Artistic fiction does not stand in opposition to the true, but is opposed to the true and false alike (the false in the sense of an error or a lie). Nor is it opposed to referential realistic discourse, rather, it places the referent in parenthesis. It does not engage with the truth or falsity of the statement, but with our capacity to believe, our ability to accept a proposition we believe to be true (whether it is or not). The difference between artistic fiction and referential discourse, then, is not semantic but pragmatic.
Joan Fontcuberta, essay ‘Documentary Fictions – Pandora’s Camera’
As I write this, news is heralding the discovery of a previously un-documented dinosaur – the “Dreadnoughtus” and to prove it’s (previous) existence here is a video:
and a photograph of one of the excavation team posing with a large fossilised bone at the dig-site, note the gaffer tape on the knees, the ruler-like object on the fossil and the dusty shoes: It must therefore be true. Why would we doubt it? It is announced on the BBC news web-site; it’s authority is difficult to challenge.
The Science Museum, whose ‘About us’ suggests: “The Science Museum was founded in 1857 as part of the South Kensington Museum, and gained independence in 1909. Today the Museum is world renowned for its historic collections, awe-inspiring galleries and inspirational exhibitions.” is the venue for Joan Fontcuberta’s first major exhibition in the UK, “...six of Fontcuberta’s best-known works..”.
The artist wants to ask why should the photograph be burdened with veracity? Since it’s inception it’s inability to tell the truth has been manifest – I write about it here – little has changed since. The echoes that are found in the BBC report of the “Dreadnautus” suggested that I should question this report as equally as the Fontcuberta’s fictions. The artist provides video evidence, sound recordings, journal reports and sketches, ‘ stuffed specimens’ in glass cases to add context to the photographs in the various exhibits at the Science Museum.However, Fontcuberta is a photographer and artist, and because he is known as such it is to the photographs that the viewer is directed to view and engage with together with the ‘evidence’ provided by the artist some of which is more compelling than the report from Patagonia. The surrounding paraphernalia, such as those listed above all contribute context to the narrative, this narrative is on the one hand the story of, for example, the ‘Linnaeus-like’ taxonomic work of multiple ‘new’ species of plants:
and on the other hand asking the viewer to ‘look’ to question and to ponder about the manifold imagery that invade our world.
The Science Museum provides the context then for Fontcuberta’s exhibition, suggesting a relational nexus of the scientifics that might not have been questioned at another establishment on the other side of Exhibition Road, the V&A. The SM has a primacy about it that suggests to it’s visitors ‘here is what happened, here are the discoveries, here are the ‘inventions’ and presented as they are in glass boxes, surrounded by the quotidia of scientific life, the visitor is not encouraged to question the veracity of the exhibits but marvel maybe in awe at them – at least in other parts of the museum.
Fontcuberta seeks to tests these criteria of faith in many ways, at the scientific as well as the religious. The notion of religious faith in the exhibit ‘Karelia, Miracles & Co’ where a monk-like figure is seen performing (or not in some cases) miracles. Karelia is a contested land between Russia and Finland and maybe the artist chose that site specifically to undermine his work intentionally, however the notion of meerkats in the northern climes being taught to read the Kalevala by ‘Munkki Juhani’ was a photograph to bring a smile.
The exhibit ‘Sirens’ brings the ‘Dreadnoughtus’ most immediately to mind. The discovery of a ‘mermaid’ like creature supported with video, fossil and photographic evidence, in every way as compelling as the video above demonstrates Fontcuberta’s ability to contextualise his narratives in order to test both the credulity and faith of the viewers.
There are several of his works not on show here, Semiopolis – photographs of Braille texts and Sputnik, where he created a ‘documentary’ about a Russian Cosmonaut who was ‘airbrushed’ out of Soviet history when a Soyuz space programme went wrong; a story that was picked up by at least two Spanish news programmes and aired, despite having a a denial in the artwork by Fontcuberta, he blamed the laziness of the news reporter!
As a sideline, many of the prints are both large and analogue i.e. not digital; either ‘C’ prints or, Soft selenium-toned gelatine prints. I would recommend essay three in his latest book ‘Pandora’s Camera’ on not only the delights of pre-digital photograph, but also about what it means both to the practitioner and the viewer in an age saturated by digital imagery.