In 1968, during a routine space walk, the Russian cosmonaut Ivan Istochnikov and his dog went missing. When
Nothing was heard about Istochnikov for nearly three decades: it was as though the Soviet authorities had airbrushed their cosmonaut from history. Then, in 1997, Catalan photographer
What Jimenez didn't realise is that "Ivan Istochnikov" is a Russian translation of "
Why would you devise such an elaborate hoax, I ask Fontcuberta in a hotel bar, ahead of his first major
But some don't like this challenge to authority, still less being teased by an artist who deploys the reality-subverting techniques of Catalan artistic predecessors (Fontcuberta cites Dali and Miro). A Russian ambassador apparently threatened a diplomatic complaint because Fontcuberta had insulted "the glorious Russian past".
Fontcuberta and I giggle over this story, but then I wonder. Perhaps there was no credulous journalist called
Fontcuberta has made a career out of such hoaxes. In 2000, for instance, he installed mermaid fossils in rocks at the Reserve Geologique de Haute-Provence in southern
Soon after this artistic intervention, Sirens, became public, Fontcuberta received angry letters from schoolteachers. "They said it's very difficult to teach our kids how evolution works when you're amending the fossil record." But, Fontcuberta maintains, his hoax had a serious point. "To me, Sirens is a tool that teaches us to explain evolution. They saw my work as a danger, probably because they are intellectually lazy, but if they were intellectually engaged they could push their students to understand how we construct models to understand reality."
With Sirens and his other works in the new show, Fontcuberta hopes to do more than submit visitors to practical jokes. "My work - I wouldn't want to be pretentious - is pedagogic. It's a pedagogy of doubt, protecting us from the disease of manipulation. We want to believe. Believing is more comfortable because unbelieving implies effort, confrontation."
To visit the Fontcuberta exhibition at the
In another of his projects, Fauna,for instance, Fontcuberta and a collaborator with the suspicious-sounding name Pere Formiguera claimed to have rediscovered the long-lost archives of German zoologist Dr
But, I ask, steeling myself for disappointment, are there really no flying monkeys? "Of course not," says Fontcuberta. We rely on museums not to Photoshop wings and horns on monkeys and pass them off as interesting mutations. But if they did, Fontcuberta contends, such is their authority that we might suspend our critical faculties.
Indeed, when Fauna was shown at the
Elsewhere in Stranger than Fiction, Karelia: Miracles and Co (2002) documents Fontcuberta's story about a trip he undertook, posing as a monk, to expose the truth of a Finnish monastery where it is said that monks learn how to perform miracles. Truly you will believe, having seen the evidence, that a monk (looking uncannily like a certain Catalan photographer) can walk on water.
"I'm a terrible photographer," Fontcuberta says. Why? By way of answer he shows me his hand - there is a finger missing. "A homemade bomb blew up in my hand, so I'm very slow in using a camera." So what, I say:
photographer, he is a successful one: last year he won the
One reason that questioning authority became part of Fontcuberta's vocation is
Fontcuberta has a degree in communications and previously worked in advertising. As well as making his art, he now teaches all over the world. "I'm an heir of Marshall
McLuhan [the Canadian media theorist who counseled that the medium is the message] and of all those 1960s countercultural movements - situationism, conceptual art. Mix them all in a cocktail and that's me."
Some photographers wouldn't deign to sip this heady cocktail. "That's right. For them photography is neutral. But really, as
"You see," says Fontcuberta just before we finish our drinks, "reality doesn't exist before our experience. Photography is one of the tools that helps us construct reality. It is not an innocent medium."
Stranger than Fiction is at the
Holy fool . . . (clockwise from main) The Miracle of Levitation, 2002; an 'x-ray' of Solenoglypha Polipodida, 1987; Hydropithecus of
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