A magnificent heraldic beast, a small deer (or maybe a chamois) with eagle’s wings, has arrived at the Science Museum in London. It was described, before an eminent scientist finally discovered it, in a 15th-century Cathar codex. Around the corner is an egret or ibis with a tortoise’s body. These things are stuffed, and therefore obviously existed at one time. They are in glass cabinets, one of them with a sumptuous scene-setting diorama behind. All the apparatus of old scholarship is there: the minute description of habitat and habits, the solemn classification by genus and species. Charming ancillary documents and artefacts are there in profusion, too: stained diaries of their discoverer, detailed and very scientific captions, working drawings. Above all, there are photographs. None of these things can be trusted. You certainly can’t trust your eyes.
Welcome to the world of Joan Fontcuberta, a great Catalan artist and curator and teacher; a consistently enthralling enquirer into what photography does to us and what we make of it. He grew up under the Franco regime and his profoundly serious roots are in his acquisition of resistance to the political “truths” of that era. His name came up at this year’s PhotoEspana as the curator of an especially powerful enquiry into what photography might involve into in our age of not only the digital making of pictures, but the digital reception of them too.
Since the late 1970s, Fontcuberta has been making what might be called hoaxes. Each project takes some essential improbability, and builds it up until the viewer is, if not half convinced that it must be true, at least perturbed at his own slipping towards credulity. The point is never the hoax itself, although Fontcuberta, like all good hoaxers, executes the thing each time with maximum plausibility. Underwater archaeology of mermaid bones, anybody? An evolutionary backwater en route to the centaur, whose upper half is monkey rather than man?
Fontcuberta often performs in his own set-ups, adopting the roles of various explorers or scientists. They are not hard to decipher: Hans von Kubert not only sounds like Joan Fontcuberta, he looks like him in all the pictures, too. Yet, again and again, Fontcuberta’s stories have successfully gulled public opinion. Often sharply funny, his intention has been to remind us that our faith in scientific “fact” is overconfident, and that we should by no means always believe what we are told. This message, with infinite gradations and many subtleties along the way, won Fontcuberta the Hasselblad Award in 2013, one of the highest honours in photography.
Stranger than Fiction is, of course, a magnificent theme for a science museum. I should perhaps have prefaced these lines with a “spoiler alert”, since it is to be hoped that some unsuspecting visitors will get at least some way into the exhibition before the penny drops. When it does, it should throw doubt on the entire experience of the day in the rest of the museum. Why do we believe anything museums tell us?
Part of Fontcuberta’s wizardry tackles museology itself. He pokes relentless fun at the reliquary aspect, with a number of vitrines filled with the kind of objects that are meant to be compelling by their proximity to the hand of a venerated scientist. Here’s a miniature portable stone font, exquisitely executed, from one of Fontcuberta’s monastic alter egos. It takes a quite embarrassing while to realise how ridiculous it is. Here’s a perfectly ordinary Kodak folding camera, allegedly the very one that made the pictures in one section of the exhibition. Here’s a copy of National Geologic [sic], for which the pictures were purportedly made.
The whole apparatus of scientific presentation is lovingly parodied. Here’s the learned book in a glass case, open at the picture we need. Field notes, site photographs, methodological description, X-rays … Lest we get too serious, here’s even an early version of a hamuketsu picture (the current craze in Japan for pictures of the fluffy rear ends of hamsters), although – Fontcuberta being Fontcuberta – the hamster in question has webbed feet and is receiving a positively Molière-esque clyster.
Fontcuberta is not only the photographer and the main performer, he is also very good with words. His subject matter plainly owes something to Jorge Luis Borges, who loved a good hoax, but his manner is more like the Russian-doll arrangement of stories within stories of Valery Larbaud’s A.O. Barnabooth or even Italo Calvino. The sheer rococo detail is like Monty Python or W.G. Sebald come to that, where every blind alley has a reader charging helplessly up it. His description of an émigré dragon which made its way from Catalonia to Sicily in the 16th century had people in stitches: the dragon sounds very like an ordinary tourist, making cultural trouble as he goes. (The Sicilian Dragon, by the way, is not just a dragon from Sicily. It’s an ancient and respectable chess opening, too.)
The meat of this wonderfully meaty exhibition lies in the history of science, and in particular in the recurring abandonment of ideas that once had respectability. Fontcuberta likes the alchemist Paracelsus and the formerly credible predictive element of the Tarot even more than he likes Darwin and Linnaeus. His series on astronomy is not quite what it seems, in spite of the perfectly weighted captions. A starry view is, in merciless parody of jargon-merchants everywhere, called “MN 62: OPHIUCUS (NGC 6266), AR 17h01, 2Min/D30-07”. But what look like perfectly sublime constellations are, in fact, bugs squished on Fontcuberta’s windscreen on long drives, neatly harvested by his own version of the photogram.
There are six separate performances (I think that’s the best word) in the show, each given a generous section of the space. The sheer variety of picture-making is astonishing, as Fontcuberta switches from thin grey parodies of Karl Blossfeldt’s 1920s studies of plants to large digital C-type landscapes (not what they seem, and probably not what they seem to seem, either). Newsprint and magazines, books, family pictures, archive or “neutral” scientific pictures … Fontcuberta revels in the history of photography at every turn. He takes visible delight in his confidence that, as 21st-century viewers, we (his victims but also his co-conspirators) can pick up photographic references and allusions wherever we find them. Here’s a joke about Lewis Carroll, there a whole skit on Modernism. And here’s a deconstructed Renger-Patzsch for the really committed photo buff!
It’s a brilliant show, in which entertainment and philosophy complement each other to perfection, with neither given weight beyond the other. The final section, just in case we missed the point, is on something which the Science Museum has in all probability never included: a series of miracles. And you know what? Some of them are hoaxes.
To November 9, sciencemuseum.org.uk/strangerthanfiction