When I arrived at last week’s Art Papers lecture at Emory, I didn’t realize I was already familiar with the work of photographer Joan Fontcuberta. He spoke of his career as an art world jester who—without informing his audiences of his duplicity—stages completely fake exhibitions.
Fontcuberta’s subjects include fictitious cosmonauts (Sputnik) and exotic, yet nonexistent hybrids of the animal kingdom (Fauna). But for some reason he omitted (or perhaps I just dozed off) mentioning that he was the mind behind those brooding Holy Men of “Karelia: Miracles & Co.“
Perhaps he thought it was more expedient to skip over “Miracles & Co.” and go straight to his latest work, “Deconstructing Osama,” a project designed to undermine the mass paranoia surrounding Al-Qaeda. The photographs and accompanying “documentary evidence” are manipulated to put Fontcuberta’s face into the Arab World, where the Spanish artist rubs shoulders with You Know Who.
An ironist who dubs himself a “conceptual artist who happens to wield a camera,” Fontcuberta cited Jorge Luis Borges, the famed Argentine novelist, as one of his intellectual fathers. Since the talk, though, the ghost of Karelian mysticism seems to overshadow anything else. His literary connection makes sense, but something about that series smacks more of his fellow Spaniard, Guillermo del Toro.
The first time I encountered “Miracles & Co.”, I didn’t understand the context of Fontcuberta’s work. I actually thought the photographer was a mystic. So I revisited the series with fresh eyes—all it takes is one look at this ridiculous Cthulhu knock-off, and it’s clear: this can’t be serious.
In the most convincing photos, though, Fontcuberta achieves the pathos of belief (waxing the emotional abandon of the Romantic period), implying that the author at least was a true convert. Foreboding and even hinting at the aged quality of old film, the scenes recall a time when even freakish mystics like Rasputin could walk the earth with official approval.
At left: from the early series, “Herbarium.” Fontcuberta preferred to call these “chemigrams”—essentially a photogram, though these are made by direct sunlight rather than in a darkroom. The effect is quite beautiful. Really, “Herbarium” deserves a post all on its own, since these “herbs” are actually made of melted tires and other inorganic garbage. (The concept is similar to Steve Aishman’s current show at Solomon Projects.)
*Borges’ Ficciones contains a short story titled “Pierre Menard, Author of Don Quixote.” The narrator argues that a false version of Cervantes’ classic is actually more authentic than the original.