le plus grand constructeur mondial de yacht, qui est allemand, fabrique également des navires de guerre. Et certains de ces yachts sont armés de systèmes de défense, pour lutter contre la piraterie. Le photomontage fait que tout cela devient visible !

What was the creative process for Battleship? What did you start with? just a few yacht meeting on the surface of the sea and then you add some explosion effect? How do you construct the photos from there?

La série est réalisée en trois temps, d'abord les prises de vues des yachts sur la mer, puis des photographies de l'arrière des yachts amarrés au port de Saint-Tropez et d'Antibes, pour collecter des noms guerriers (une très courte typologie), une image du port d'Antibes (port fortifié abritant les plus grands yachts du monde), et enfin la post-production, les effets spéciaux, additions d'explosions, fumées etc.

The scenes in many of your photo series appear uncannily real, but have there's something about them that makes us question reality itself. Is this something you are conscious of? And how do you manage that?

Oui, il y a toujours un jeu dans mes séries photographiques avec le réalisme : la part documentaire de mes images est essentielle. Il faut que cela soit plausible au premier abord. Car mon travail n'est pas fantaisiste mais cherche à questionner la réalité, souvent sous un angle sociologique et politique. Il engage un rapport dialectique avec le réel.

Some of your photos series are inspired by paintings. this seems to be the case with Battleship as well. Is it painting in general that inspired you or were you trying to evoke the style of a particular painter or genre?

J'aime m'appuyer sur la peinture : plus qu'un peintre en particulier, c'est effectivement le genre qui m'intéresse avec les archétypes qu'il comporte. Ces images archétypales me sont utiles pour montrer les archaïsmes encore très actifs dans notre époque contemporaine. Je procède par exagération et le pastiche en est une des composantes. Il est vrai que les marines sont un thème peu traité en photographie, l'exemple majeur restant Gustave Le Gray.

Why did you chose to edit the photos in a journal? instead of a book for example?

J'ai choisi la forme du journal, autoédité, en me rappelant les journaux du XIX eme siècle qui relataient les batailles navales en gravure. Avec la graphiste Lucie Lecomte, nous avons choisi de laisser la plus grande place à l'image, sur des doubles pages et le format du journal permet d'ouvrir bien à plat. Le journal reste un médium politique efficace et peu cher. Il peut être distribué !!!

Merci Vincent!

Also at the festival Photo Ireland: Anecdotal radiations, the stories surrounding nuclear armament and testing programs.

In our collective unconscious the atom bomb is synonymous with Hiroshima and Nagasaki. But since 1945 it has been documented that more than 2079 nuclear bombs have been detonated on Earth. Since the end of the Second World War, nuclear power countries have methodically bombed their own lands. Self mutilation in the name of self defense.

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David Farhi, Anecdotal radiations

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Copa Room showgirl Lee Merlin poses in a cotton mushroom cloud swimsuit as she is crowned "Miss Atomic Bomb 1957." Photo Credit: Don English/ Las Vegas News Bureau/Las Vegas Sun

Anecdotal Radiations is a series that uncovers the unknown, forgotten and often very strange stories surrounding nuclear armament and testing programs. A couple of the anecdotes are well-known such as the Miss Atomic Bomb pageant or the story of the bikini. Others are downright baffling: the chicken vaporized when a nuclear bomb is dropped by mistake, the taste of a beer after a nuclear explosion, the ultra secret activation code on all American nuclear weapons set to "00000000", etc.

David Fathi has collected archive photos, satellite imagery, packshots and road-trip photos. By adding his own images to the archive documents, the photographer orchestrates a series of baffling, yet true, stories that illustrate the discrepancies that exist between the world we have created and the world we believe we live in.

I discovered the series last month at the festival Photo Ireland and the more i read about these anecdotes on Fathi's website, the more i thought i should get in touch with him and interview him:

Hi David! What inspired you to have a look at some of the 'unfamiliar stories and anecdotes' about nuclear bombing and experiments?

I believe my fascination started a couple of years back with one image.

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Nuclear explosion photographed less than one millisecond after detonation. From the Tumbler-Snapper test series in Nevada, 1952, showing fireball and "rope trick" effects. The fireball is about 20 meters in diameter in this shot

This is the photo of a nuclear explosion, just a couple of milliseconds after its detonation. At the time, nothing could capture such images, and scientists had to design an entirely new high-speed camera. I was mesmerized by this photo, as it is a scientific document of something terrifying but seems so abstract and beautiful.

We normally have this very clear image of the atomic bomb as a mushroom cloud, and here we have a photo that completely changes our perception of it, by showing its origin.
I wanted to find a way to talk about this image in a project some day, but hadn't found the right approach yet.

Last year I finally started researching nuclear testing, and it was like going down the rabbit hole. I knew, just like everybody else, that nuclear testing happened during the cold war. But I had never really stopped to think about what that meant. When I thought about the bomb, Hiroshima and Nagasaki is what came to mind, even though since then, more than two thousand bombs have detonated on earth.

The more I researched, the weirder it got. When trying to deal with the gap between weapons of unfathomable power and the human stories of the men who try to master them it becomes absurd, terrifying and darkly funny.

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David Farhi, Anecdotal radiations

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David Farhi, Anecdotal radiations

The series mixes archival photos, satellite imagery, packshots and road-trip photos. How do you combine them? do you start with archive material and then add your own images to fill some gaps, for example?

I start with an anecdote. After enough research, I find this small story that is totally true, but seems unreal. It becomes one of the building blocks around which I start gathering photos.

Then I list the typologies of photos I want to use (satellite imagery, archives, packshots, roadtrip) and try to find how I can illustrate in a literal fashion the story. Once I have gathered enough material, it seems very factual and straightforward. That's when I try to break it up, and find images that are more metaphorical and only tangentially related to the story.

The aim is to create a documentary based on facts, but the result seems like fiction. So it's all about finding a balance between precise documentation and playful deconstruction.

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David Farhi, Anecdotal radiations

Some of the experiments you selected for the series seem to have been conceived by brazen, unconscious minds. There are also accidental releases of nuclear bombs too. Do you you think the military is more cautious nowadays or are there still some dangerous experiments taking place? How much do you think is still hidden from us?

I'm close to finishing my project, and I'm trying to find a couple of stories that are more recent, so that people remember that nuclear weapons are not just a thing of the past and more probably something we will have to continue dealing with for centuries to come.
So here are a couple of things that we learned recently about the United States nuclear program:

- In August 2007, six nuclear warheads were loaded by mistake on a military plane. When it landed, nobody knew the devices were on board. The plane was left unguarded on the tarmac for 36 hours before people realized what was happening.

- In September 2013, the n°2 officer in charge of Nuclear Command was fired for gambling with counterfeit poker chips.

- In December 2013, one of the top generals in command of nuclear armament was fired for an incident in Moscow where he was seen with Russian escort girls drunkenly boasting about what he was in charge of.

- In March 2014, 82 nuclear launch officers were implicated in a cheating scandal on their security exams.

These are just stories uncovered by the press in the USA, as Russian, Chinese, French, British, Israeli, etc. Nuclear programs are very tightly kept under wraps. It's nearly impossible to get relevant data about those.

With all of this in mind, I find it hard to understand how nuclear armament is not more prominent in the news.

Could you pick up some of the images you selected from archives or made yourself and comment what they are about? Explaining why you chose them from archives or why and how you made them? (i started selecting the photos that intrigued me the most but i ended up with so many of them i decided i'd let you chose instead)

This photo is an actual press archive of Spanish minister for information and tourism Manuel Fraga Iribarne and US ambassador Angier Biddle Duke swimming near Palomares, Spain, after the crash of a B-52 bomber and the loss of four nuclear warheads. All to assure the local population that everything is safe and under control.
The manipulation on top of Fraga is a superposition of the satellite image of a nuclear crater.

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David Farhi, Anecdotal radiations

Speaking of satellite imagery, I printed out photos of nuclear impacts. I then created these sculptures for two reasons. Firstly they seem like rocks & minerals, alluding to the melted rocks you can actually find on sites where nuclear bombs were tested. And secondly to give these images a 3D existence. All these "scars" are visible just by going on Google Earth, but we still don't really know they exist, so maybe by giving them this three-dimensional quality they can appear as more "real".

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David Farhi, Anecdotal radiations

This photo was taken on the road between Nevada and California. There have been some lawsuits around these regions by communities who claim having been exposed "downwind" from the Nevada Test Site. I took quite a few photos along this path, looking for semi-fictional traces of these stories.

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David Farhi, Anecdotal radiations

This is a screenshot from the documentary Atomic Café, a great source of information that everybody should watch. The movie has an incredible wealth of obscure archival films of the cold war era. This particular clip is still amazing to me, as I have found no clue to where it came from. It's part of a long list of absurdities you stumble upon when doing research on the subject (like Nuclear War card games, Miss Atom Bomb beauty pageants, etc)

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David Farhi, Anecdotal radiations

What were your objectives in publishing this series of photos. Was it purely informative and anecdotical or is there a more socially engaged or political motivation behind the series?

My interest in this subject is mainly psychological. The politics of nuclear armament seem pretty easy. Even people in charge of such programs do not see nuclear bombs as a good thing. So how do we deal intellectually with their continuing existence?

There is a huge dissonance between the world we imagine we live in and the one we actually live in. The over-the-top consequences of nuclear bombs are so immense that we naturally shut it out of our minds. My objective is not to say nuclear bombs are bad (that is quite a boring statement and everybody agrees), but more to force people to question everything, entities of power as much as their own selves.

Governments and media have of course their role in keeping out of reach the implications of nuclear weapons, but we as individuals have as much a responsibility in comprehending history, science and human knowledge. In telling these small anecdotes, I try and use humor, terror, and a general playfulness to try to suck in the viewer, and get him or her to question what they think they know.

I hope this series is more about confronting our own way of perceiving the world, and how to think critically of the consequences of our decisions.

In fact the best thing for me would be if people would even call into question my own photos and stories. I'm telling you all this is true, but you'd be better off by doubting and starting your own investigation.

Thanks David!

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Trujillo/Paumier, Untitled (Muxes 10), 2009

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.

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Trujillo/Paumier, Untitled (Muxes 4), 2009

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Trujillo/Paumier, Untitled (Muxes 11), 2009

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Trujillo/Paumier, Untitled (Moro 2), 2012

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Trujillo/Paumier, Untitled (Moro 27), 2012

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.

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As assortment of oversized objects, including a boot used to advertise a cobbler's. Photograph: Anna Partington/Rex Features

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British Folk Art © Ana Escobar for Tate

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Image by HFA

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Jesse Maycock, King Alfred 1961, Museum of English Rural Life. Photo: Tate

The show is up until 31 August 2014. Happy Famous Artists has a great flickr set.

Still at Tate Britain, there's a couple of rooms hosting Chris Killip's photos. Love the work, not so much the sponsor of the exhibition.

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Chris Killip, Whippet Fancier. Serie Huddersfield, 1973. © Chris Killip

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Chris Killip, Crabs and People, Skinningrove, North Yorkshire © Chris Killip, 1981

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.

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Alexander Gronsky, Yuzhnoe Tushino II, 2010. From the series "Pastoral: Moscow Suburbs"

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Alexander Gronsky, Dzerzhinskiy VI, 2011. From the series "Pastoral: Moscow Suburbs"

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?)

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Specimen of Ningyo mermaid, Feejee mermaid or merman, Japan, with paper-mache body, and fish-tail originally from the Wellcome Collection

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Flying Fox (Pteropus sp.) Skeletal - taxidermy double preparation of Flying Fox

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European Hedgehog specimen from the Natural History Gallery

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.

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Grisha Rahtyn, a Chukchi reindeer herder, iced up at -30 C after working with his reindeer during the winter

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Khanty women in traditional dress at a spring festival in the village of Pitlyar

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When thrown into air at -51C, boiling water transforms into vapour and ice. This is because boiling water is close to a gas and breaks into tiny droplets that can freeze at once

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Reindeer graze in the Yamal peninsula

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.

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Rubber beauty masks, 1921. Image Wellcome Library

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'.

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The Claxton improved patent ear-cap, 1925-1945.

The exhibition is up until 12 October 2014.

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Facade of the Open Eye Gallery. Paul Morrison, Urformen © Photo Paul Karalius

Last month, i visited the Liverpool Biennial. It was boring (BO-RING) but it was still worth the trip. One: because I love Liverpool and i'm happy as long as people around me have that cute accent. Two: because of the show at the Open Eye Gallery. It is part of the official programme of the biennial but it was one of the few shows in town that made me think and reflect upon the art world and the way it is represented/represent itself.

Not All Documents Are Records: Photographing Exhibitions as an Art Form looks at photographic works that bring a critical and artistic gaze on some of the most important art events in the world and asks the question: "Can photography be the site where the history of an exhibition is produced and still retain its independent artistic autonomy, thus overcoming pure documentation?"

Four bodies of works are brought together to make us reflect on this question. Two are contemporary, they are by Cristina De Middel of the Afronauts fame and by Ira Lombardia. The other two, by Ugo Mulas and Hans Haacke respectively, are historical.

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Venice, 1968. Workers protests, XXXIV Esposizione Biennale Internazionale d'Arte Photo Ugo Mulas © Ugo Mulas Heirs

Venezia, 1968. Proteste studentesche, XXXIV Esposizione Biennale Internazionale d'Arte
Venice, 1968. Student protests, XXXIV Esposizione Biennale Internazionale d'Arte Photo Ugo Mulas © Ugo Mulas Heirs

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Photo © Paul Karalius

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Photo © Paul Karalius

Venezia, 1968. Sala di Rodolfo Aricò, XXXIV Esposizione Biennale Internazionale d'Arte
Venice, 1968. Room of Rodolfo Aricò, XXXIV Esposizione Biennale Internazionale d'Arte. Photo Ugo Mulas © Ugo Mulas Heirs

I'm going to start with Ugo Mulas' take on the Venice biennale of 1968. I knew the photographer's work for his portraits of the superstars of the art world in the 1960s. But the photos exhibited at the Open Eye Gallery are miles away from the glamour you might expect from the Venice event.

Mulas had been covering each edition of the Venice biennial since 1954. The images in the gallery date from 1968, a year marked by social uprisings around the world (Mai 68 in France, anti-Vietnam war demos, etc.) The art biennial, which naturally echoes changes in society, experienced similar turmoils. Students and intellectuals took to the street to protest against the establishment represented by the Venice Biennale, brandishing banners that denounced the "policed biennial of the bourgeoisie" (policemen were indeed guarding the entrance of the Giardini) and claiming that 'La Biennale è fascista.'

They also questioned the institution itself on matters such as freedom of speech and vilified it for its sales department, accusing the biennial of being a capitalist playground for the rich. The biennale's board subsequently dismantled the sales office.

In solidarity, some of the participating artists covered up their works, withdrew their work, turned them over or wrote over "in these conditions i'm not working."

Mulas photographed the most salient moments of the opening: the protests, the curators carelessly drinking spritz on Piazza San Marco, the police crackdown against demonstrators, etc.

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Photographic Notes, documenta 2, Gonzales Nun, 1959 © Hans Haacke © DACS, London

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Photographic Notes, documenta 2, Kandinsky, Micky Mouse, 1959 © Hans

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Photographic Notes, documenta 2, Léger Family, 1959 © Hans Haacke © DACS, London

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Photographic Notes, documenta 2, Cleaning Women, 1959 © Hans Haacke © DACS, London

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Photographic Notes, documenta 2, Magritte 2 Profiles, 1959 © Hans Haacke © DACS, London

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Photographic Notes, documenta 2, Pollocks, Large Group, 1959 © Hans Haacke © DACS, London

The context of Hans Haacke's photos of the second edition of Documenta in Kassel is very different from the one of the 1968 biennial. Founded in 1895, the Venice biennial is the oldest exhibition of its kind. Documenta was created 60 years later as a means for bringing Germany up to speed with the most modern and contemporary art forms that had been banned under Nazi's politics of artistic obscurantism and censorship.

Haacke, still a student at the Art Academy in Kassel in 1959, worked as an exhibition guard for the second edition of Documenta. In his free time, he independently took on the task of visually 'documenting Documenta'. The 26 black and white images hanging on the walls of the Open Eye Gallery are witty and full of humour. Instead of being strictly about the art exhibited, the images display Haacke's interest into the rituals and peculiarities of an art event. They show how absurd the dialogue between artworks and viewers can be. A family attempts to find some relationship between a description in the catalogue and the work hanging on the wall. A young boy is far more interested in mickey magazine than in the Kandinski hanging behind his back. Other photos gives us a glimpse of what happens behind the curtains of the art world: cleaning ladies doing their job, a Moore sculpture waiting next to a pile of bricks to be carried to the exhibition room.

Nowadays, most of us have seen images of the kind. The museum photos of Thomas Struth or Martin Parr's sneaky portraits of collectors at Dubai Art Fair, for example. In 1959, photographers' sociological explorations of the art world were pretty unusual.

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Cristina De Middel. Photo © Paul Karalius

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Cristina De Middel

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Cristina De Middel

Cristina De Middel was invited by the gallery to imagine what the future edition of the Liverpool Biennial would be like. The commission came as the preparations for the event were underway.

Instead of going into wild speculations, the photographers looked for evidence in the archives of photography and press cuttings that documented past editions of the event. She then used and remixed the images and headlines in prints that cover the walls of the first room of the gallery.

To create her collage, she contacted both the photographers who had made the original images and the artists whose work appear in the photo. The photographers gave her the permission to use and rework their images. Many of the artists, to my great surprise, refused. So while artists have been constantly borrowing and re-appropriating other artists works to create new ones, they negate photographers the possibility to do so. Does that mean that a photographer is not an artist? That they can only produce images that document? To meet their censorship, De Middel painted over the artworks appearing in the photos, blurring and often even distorting their contour. Her new body of work interrogates thus the authenticity of photography (something she had done previously with the Afronauts, a series that charted the 1964 Zambian space programme which never actually came to its full realization) and highlights the tension between creativity and documentation that the photographic medium encompasses.

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Ira Lombardia, And I Think to my selffffffffff what a wonderful worlllllllllld, 2012. Photo by Paul Karalius

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And I Think to my selffffffffff what a wonderful worlllllllllld © Ira Lombardia, 2012

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And I Think to my selffffffffff what a wonderful worlllllllllld © Ira Lombardia, 2012

Upstairs, i almost missed the work of Ira Lombardía. During her visit of the last edition of Documenta, the artist saw a light phenomenon on the floor of one of the exhibition gallery. She mistook it for an authentic work of art (such confusions happen to the best of us when dealing with contemporary art.) Lombardía took a photo of it and went on to create a whole narrative around it. She invented an artist and a description for the artwork that never was. She then copied faithfully the catalogue of the Documenta exhibition and substituted one of the artworks by her photo of the light phenomenon and added the bio of her fictitious artist. She later wrote a letter of apology to the artist whose name and work she had removed from the catalogue.

Not All Documents Are Records: Photographing Exhibitions as an Art Form, curated by Lorenzo Fusi, remains open until 19 October 2014 at the Open Eye Gallery in Liverpool.

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Photo: Paolo Pellegrin, commissioned by Fiona Banner in collaboration with the Archive of Modern Conflict

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Mistah Kurtz - He Not Dead, 2014, Mixed media pinstripe wall drawing and framed Silver Gelatin photographs. Image Fiona Banner

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.

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Pinstripe nails, 2014. Image Fiona Banner

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. :

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Image Fiona Banner

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Mistah Kurtz - He Not Dead, 2014, Vitrine detail, 2014. Image Fiona Banner

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.

After the show, the photos will be filed at the Archive of Modern Conflict under the heading Heart of Darkness, 2014.

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.

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Photo: Paolo Pellegrin, commissioned by Fiona Banner in collaboration with the Archive of Modern Conflict

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Mistah Kurtz - He Not Dead, 2014, Pinstripe drawings, vitrines, objects, high definition digital film projection and framed silver gelatin photographs, 2014. Image Fiona Banner

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Mistah Kurtz - He Not Dead, 2014, Pinstripe drawings, vitrines, objects, high definition digital film projection and framed silver gelatin photographs, 2014. Image Fiona Banner

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Mistah Kurtz - He Not Dead, 2014, Vitrine detail, 2014. Image Fiona Banner

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Mistah Kurtz - He Not Dead, 2014, City of London bollard (detail), 2014. Image Fiona Banner

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:

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Previously: Fiona Banner at Tate Britain.

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