Fontcuberta is a conceptual artist who plays with the conventions of documentary photography in order to encourage us to question what we see, and to consider more closely who is behind it and why it is being shown. His delight in having fun with images is apparent in every project he undertakes. Through his work, he mocks all kinds of authority – including that of museums, archives and academia.
As an artist, he’s always creating works of fiction and fakes to trap the viewer. In his own words:
“I like to consider my work as a vaccine... My mission is to warn people about the possibility that photography might be doctored and show why people need to be sceptical of images that influence our behaviour and our way of thinking.”
Stranger than Fiction (2014)
In 2014, the Science Museum showed a retrospective of his work since the mid-1980s. The earliest on show, Herbarium (1984), was a series of stark black and white photographs of fantastical plants that Fontcuberta constructed from animal and plant matter and detritus found outside his studio. They referenced the objective and finely detailed style of the botanical photographs taken by the German photographer Karl Blossfeldt in the Twenties, which encouraged the view of photographs as a vehicle for scientific truth. Fontcuberta thereby drew the viewer's attention to the assumptions they might make about what they were seeing if the objects in the photographs were presented in a familiar way.
In Fauna (1987), Fontcuberta displayed the fictional archive of the mysterious (and also entirely fictional) naturalist Peter Ameisenhaufen. The 'archive' contained notes, photographs and specimens of creatures such as Centaurus Neandertalensis, a species that combined the body of a baboon with the legs of a goat. Again, photographs acted as a verifying tool for this work, which was exhibited complete with stuffed animals, specimens in jars, skeletons in display cabinets, sketches and recordings of bird song. He poked fun at every device used by museums to convey authority on an image, idea or specimen with the aim of questioning the authority of museums and archives in general.
In his own words:
“When I presented Fauna at the Museum of Natural Science in Barcelona, I saw a family looking at the pictures of these fantasy animals. The father said, ‘It’s so great that we came here. I had no idea these animals existed. They’re amazing.ʼ The son looked at him and said, ‘But they’re not real, Dad. They’re fake!ʼ The father got angry, slapped him on the back of the head and told him that because they are in a museum they must be real. It was interesting to me that the child wasn’t educated in the truth of the museum; he wasn’t perverted by culture. This is a very important political concern.”
Fontcuberta continued to cast doubt on what we see with projects such as Sirens (2000), in which he created fossilised skeletons of mermaids to show an evolutionary link between man and fish. In this work he explored the idea of hoaxes like Piltdown Man, where bones were used to manipulate information with the aim of fooling scientists. He curated an allied exhibition about the fossils, complete with photographic documentary evidence about a fictional character called Father Jean Fontana who had 'discovered' these Hydropithecus (water-monkey) fossils. The skeletons remain in nature [embedded in earth as if they were real fossils], so you can go to Provence and see them in ‘real life’.
Jim Casper, 'Wait a minute', Lens Culture, www.lensculture.com/articles/joan-fontcuberta-wait-a-minute, accessed 10 February 2016
Francis Hodgson, exhibition review for the Financial Times, 27 July 2014, http://www.ft.com/cms/s/2/40714720-13e3-11e4-b46f-00144feabdc0.html
Clare Holland, Exhibition review, Daily Telegraph, 21 November 2014, http://www.telegraph.co.uk/culture/photography/10989018/Joan-Fontcuberta-Stranger-than-Fiction-Media-Space-review-poignant.html
Stuart Jeffries, exhibition review for The Guardian, 4 July 2014, http://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/2014/jul/08/joan-fontcuberta-stranger-than-fiction
Colin Pantall, 'Mind Games', British Journal of Photography, 3 November 2014, http://www.bjp-online.com/2014/11/joan-fontcuberta-national-media-museum-bradford/