Review: Joan Fontcuberta’s ‘Stranger than Fiction’

One of our new writers, the photographer Dimitra Kountiou, visited Media Space to see Joan Fontcuberta’s new ‘Stranger than Fiction’ exhibition and spoke to the man himself afterward…

“Truth is stranger than fiction, but it is because fiction is obliged to stick to all possibilities; truth isn’t” Mark Twain.

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Good fiction is a fake story but it must be made believable and it has to feel possible. Joan Fontcuberta’s projects that are currently on show at the Science Museum’s Media Space consist of his very carefully constructed imaginative narratives. Fontcuberta aims to train us to look at everything with a more critical eye, even the facts that are supported with evidence. He has created imaginary worlds and in using the standard scientific, archaeological and museological tools and language, he reveals these worlds to us; we have no reason to disbelieve him.

Walking through the exhibition I can see other people looking at the evidence with concentration, a bit further down I can hear two ladies’ laughter breaking the silence.

Media Space have made use of six of Fontcuberta’s most significant projects: Fauna, a presentation of Professor Peter Ameisenhaufen’s archive that was accidentally discovered by Fontcuberta and Peter Formiguera. Herbarium, photos of exotic plants accompanied by their persuasive Latin names. Orogenesis, a collection of stunning landscapes created using specialized computer software, that were based on classical paintings. Constellations, where Fontcuberta poses as the keen astronomer to bring us near enough a mystic cosmos. Sirens, a documentary on the species of “Hydropithecus” and Karelia, where Father Fontcuberta performs miracles for us.

It’s all a hoax, and if you had not recognized Fontcuberta posing as Professor Peter Ameisenhaufen in Fauna, you have probably realised by now that there is dramatic resemblance to him when looking at the Sirens. How does Fontcuberta persuade us? By employing all the means that we are used to finding in a museum backdrop such as sketches of studies, notebooks, archive photographs of archaeological sites, excavations, in-situ photos of fossils, showcases with bones, taxidermy, recordings of animal sounds, maps, scientific data, biographies as well as a copy of a science magazine publishing the work of this acclaimed and recognized wildlife photographer, everything you expect to see in an exhibition of species. Every details is cared for, even the language he uses, all Latin names and mathematical descriptions, which we do not understand but simply accept.

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Fontcuberta’s work humorously plays the naïve viewer, waiting for the moment they makes sense of it all and realise they were deceived. He claims that our perception is connected to previous images as well as our expectations in spite of the lack of physical contact with the actual fact.

This work is an invitation to review the way we look at photography as a source of true evidence. It also brings out many questions about the place of the museum as an educational institution. In a subtle way he questions all sources of information – the Media, the papers, TV, religion, science. But at the centre is the viewer, because the choice between critical thinking or willful ignorance is down to the individual. But, I asked of Fontcuberta, will the viewers be critical over information after looking at this exhibition? “I wouldn’t want to be pretentious, I’d just wish to do a modest contribution for a visual resistance. I feel this aim is thus impregnated with political concerns”, he says. After all, reality is adjustable; Fontcuberta knows this first hand having lived in Franco’s Spain, so these fairy-tales have a lot to teach us about how photography can be falsified.

A wake-up call for the viewers, and with the role of the museum subverted, is the setting. The Science Museum, a space where people visit to look at scientific facts, and yet here it’s all a lie: “Exactly, this is the point!” says Fontcuberta, “My work is intended to pervert our prejudices and routines. In canonic art spaces visitors expect to enjoy art – there is no surprise: they find what they expect. I am interested in breaking those expectations”.

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I could not help but to ask, what was the response of the audiences so far. Curator, Greg Hobson said: “Experience of our audience has so far indicated that they quickly understand Fontcuberta’s motivations.  In particular, it is rewarding to hear people laughing in the gallery.  Having said this, Fontcuberta does enjoy the ambiguity in his work and the fact that it can be read in any number of ways”.

The exhibition has been carefully “placed in the Media Space of the museum, which is dedicated to photography, and a room where exhibitions are read somewhat differently from the rest of the Science Museum”.  Hobson explained. But what indicates that this space has to be read in a different way? I find myself returning to Fontcuberta’s initial points on our expectations and previous knowledge. His presentation is so masterfully crafted that it blurs the lines between reality and fiction so much that it raises more questions than answers. He says: “I always try to introduce some pedagogy: I am not intending to fool people but advocating for a critical skepticism”. With his didactic approach, Fontcuberta asks us to pause, to stop being passive receivers and to take control of our own understanding.

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Joan Fontcuberta is a Catalan artist, born in 1955 in Barcelona. He works as photographer, professor, writer and critic. He started to photograph as a teenager and in his early steps worked in advertising, which shaped his later work. His work has been exhibited internationally and in 2013 he won the Hasselblad Award.

www.fontcuberta.com

Stranger than Fiction continues until 9 November 2014 at the Science Museum’s Media Space.

www.sciencemuseum.org.uk/visitmuseum/plan_your_visit/exhibitions/joan_fontcuberta.aspx

There is also a Conversation on 27 October and a Symposium on 8 November.

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Dimitra Kountiou is a writer and documentary photographer, graduated from the University of Wales, Newport. In addition to her teaching, she has been involved with a number of galleries in Cardiff. She moved to London after 16 years in Wales where she is currently based.

www.dimitrakountiou.com

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