Spanish photographer Joan Fontcuberta was brought up under the censorious Franco regime, so it’s no wonder that the 59-year-old is sceptical about institutional authority. Questioning religion, biology, even the role of the museum itself, this modest retrospective at the Science Museum’s Media Space presents six brilliant bodies of the artist’s work, which span over three decades.
Fontcuberta, whose surname means ‘hidden fountain’, relishes his role as a puckish prankster. In the series ‘Herbarium’ (1984) he apes the objective style of German scientist Karl Blossfeldt’s botanical photographs, only these plants are made of industrial debris found near his studio. ‘Fauna’ (1987) depicts fantastical creatures such as a monkey with a horn and wings, though Fontcuberta supplements them with a detailed display of sketches, recordings and even taxidermy. For ‘Sirens’ (2000), he fabricated mermaid fossils and installed them into rock formations in the South of France, only to receive angry letters from schoolteachers.
‘Karelia: Miracles & Co’ (2002) sees him at his deadpan and mischievous best: the series tells of a visit to an apparently miracle-performing monastic school in the Karelia region of Finland. Photographs show him dressed as a monk, variously surfing on the back of a dolphin, sporting plump breasts and holding a slice of Ibérico ham whose fatty whorls depict the face of Che Guevara.
Fontcuberta’s innovative approaches at first leave you bamboozled, but later entranced, much in the way his Catalan predecessors Dalí and Miró did. His first major UK exhibition is a sustained attack on the sacred cows of given knowledge. He makes you doubt everything, leaving you in an unclaimed grey zone that is both strange and sublime.