A major exhibition of the incredible fictions of Joan Fontcuberta, Stranger Than Fiction featured six documentary narratives mixing fact with fiction and science with art.
Using the visual languages of journalism, advertising, museum displays and scientific journals, Fontcuberta’s convincing yet subversive and deadpan works are an investigation into photography’s authority and our inclination to believe what we see.
Exhibition highlights included astonishing photographs of mermaid fossils, incredible reports of mysterious fauna and eye-opening photographs of rare plant species.
Photography is a tool to negotiate our idea of reality. Thus it is the responsibility of photographers to not contribute with anaesthetic images but rather to provide images that shake consciousness.
Stranger Than Fiction: Narratives
In the spirit of Carl Linnaeus (1707–78), a botanist and physician considered to be the father of modern taxonomy, Fontcuberta has set out to describe and name new plant species. His exquisite photographs reference the work of Karl Blossfeldt (1865–1932), a German photographer who searched for artistic pattern and architectural structure in his own photography of plants.
Fontcuberta photographed his plant discoveries against neutral backgrounds to facilitate their identification and comparison, while also drawing our attention to the conflation of nature and art. These new plants are extraordinary in the ways in which they appear to mimic both human and inanimate forms in their appearance.
In the summer of 1980, Joan Fontcuberta and his friend Pere Formiguera were staying in a gloomy old mansion being run as a B&B at Cape Wrath, in the far north of Scotland. During an afternoon exploring the damp basement of their accommodation, they discovered the archive of the work of Professor Peter Ameisenhaufen. The archive meticulously documented zoological discoveries made by Ameisenhaufen during his expeditions to different parts of the world, in search of ‘exceptions’ to Darwin’s theory of evolution. Prior to the discovery of the archive, Ameisenhaufen's research was completely unknown to the scientific community and the general public.
These studies bear witness to an extinct and astounding fauna, preserved for us in the impressive documentation presented here. The publication of Ameisenhaufen’s research initially provoked a great deal of controversy, but the irrefutable proof provided by the photographic evidence silenced any doubt or suspicion.
There is magic in the splendour of a starry night. Since the dawn of time we have marvelled at the mystery and beauty of that infinite lattice of twinkling lights that challenges our reason and our imagination.
Astronomers study the night sky in search of new planets, moons, stars and transient celestial phenomena. Astrologers regard the heavenly bodies as intimately linked to human affairs, providing a key to our happiness or misfortune. We use the stars to orientate ourselves when we are lost. The age-old sense of guidance and enlightenment provides inspiration for artists, musicians and writers.
As an amateur astronomer interested in photographing constellations, Fontcuberta creates depictions of the night sky that pay tribute to the magnificence of the cosmos, while inviting reflection on our relationship with images and the things they represent.
In 1947 Father Jean Fontana, a priest and teacher at the Petit Séminaire in the foothills of the French Alps, discovered the fossilised remains of a previously unknown species. He named it Hydropithecus alpinus. The fossils bear an uncanny resemblance to the dugong and the now-extinct Steller’s sea cow, yet have curiously human features. They have now been authenticated by anthropo-palaeontologists and are thought to be early mer-people, forming a tangible link in the development of the human species between the sea and the land.
The site of the discoveries has been designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The fossils are also the subject of a major National Geologic magazine story and film, and Fontcuberta was assigned to this project as a professional wildlife photographer.
Mountains have always mesmerised artists, who from the 1700s have used the power and drama of mountain landscapes to evoke the nature of our planet as infinite yet unalterable.
As features in the landscape, mountains carry a powerful symbolic charge. They represent the imposing forces of nature; their peaks are thought to bring people closer to the heavens and looking down from mountains offers an awe-inspiring view of the vastness of the world.
Karelia, Miracles & Co, 2002
Karelia is a region of northern Europe that straddles Finland and Russia. Close to the border in Finnish territory is the interdenominational Valhamönde Monastery, where monks are said to learn how to perform miracles. The complex miracles, often surreal in their realisation, appear to have no earthly value beyond their manifestation.
Determined to expose the miracles as hoaxes and the monks as charlatans, Fontcuberta posed as a novice monk to gain entry to the monastery. There he documented what he considered to be a blatant case of fraud.
‘A brilliant show of exquisitely faked artefacts... Magnificent’
‘Amusing and deadpan, skillfully inventive and perfectly narrated: this exhibition is a fascinating puzzle’
Joan Fontcuberta biography
Joan Fontcuberta was born in 1955. He graduated from the Autonomous University of Barcelona in 1977. His early career was spent in advertising, but by the early 1980s his interests had shifted towards the use of photography as evidence and a carrier of the truth.
His work has been shown internationally, including exhibitions at the Hasselblad Foundation in Gothenburg (2013) and La Maison Européenne de la Photographie in Paris (2014). He won the prestigious Hasselblad Award in 2013.
Fontcuberta’s work is held in museum collections throughout the world, including the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, Musée National d’Art Moderne/Centre Georges Pompidou in Paris, Museu d’Art Contemporani de Barcelona, and this museum.
Fontcuberta is also a writer, teacher and curator. He was Artistic Director of the 1996 Les Rencontres d’Arles Photographie and Guest Curator for the 2015 Month of Photography in Montreal. He is a visiting professor at several prestigious international universities.