The essay challenge was to write a review of an exhibition from at least three contextual positions encompassing a ‘Global’ perspective. The exhibition I chose was Joan Fontcubertas – ‘Strange Creatures’ which was based in the Science Museum, London.
Fontcuberta had created a fantastic array of animal sculptures using parts from incomplete or broken taxidermists models. The exhibition ‘creatures’ didn’t fully resemble anything that actually lives, but were presented to the public in a way that suggested that they were in fact real animals that somehow avoided Darwin. To add to the ‘illusion’ Fontcuberta offered documentary evidence in the form of photographs and hand written pages from a Victorian naturalist’s diary and audio recordings of the cries of the ‘fake’ creatures in the wild.
The exhibition went further and also offered photographs of mermaid skeletons and a priest performing a number of miracles (caught on camera), fake landscapes and fake night sky star fields among others.
This show was a revelation for me as it was both entertaining and very playful, elements I want to include in my own art practice therefore my research for the essay started with the human need to ‘believe’.
Fontcuberta had created a fantasy world where anything was possible and it fascinated me that many people visiting the exhibition displayed a desire (in their reaction to the display) that suggested they wished the animals, plants and other fantastical creations were real.
To this end I looked at historical art fakery, the human need to believe and religious miracles as my three perspectives.
To further study this human need to believe my research led me to an unusual group of ‘believers’ who invited me to join them for a while as an observer. Their common belief was in the paranormal and they were all self confessed ‘ghost hunters’. On a ‘dark and foreboding’ Halloween evening I joined them on a real ghost investigation in a reportedly ‘haunted’ house. (see relevant blog entry)
This kind of hands on research is fun. I’m a true skeptic when it comes to matters of the paranormal, but it was still fascinating watching my study group ‘fuel’ each others observations and beliefs and regard every bump and creak the old house made as evidence of the presence of a ghost. I didn’t see any ghosts that night but apparently they did….. Perhaps you need to believe before you can see them..?
I followed this research by reviewing a recording I made a number of years ago of an interview with a practicing ‘medium’, someone who’s belief in the afterlife is a strong as my belief that gravity is the force responsible for plane crashes.
Marion Goodfellow is someone I’ve know for a number of years. She is honest, trustworthy, reliable and a good friend. The interview with her covered her childhood and her parents, her emergence as a practicing medium and the roots of her beliefs. (see relevant blog entries). Her frankness during the interview perhaps was due to our friendship but she also gave me the impression that she really wanted to ‘tell’ her story and it was very obvious she totally believes that every strange sensation she feels is the presence of a spirit.
Photo: Marion Goodfellow
I widened this research by drawing in opinion from Prof. Richard Wiseman, one of the few academics who has studied the paranormal and Prof. Chris French a psychologist who has made a study of the people who believe.
Of the two, Wiseman’s studies appeared to be more relevant to my research as it appeared more focused and open minded with French more a commentator / observer. French appeared to take the view that the people that expressed a belief of the paranormal were somehow just misguided uneducated fools. Wiseman on the other hand examined the claims of the ‘gifted’ and exposed the underhanded methods some of them used to appear convincing. However I still felt Marion’s interview stood apart and was a genuine honest account of her beliefs.
Drawing in other threads of research I also looked closely at religion and miracles documented in scriptures in the bible. I drew in renaissance paintings that illustrated these religious miracles to try and examine the view expressed by the painter in his / her attempts to visualise the miracle performed. Christian beliefs were much more established in the past, fueling the legendary status of some of the incredible feats described over many generations of believers.
My conclusion was that we all need to believe…in something, or there is little purpose to life. Even if that leads to a belief that God doesn’t actually exist (as concluded by Prof Steven Hawking). In life there is nothing more destabilising for a person than perpetual uncertainty. Certainly my intrepid ghost hunters ‘believed’ that when they died they would ‘ascend’ as spirits to another plane of existence, with their imaginations creating the paradise they hoped they would find just as a belief in miracles fuels the Christian faith.
A comparison of many religions in the world was a research thread I wanted to pursue but like all assignments, time was not a luxury I could afford to squander. There were many other lines I wanted to follow in my essay research but staying focused helped me achieve my goal. On reflection though, more academic research could have been added, and a few better quality quotes would have helped but overall I was pleased with the final draft of the essay.
My essay research on beliefs (ghosts and mediums) led me to an examination of the ‘fake’ ghost photographs of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, which in turn led me to link Doyle’s photographs with Fontcuberta’s miracle photographs. This then evolved into my Performance Portrait series ‘Whispers in the Dark’. (The image is of me playing a medium surrounded by ghosts). My research thus became purposeful and useful and enhanced and supported the other studio based assignments, creating a solid framework on which to build my emerging practice. This has also led to a number of new emerging ideas for my final project for year three with research already under way to underpin the new art pieces.