Joan Fontcuberta: Stranger Than Fiction
Joan Fontcuberta (born 1955) is an artist whose works investigate the truth and reliability of photography. Using the visual languages of journalism, advertising, mecum displays and scientific journals, he fabricates documentary narratives that combine reality and fiction. Compelling and convincing, yet also subversive and deadpan, his works are an investigation into photography's authority and our inclination to believe what we see.
Stranger Than Fiction presents six of Fontcuberta's best-known works. Fauna (1987) and Herbarium (1984) are zoological and botanical studies of newly discovered species. In Orogenesis (2002) Fontcuberta creates landscapes from computer-generated data, while Constellations (1993) is an astronomical study of new star systems. Sirens (2000) is an investigation into the discovery of mermaid fossils and Karelia, Miracles & Co (2002) documents the bizarre miracles performed by a secluded monastic sect.
- Download Fontcuberta - Stranger Than Fiction (Exhibition Guide).pdf - Saturday, 15 November 2014 [499.7KB]
Fontcuberta describes himself as "self-taught in photography" and considers himself "a conceptual artist using photography." He states that the propaganda and dictatorship of Spain under Franco in his first 20 years led him to be skeptical about authority, which is reflected in his art. His background in communications and advertising led him to contemplate the relationship between photography and truth, and Fontcuberta believes that humor is an important component of his work. His art has been described as "postmodern."
Karelia: Miracles & Co. (2002)
The intent of this series was to "de-dramatize the irrational force behind religious feelings, while exposing the accompanying economic commercialization and political manipulation." The premise was that Fontcuberta visited a monastery in the Karelia region between Finland and Russia "to unveil the hoax" that it trains students to perform miracles. For example, in the photograph "The Miracle of the Flesh," Fontcuberta is shown holding a slice of ham with an image of Che Guevara on it, and the caption states that Adolf Hitler or Osama Bin Laden can be seen on other ham slices depending on the food eaten by the pig. A 2003 exhibition in New York was called "an uncommonly clever tour de force."
Joan Fontcuberta: Stranger Than Fiction was probably one of the best exhibitions I've seen recently. The exhibition started from Fauna, his earlier and most iconic work. In Fauna, he created grotesque fictional creatures, such as a two-legged monkey with wings and a horn, a snake with legs, elephants with wings... etc. These creatures were the 'discoveries' made by Dr Ameisenhaufen, and were "documented" with notes, specimen, drawings, X-ray images and even sound recordings. For those who did not read the introduction of the exhibition or who does not simply 'doubt', these 'discoveries' might astound and confuse them because of the highly-detailed documentation.
In Sirens, Fontcuberta really went to great lengths to make believe. He produced an entire documentary film of a priest's discovery of mermaids in France. In the film, there were footages of archeologists unearthing the relics, interviews and reconstructions of the past. It took my friend for a while to realise that these were all made-up.
The exhibition ended with an interview with Fontcuberta himself, explaining the influences he had as a child and his intentions of inventing stories, which is to question the truthfulness of a photograph. It is said that a picture is worth a thousand words, but exactly how many of the words are true? His works make people reflect on what we see from the media every day. They make us doubt and think critically, which is something quite significant yet overlooked in this era where anything can be fabricated and manipulated.
Also known as "Dr. Ameisenhaufen's Fauna" or "Secret Fauna", Fontcuberta created this series in collaboration with the writer and photographer Pere Formiguera. The premise was that Fontcuberta and Formiguera discovered the long-lost archives of German zoologist Dr. Peter Ameisenhaufen, who was born in 1895 and who disappeared mysteriously in 1955. Ameisenhaufen had catalogued a number of unusual animals; for example, Ceropithecus icarocornu resembles a monkey with a unicorn-like horn on its head and wings; and Solenoglypha polipodida resembles a snake with 12 feet.
The evidence presented for the existence of the animals included "photographs... both in their natural habitats and in laboratory situations; detailed field notes, both in the original German and English translations; an occasional skeletal X-ray or dissection drawing; two or three tapes of the animals' cries, and in one case, an actual stuffed specimen”. Furthermore, a video displayed interviews in which various people discussed Ameisenhaufen's life.
The fake animals displayed at the exhibitions varied according to the "legends, traditions, and superstitions" of the place hosting the exhibition. Among other clues suggesting that the exhibition was a hoax, "Formiguera" and "Ameisenhaufen" both mean "anthill," and the name of "Hans von Kubert" (Ameisenhaufen's research assistant) sounds like "Joan Fontcuberta."
In this series, Fontcuberta "arranged inanimate objects such as electrical cord, plastic, a shaving brush or a rubber hose into what appear to be exotic plants", thereby creating "pseudoplants". The black and white still-life photographs of these constructions were "drily classified in Latin" and thereby resembled the photographs of Karl Blossfeldt.
In this series, "the images of the cosmos are strewn with a fine stardust", but "what they actually record is dust, crushed insects and other debris that accumulated on the windshield of Mr. Fontcuberta's car." The photographs were created "by applying sheets of 8-by-10-inch film directly to the glass and shining a light through, creating photograms, which were then made into Cibachrome prints."
This series consisted of the installation of fake fossils of mermaids in the Réserve Géologique de Haute-Provence in Digne-les-Bains in southern France, which were then photographed, Fontcuberta created a story about how the "Hydropithecus" (water-monkey) fossils were discovered by a "Father Jean Fontana" whose face resembles Fontcuberta's. Subsequently the fossils have "become a permanent feature of the park."
In this project, also known as "Landscapes without Memory," Fontcuberta "created plausible, even spectacular landscapes using Terragen, a computer program originally created for military and scientific uses that turns maps into images of three-dimensional terrain." However, instead of starting with scans of maps, Fontcuberta used "scans of historical artworks such as a Henri Rousseau painting or Gustave Le Gray photograph, as well as parts of the human body" to produce "splendid and astonishing landscapes... (lakes, mountains, rocky deserts)". One review noted that the series suggests a "crisis in contemporary landscape art... [for example] man's emotional and psychological relationship with a rapidly vanishing natural environment." The works suggest that even "scientific" images are influenced by human culture. The Orogenesis series was said to "call into question the boundaries of representation in the information age".