For almost 40 years, Joan Fontcuberta has toyed with photographic realism. Confounding bladders with lanterns in viewers’ minds, he makes his audience suspicious of images. We met in Paris for a conversation around some of the major themes in his work.
RC: Early in your career, you were engaged with what might be called surrealist or Dadaist photography (for example, the famous image of a lawn with an eye.) Then, in 1985 you published Herbarium, a collection of artificial plants à la Karl Blossfeldt. Only the most attentive viewer would notice the switch. Why, at this point, did you try to hide such manipulations, when they would later become signatures of your work?
JF: Keep in mind that I am not the product of an artistic background. I didn’t study art history; I didn’t attend art school. However, I did study communication, and I worked in advertising. This short but intense professional experience made me familiar with lies, seduction and illusion. I would even say that my artistic practice is a means of deconstructing my professional experience from this short but edifying period, when I was fresh out of college. It influenced how I perceive the world. So I am trying to show how every image is a trap – a trap that lends itself to seduction. Throughout my practice, I’ve tried to endow the viewer with a kind of preventive learning. I manipulate on several levels. Surrealism, obviously, was a reference, but so too was grotesque and fantastic art. My subversive attitude was closer to Dadaism than Surrealism. During this period, my images adhered to the logic of photomontage. But gradually, I realized that manipulation could be far subtler, for example by staging a shot. In other words, why reveal the mechanical piecing together of images when you can present credible objects and situations? This would be a second level. I would say that, beyond Herbarium, that there is a third level I come to later, which consists of migrating the image from one habitat to another. I can completely change an image’s meaning by finding a new space, a significant new platform: this is even more substantial, more refined, simply because it’s very hard to detect.
RC: In keeping with what you just said, in 1988,Dr Ameisenhaufer’s Fauna takes you one step further: you created a veritable “reasoned” fiction, in which you reveal the fantastic bestiary of a supposed doctor. What brought you to narrative fiction?
JF: This narrative fiction is the fruit of both rhetorical and strategic requirements. I realized that my will to work with the different habitats of images required me to adopt or appropriate a specific language and “display”. So, I look at science and I immediately see that science always presents itself as having the monopoly on truth. And I realize, in the end, that these are only tentative truths: we believe these things for the moment, but new research could change our view of the world. So already there is a gap through which we can critique this institutional structure.
It also allows me to ask another fundamental question about the displacement of the author. I hide my status as author. Hiding gives me the literary licence to speak in the name of my characters. As literary characters, they have absolute freedom. They can say anything, even absurdities!
RC: Sometimes, your name doesn’t even appear on the book cover…
JF: That was also a means of adapting artistic strategies to each situation and historical moment. When I first used this technique with Fauna, it was so new that readers didn’t recognize it. Readers engage with an artist – Fontcuberta, who claims to have found an archive. But the next time, it becomes repetitive, and I must find new approaches, a different strategy of presenting my thoughts, so it doesn’t become routine for the audience. My name isn’t associated with the project because I am not a vain artist. I don’t claim that my name is known. I claim that the project works. It’s extremely satisfying when the work becomes autonomous and manages to generate dialogue with the audience, even if I no longer control it.
RC: Sputnik looks like a Soviet book; just as Dr Ameisenhaufer’s Fauna resembles an old science book. Published later, Deconstructing Osama took the form of a classical Arabic book. Does the form make the fiction more credible?
JF: Yes, it’s a way of strengthening the subject, because each book embodies its corresponding context. For example, the original book of Fauna looks like a college textbook: meagre graphics, boring layout, pretentious language, full of captions and footnotes. It’s really satisfying to find the book categorized in the science section of the public library. I imagine the librarian thinking, “It’s a book about animals, so animal section. Done.” [Laughs] I want my books to be like bombs. They’re like landmines – nothing is happening, but maybe someone will come by and it’ll explode. I like that.
RC: Doesn’t that contradict the absence of your name? We recognize your face after a few books. People say, “Oh there’s Fontcuberta pulling one of his jokes…”
JF: Yes, that’s true. But the more fundamental question is: to whom is the work addressed? I would say it is intended for a wide audience, for the guy in the street. These people don’t know me. But if my friends or art world insiders recognize me, it’s not a problem. In the end, they become my accomplices. What I like about my projects, and what I share with those in the know, is when you see a reader who is still a bit lost in relation to the situation. So work can have a double reading: the work itself, but also how the exhibition viewer or the reader reacts.
RC: Karelia: Milagros & Co. is a very funny book. From “classical” miracles like walking on water, we shift to completely burlesque ones, like dolphin surfing. How do you use humour in your work?
JF: For me, humour is an intellectual weapon.It is not appreciated in contemporary art, where being serious and earnest has a stranglehold, which ends up being very boring. I try to fight what I call un-hedonism, meaning the denial of pleasure, rejecting laughter. For me, humour is a way of communicating ideas. It’s an advertising technique. In advertising, sex relays messages; there is also humour and there is “appetite appeal”, which means making people hungry, showing appetizing things. Research on motivation shows that there are rules, and humour is one of the strongest means of getting an idea across.
RC: In Landscape Without Memory, you hijacked software originally used by the military and scientists to create realistic 3D images of land- scapes depicted on 2D photos (satellite photo or map image). I say hijacked, because you used masterpiece paintings (by Turner and Cezanne) as yourinitial images, as well as parts of your own body. What did you want to show?
JF: I would say that my work raises questions about the very nature of photography. What is the photographic image? Landscape Without Memory picks up this idea. I show images that look like photos – which everyone thinks are photos – but they are not photos because there was no lens, no camera, no light. Yet the result is photographic, so it’s paradoxi- cal. Should we reassess what we call photography?
Of course! These highly realistic virtual landscapes should make us question how we think of photo- graphic realism. That would be an answer.
RC: Deconstructing Osama features a long Arabic text that doesn’t seem to correspond to the opening text in Spanish, French and English. What does it mean?
JF: These are excerpts from A Thousand and One Nights, the stories of Aladdin, Sinbad and Scheherazade. It is also an experiment about prejudice, which is another important aspect of my work: I play with the viewer’s prejudice. Osama was an experiment. When you pick up a newspaper, you see images and text. Routine has created a prejudice that makes us think that the images and texts are in some way connected. Even in newspapers, or with text in a language we don’t understand, we apply the same process. We say, “Oh, there must be a link.” But in Osama, there isn’t. The text might be a collection of couscous recipes. [Chuckles] If you don’t understand, it could be anything. I try to shake up these situations that we take for granted. Another routine concerning how we see.
RC: In 2009 you produced Holy Innocence. The book is an exchange of emails following a scam letter you received from a certain “Captain Hook.” He proposed splitting a fortune in exchange for your help, but ultimately it’s to do you out of thousands of euros. You are so wicked that I wonder if you didn’t write Captain Hook’s messages yourself.
JF: A perfectly legitimate question. There is an Oscar Wilde quote that is very relevant to this project, and to my work in general: “The difference betweenrealityandfictionisthatfictionmust resemble reality.” Meaning that when we construct a fiction, we must ensure it is as close to reality for it be understood and accepted by the reader or the viewer. However, reality is completely mad; it is unpredictable. It never ceases to surprise us.
RC: In 2014, you published Trepat. In this book, you imagine that the (real) industrialist Josep Trepat commissioned ads and documents from artists like Walker Evans, Moholy-Nagy and Renger-Patzch. Is it a way of rejecting New Objectivity and the documentary style? In a word, modernism?
JF: No. I think it’s yet another satire of the academic world. Have you read the text?
JF: The text was generated by software called The Postmodernism Generator. It takes titles by Derrida, Foucault and Freud, mixes it all up and generates a text that seems very intellectual, very deep, but in the end is bullshit. [Laughs]. Once again, this is a critique of the authority held by the academic world and history when presenting knowledge of the past. It was fun doing this book, because it is also an homage to a visual and aesthetic legacy to which I am deeply attached. You said it was a critique of the academic world. Isn’t it also a critique of the authority of the archive?
RC : You said that it is a critique of the academic world. Is it not also a critique of the authority of the archive ?
JF: Yes, a critique. All my work confronts authority. I spent 20 years of my life under Franco, under dictatorship. That probably generated a somewhat anarchist spirit, trying to defy all forms of authority. I always try to find the cracks in authority. Here, indeed, it’s about the power of the archive.
The archive doesn’t just control how we interpret history, but also how we project the future. Derrida spoke about “archive fever”. It’s like an ache, and must lead us to a critical reassessment.