Joan Fontcuberta: Stranger than Fiction.

The National Media Museum, Bradford.

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After the stark modernity of the National Media  Museum, entering the exhibition is rather like entering an early 20th century natural history Museum.

joan-f-1The staid green and cream walls display a collection of traditionally framed and mounted 19 century photographs, field notes, x-rays and sketches. The traditional glass display cases present the German handwritten and stained diaries of the intrepid Victorian explorer and anthropologist, Professor Ameisenhaufen, along with various dated scientific apparatus. Around the room are details of his education, work and mysterious death.museum. The staid green and cream walls display a collection of traditionally framed and mounted 19th century photographs, field notes, x-rays and sketches. The traditional glass display cases present the German handwritten and stained diaries of the intrepid Victorian explorer and anthropologist, Professor Ameisenhaufen, along with various dated scientific apparatus. Around the room are details of his education, work and mysterious death.

joan-3More visually arresting is the typical Victorian collection of stuffed animals…until you look again, and realise these are the creatures of myths…or nightmares. A heraldic winged deer; a mythic Centaur.

Trying to make sense of the nonsensical, you find yourself returning to the notes on the wall, re-reading translations of the original notes, pondering the Latin classifications, and noticing more oddities, such as the rare humming bird’s teeth.

The juxtaposition of the traditional museum environment and presentation and the fantastical creatures, which have been photographed, cataloged, caught and displayed, lead us to challenge our knowledge of the world around us. In our cultural framework museums are purveyors of science and truth, and Centaurs are myths. What do we believe? What is real?

Televisions placed around the room play looped tapes of interviews with authority figures; the director of Barcelona Zoo, a scientist from a university in Mexico, all of whom add to the omnipotent scientific evidence for the existence of these liminal beings.

The next pale green room has a collection of still life studies of plants, traditionally framed and mounted, and neatly labeled by classification. Again, these are ‘new’ species.

joan-7Through the next door we are confronted with bright white walls and huge, ‘C’ type prints. In both back and white and vibrant colour, Fontcuberta shows us landscapes never seen before – because, despite being ‘photographed’, these places have never existed.

After a brief walk though the dark ‘constellations’ collection, displaying previously unknown solar systems, we arrive at the ‘Sirens’. A plaster case of a Mermaids skeleton is displayed in a case in the center of the room, and the walls are covered with A2 colour photos printed on aluminum and acetate, depicting the scientific discovery of these creatures in France. Notes and quotes from paleontologists add further authority. Do we WANT to believe in mermaids? You bet! And that is what helps Fontcuberta in his treachery of the truth of science.

joan-5In the final section ‘Karelia, Miracles & Co’, the penny drops and our doubts are reluctantly realized. The walls, painted a rich, religious purple, portray the miracles preformed by monks at the Valhalmonde Monastery in Karelia. Black and white photographs are traditionally framed, mounted and hung in groups, with titles and explanatory texts along side. The photographs of monks surfing on dolphins, teaching meerkats to read a holy book, and channeling lightening are amusing, but it’s in the accompanying texts that Fontcuberta shows his wit and humor.

In this multi media exhibition jointly curated by the artist, Fontcuberta uses photography, text, film, photograms and life size models to challenge what we think we know of our world. Born under Franco’s regime, Fontcuberta is skeptical of truths told by authorities.

He uses his art to make important points about validity of authority and uses museums, our Temples to Scientific Endeavors, to further challenge our conceptual framework.

The complicated stories he expertly weaves draw us in and, maybe, for a minute, we can believe in a world beyond the one we see around us.

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