Mind-blowing would be the term that best describes the experience at Joan Fontcuberta’s exhibition. The first room of the exhibition is called Fauna, 1987 and is a very elaborate documentation of a so-called ‘Professor Peter Ameisenhaufen’. A unicorn monkey, a great winged cat, a flying elephant, a cannibalistic rabbit, and various creatures with; missing limbs, no heads, double heads, sex divisions, and other malformations are on display in glass cabinets. Alongside these are detailed text descriptions of their habitat and habits, the ‘Professor’s’ stained journals, drawings that document his research, as well as sound recordings and X-rays, which all serve as evidential support – most of all, there are photographs. Stranger than Fiction? It all seems absurd, yet the meticulous constellation, all in a scientific surrounding (after all, this takes place at the Science Museum), lure us into believing that what we see is, in fact, real.
The exhibit continues with Herbarium, 1984; a botanical study composed of a series of black and white photographs of exotic, not to mention carnivorous, plants. The next room shows Constellations,1993, three photographs of stars along with wall text descriptions of their exact coordinates. This is followed by Orogenesis, 2002, a series of photographs of vast, magnificent landscapes. Then there is Sirens, 2000, a sequence of photographs of fossils – such as skeletons in rocks, in mountains, under the sea – as well as of creatures resembling mermaids. Finally there is Miracles & Co, 2002; a set of mise-en-scenes portraying the artist himself disguised as a monk at a Monastery where the art of miracles is taught. These photographs show him walking on water, surfing dolphins, crying blood, performing miracles, and passing through walls. If Joan Fontcuberta had us fooled before, then the wit and humour that these images provide, moreover the literally lough-out-loud texts that go along with them can no longer be denied. While the artist conveys the hoax of these ‘miracle workers’, he is at last unveiling the hoax of his own work to us: what looked like a botanical study, really are photographs of trash, literally: plastic and rubber formed into plant-like shapes. What looks like a night sky, are really photographs of dust and insects squished on his car’s windshield. What looks like luscious landscapes, are not even photographs but digitally recreated images, such as from modernist paintings.
This is not some malicious joke that the artist is playing, nor does he intend to ridicule us – Joan Fontcuberta simply challenges us, by questioning our beliefs and the way in which we perceive images, moreover authority. While his display may change, really all of his work relates to the same problem, which is the representation of nature and science, how pictures relate to the real world and photography represents the world, and our own interpretation, or rather projection, of what we believe to be real(ity).
Joan Fontcuberta, who was born in 1955, suffered under dictatorship, and therefore a lack of information, and propaganda, which caused the artist at a young age to develop a sense of distrust in official media, and in mass information; “my work is a sort of rebellion against [this] authority”. Having an educational background in communication and advertising, he learnt how to manipulate his audience and he is utilizing these tools in his art with the intention to create doubt and to discuss the concept of truth, of credibility, and the meaning of documents. This is done by raising the question of why we rely so heavily on a photograph instead of looking at it as simply a means of communication – rather than a matter of fact.
Finally, we are left to wonder: what is reality and what is fiction – moreover, can we believe anything that we see?
In Joan Fontcuberta’s own words; “the only people who can be fooled, are the ones who want to be fooled”, because after all, it is our own choice if we want to believe in unicorns, mermaids, and miracles.
Whether you agree or disagree and whether you like it or not, Joan Fontcuberta makes a strong and lasting statement that will leave you contemplating long after you have left the exhibition.
Joan Fontcuberta’s Stranger Than Fiction is on at the Science Museum’s Media Space Gallery until November 9th. For more information go to sciencemuseum.org.uk/visitmuseum/Plan_your_visit/exhibitions/joan_fontcuberta