Joan Fontcuberta’s first major UK show, Stranger than Fiction, at the London Science Museum is currently running from 23rd July until 9th November 2014.
Inquiring into religion, biology and even the role of the museum itself, this understated retrospective presents six bodies of the artist’s work, which span over three decades. Through interweaving the visual expressions of museum display, scientific findings, advertising and journalism, the works mix both fact with fiction and science with art, investigating into the authority of photography and our disposition to trust what we see.
The first and largest body of work, Fauna (1987) greets you upon entering the space. It sets the tone for the rest of the works, taking on a slick, authentic style of display – in keeping with the rest of the museum. Formed of uniform framed black and white photographs with accompanying fact-files for each individual finding, it is also accompanied by typical museum supporting information, such as sound and video recordings, taxidermy animals and sketches. Presenting itself as a historical scientific breakthrough which meticulously documents zoological discoveries made from the work of Professor Peter Ameisenhaufen. Every element – from the professor himself, to detailed notes and taxidermy animals, is a collaborative artistic fabrication. Fontcuberta and Pere Formiguera (1952-2013) question the authority of museum display, and the power institutions hold to provide factual and educational information for an audience willing to learn. From snake-tailed rodents, to winged-deer, we are transported through fact files of animals with enlarged legs, to the mythical centaur, finding our deepest childhood fantasies coming true.
Following suit, Herbarium (1984), Sirens (2000) and Karelia, Miracles & Co (2002) are presented in the same way: framed documentary images, research information and even ‘found remnants’. Exploring biology and belief, these three bodies of work really take advantage of the trust of the museum viewer.
Simply formed from a set of framed black and white photographs, Herbarium appears to be a collection of rare discoveries of exotic plant. It is unlikely for the majority of viewers to be an expert on plant biology, so to most these images depict unusual, yet not ridiculous, plants. The artist has in fact used litter such as electrical wires and textiles to form shapes mimicking pre-existing human and inanimate forms. It is especially important to consider the specific museum here, for many visitors wouldn’t expect a critically interventionist exhibition, within a family-friendly, popular, free museum space.
It is often true that the easiest way too fool somebody is to provide them with something they wish to be true – and in this case we’d love to believe mermaids exist and that miracles can be performed. Both Sirens and Karelia, Miracles & Co add science to very mythical and belief-based elements of everyday. Suspecting that viewers may question the legitimacy of these discoveries, the artist claimed in Sirens, where the discovery of the mermaid fossil in the Provence landscapehad been vandalised; I suspect that this is the only reason they aren’t currently displayed at the Natural History Museum.
As you reach the final room and body of work, Karelia, Miracles & Co, you are exposed to an exploration into a Finnish Monastery, where monks are said to learn how to perform miracles. It becomes apparent that unless you are a firm and faithful believer, a monk riding a dolphin or developing female breasts, couldn’t possibly be realistic research. This work adds a new dimension to the artist’s critique, for it doesn’t only challenge the viewer and the museum; it unmasks the concept of miracles as a hoax. Fontcuberta has really challenged the strongest rival to science in this particular body of work, but presents it as consistently as the rest of the exhibition. Through challenging the balance between what’s reality and what’s photography, the viewer develops a peaked skepticism towards not only the show itself, but towards photography as a medium constantly engulfing an ideology; the artist chooses the particular vision to present, showing you a particular culmination of concepts.
Although it is said Fontcuberta is primarily known for his exploration into the truth and reliability of photography, it is the very site in which these meticulous bodies of work are viewed which has been ultimately criticised: the museum. Using this as a platform for critique, the artist has seamlessly displayed six research projects, purposefully using the museum as a validating platform. There is an expectation associated within a gallery, of order, attached to conventions of cognition, within a prescribed and predictable way, where the interaction of the audience and the forms of the museum, are in an infinite cycle of change that is influenced entirely by one another. It is this cyclical process that Fontcuberta highlights throughout his exhibition, and leaves you questioning your involvement as a viewer within the museum. It could seem that these works cannot comment, or even exist, outside of an institutional structure, yet being within it immediately elevates its acceptance of the display, language and criticism of what it means to exhibit.