The Art of Deception

Visiting Lecturer Joan Fontcuberta has asked his students to stage the perfect murder.

As sinister as it may sound, this is just another weekly assignment in Fontcuberta’s Photofictions seminar in the department of Visual and Environmental Sciences. With the aid of elaborate costumes and lifelike props, Fontcuberta and his photography students stage a murder scene so convincing that photos of it could qualify as forensic documentation. People like to believe that the camera can’t lie. Photofictions—and Joan Fontcuberta’s art in general—are testimony to the contrary.

As a visiting artist this year, Fontcuberta has brought his unique artistic eye to the Harvard campus—one that seeks to question the very nature of artistic truth. In his native Spain, Fontcuberta has pioneered a form of prank art that forges traditional artistic scenes and representations and passes them off as real, thus raising the question of what is, in fact, authentic.

Fontcuberta’s goal in creating misleading exhibits, such as a “previously undiscovered” series of Picasso-style prints that he successfully displayed at the so-called (fictitious) “Picasso Museum of Miami,” is to force the public to question accepted truths. He is adamant that photography does not directly reflect the real world; rather, it is a message filtered through the many lenses of intellectual, cultural and historical dogma. By decoding these biases, Fontcuberta believes we come closer to the truth.

In his most famous work, “Fauna Secreta,” Fontcuberta created stunningly realistic documentation of a surreal host of Darwin-defying plants and animals, all dutifully photographed, scientifically named and explained by the fictitious German biologist Dr. Peter Ameisenhaufen, one of Fontcuberta’s alter egos. While “Fauna Secreta” has since toured many well-known art museums such as the Museum of Modern Art in New York, it was first exhibited at the National Museum of Natural History in Madrid as a genuine scientific catalog. With no posted indication that this exhibit was the work of an artist rather than a scientist, the public, as well as many of the museum curators, were easily deceived by this artistic ruse.

“I never lie,” says Fontcuberta. “I just let people be confused.”

Manipulating the truth is Joan Fontcuberta’s favorite game, but not everyone likes to play. “I have been threatened, insulted, but I must accept these types of reactions,” says Fontcuberta. Ultimately, Fontcuberta hopes that his art serves a useful and instructive purpose, reminding people of the subjectivity of truth and the limits of one’s own perception. “My work is like a vaccination,” he says, “I try to introduce a virus of innocent hoaxes to provoke innocent reactions—the first reaction is pain, but it is good for the health.”

At Harvard, Fontcuberta’s students are appreciative of his novel approach to art. One of Fontcuberta’s students, VES concentrator Duncan A. Johnson ’05, says, “His prank art is fantastic—it seems like an ethical problem, but I don’t think that he’s malicious in any way. He challenges the ideas of authorship, history, media, and he pulls it off with a sense of humor.”

Fontcuberta realizes that his work is a long term project and its value may not be soon fully understood. Like a true teacher, being appreciated isn’t as important as conveying a message for Fontcuberta. “I am patient,” he says.