Exhibition Review: Joan Fontcuberta at The Science Museum


23 July – 9 November 2014


The Science Museum is this autumn hosting a modest retrospective of Spanish artist Joan Fontcuberta in the new Media Space. The exhibition, curated by Greg Hobson and Fontcuberta him self, presents a thorough constellation of six of his well known work Fauna (1987), Herbrarium (1984), Orogenesis (2002), Constellations (1993), Sirens (2000) and Karelia, Miracles & Co (2002). We are guided through the six rooms from botanical to zoological and finally astrological studies, each work in separate ways to raise questions on the authority of the photographic image.

Stranger Than Fiction – Fauna © Kate Elliott

Joan Fontcuberta (1955) has since the seventies used art to question the photograph’s role as a conveyor of truth, in a humorous, clever and skilful way. In utilising different presentation languages he fabricates captivating and convincing investigations on lost archives, biological discoveries, disappearing astronauts and religious phenomena. The uninterrupted documentation and recording of reality has for a long time been the trademark of the photograph, and even today being one of the photograph’s primary characteristics. In this show questions are been raised to the ways the photograph offprint reality, and how viewers relate and correspond to it. Fontcubeta’s turn to conceptual photography has inevitably led to new modes of representations and methods of experimentation, reconnecting photography to the world in new fresh ways. Through writings and photographic work he examines the medium of photography in relation to it’s position of transmitting messages, its existence as a measure of classification and report on the world; he is through his work ironizing the status of photography as a conveyor of truth.

The exhibition Stranger Than Fiction starts with Fontcuberta’s probably most well known work Fauna, which takes up one third of the entire exhibition space. We are presented to a very well and thoroughly prepared museum setting, with high attention to detail. Fontcuberta here seems to be fascinated by the slippages and elaborations that emerge between sight, speech and written text and is presenting us with archive photographs, hand-written text and very detailed put together taxidermy animals, playing on our desire to believe.

© Centaurus Neandertalensis from the Fauna series by Joan-Fontcuberta and Pere Formiguera, 1987

The large constellation presents a found archive of work created by the late Professor Peter Ameisenhaufen, during expeditions through the world researching Darwin’s evolution theory and previously unfound exceptions from it. The work is presented in a highly sophisticated and convincing matter, yes we also know that the history of the professor’s work was created entirely by Fontcuberta in an attempt to distort the lines between fantasy and real, aiming to make the visitors questions their perception on the world as we know it. We find a conflict between systems of knowledge and perspectives and the ultimately unknowable, and Fontcuberta is using his artistship to put focus on and deconstruct the platforms that we find authority in, here in specific the photograph as a document and the museum display.

© Giliandria Escoliforcia from the Herbarium series by Joan Fontcuberta, 1984

After browsing through the two wonderful works Hebrarium and Orogenesis we are presented for yet another work where the photograph’s relationship with reality has been put at stake. The work Constellations shows a gathering of large images depicting the night sky; shooting stars, asteroids, a vast special landscape. At first glance we see persuasive photographs of constellations, but in fact the images have been made by Fontcuberta placing photographic paper against the window of his car. The details we believe to be stars and far-away galaxies turns out to be dust, rain and dead flies. It seems like he is suggesting that the photographic realism is not defined by what really is there, but the way we perceive it. The work is a reflection on what images represent, playing on how easily the eye can deceive.

Next, the work Sirens appear. Similar to Fauna the project shows an in-depth research, images of an archaeological site confirming the discoveries of a previously unknown species, thought to be the so far best found link to the human species’ development from sea to land. The work is presented as a commission for the National Geological Magazine, and while not trying to be as thoroughly convincing as the Fauna work, it almost does have a more convincing effect in the way we get less surprised and stumbled. Although we are aware of this being another of Fontcuberta’s artistic hoaxes, this one could probably have gone by as fact if seen outside a gallery setting, namely in a trusted journal like it here was presented “originally”. The work is another play on photographic presentation and authority, and in a way works as an analysis of the relationship between the photographer’s performative gesture, the photograph as a physical trace of an event or happening and the photographic spectatorship.

The final work Karela, Miracles & Co sums up as a suggestion to that realism may not be defined by what is really there but by the way we perceive it. The work seems more surreal than the previous, as a desperate, yet humorous attempt to document fraud and at the same time question mysteries that we will perhaps never know the real character of.

© The Miracle of Dolphin Surfing, 2002 Joan Fontcuberta

Throughout the exhibition Fontcuberta is, in presenting these works, questioning the photograph’s relationship to the real, generating convincing messages about the power of the photograph’s ability to capture reality. As a contemporary photographic artist he succeeds in broadcasting these messages by the use of conceptual art, making an irony of the authoritative position of the photographer; pushing the viewers to distrust and deconstructing the platforms that they find authority in. Fontcuberta does not seem to employ his work in order to come to any conclusion about the photograph´s role as a conveyor of truth, but he is, where scientists use rationality or objectivity to come to a conclusion, employing imagination, in the hope of evoking reality.


The exhibition runs until November 9th, and forthcoming Monday (28th) the museum will lead an illustrated lecture by Joan Fontcuberta, followed by an artist in conversation with curator Greg Hobson.

In the last weekend of the show there will also be held a Fiction and Photography symposium in collaboration with Westminister University, discussing ways in which fiction has shaped contemporary photographic work.




Review written by marketing volunteer Marianne Bjørnmyr