Fauna, 1989

Fauna, 1989
Media installation, Various dimensions

Joan Fontcuberta and Pere Formiguera, both renowned Catalan photographers, began their collaboration in 1984 with a catalogue of nonexistent plants. Fontcuberta took the photographs and Formiguera, a writer and photographer, wrote the text. Their aim was to question the long-established cliché of the truthfulness of the photographic document. Following this initial collaboration, they went on to explore the often ill-defined limits between reality and fiction, between the natural and imaginary worlds. In 1985, they began working on the Fauna project.

Fauna is a large-format installation of multiple elements around the figure of a forgotten scientist and his discoveries in the animal world. The starting point is the supposed discovery by the two photographers of the lost archives of the German zoologist Peter Ameisenhaufen – born in Munich in 1895 and who mysteriously disappeared in 1955 – and his assistant Hans von Kubert. Ameisenhaufen had catalogued a series of rare animals, such as Ceropithecus icarocornu, similar to a monkey but with the horn of a unicorn and wings; Solenoglypha polipodida, similar to a snake measuring three and a half metres; and Pirofagus Catalanae, a dragon found in Sicily, abandoned by the Catalan invaders in the sixteenth century, that swallowed its own flame after ejecting it.

Fauna features photographs of the animals inventoried by the zoologist, meticulous field studies, the scientist’s working notes, X-rays and dissections of skeletons, a stuffed specimen and several recordings of the howling animals. All the key elements are there to give scientific credibility and epistemological weight to a total fiction. At no time is the viewer warned that it is all an invention, and that the names of the scientist, Peter Ameisenhaufen, and his assistant, Hans von Kubert, are the alter ego of Formiguera and Fontcuberta. Neither is it explained that the two photographers worked with a taxidermist to create the fantastic animals whose names appear in fictitious Latin in a simulation of scientific classifications. Objects and words are used to legitimate an imaginary shared by the public, while the viewer sees materials that look as if they have been preserved for a long time: photographs are slightly out of focus, the ink on some of the letters has spilled over the paper and the chipped picture frames look truly old.

Following the working practices of these two photographers, especially Fontcuberta, Fauna creates an epistemological artefact to question the credibility of scientific truth, the objectivity of museums and the little, if any, neutrality of the photographic image. Using the language and museography of scientific exhibitions, the work challenges both the authority of the scientific discourse and the verisimilitude of photography. Often exhibited in museums and galleries in Europe and America, Fauna never fails to perplex its public.

When the installation was shown for the first time in 1989 at the Zoology Museum of Barcelona, a survey carried out by its Education Department revealed that 27% of visitors with university degrees believed the animals were authentic.

The basic purpose of our Fauna display is to deal with these problems, as an aesthetic experiment in an unmistakably playful vocation. How were we to take apart the gnosiological negatives of the cultural media and establishment. Or, in a broader sense, how were we to dismantle the processes through which “knowledge” is produced and transmitted? In the end, we discover that truth is mere speculations; that, rather than an absolute truth, there are fantasies that come more or less close to the truth, and that all these fantasies, even those that are apparently most innocent and harmless, conceal as ulterior motive.
From the very beginning, the creation of an artistic activity with scientific material enabled us to pass a comb through the immediate ideological connotations that influence the communications media and the myths and clichés that they produce: in short, the source or repeated reference paint of a great deal of art in the eighties. Science – in this particular case, zoology – offered paths that were relatively unexplored, no doubt because scientific institutions, for from the servility of the media, have been capable of preserving a certain moral authority.
Fauna arose from an initial photographic-literary collaboration between the two of us in 1985. On that occasions, the purpose was to reveal the frailness of the photographic document’s persuasive power by using a catalogue of nonexistent plants and ridiculing the popular: “it-exists-because-it’s-been-photographed” line of argument. It is significant that Borges, what was a great source of inspiration in our work, is said to he the author of the maxim, “to be is to be photographed”. Thus we set out on the journey to the hazy borderline between reality and fictions, nature and the imaginary.
[…] Besides these scientific elements, Fauna is also aspired on other areas, such as mythology and the medieval bestiaries. The morphology of some of our creatures has been modeled on classic mythological figures as extraordinary chimeras – the siren, Hydra, basilisk, etc. –, which were referred to as real animals by naturalists before La Renaissance. On other occasions we have borne in mind the symbolic value that has been attributed to many animals: some, such as the snake or dragons, embody the forces of evil in a large number of countries around the world.
[…] To sum up, we would like to propose o reflection not only on realism and the credibility of the photographic image but also as the scientific discourse and the artifice that underlies every knowledge producing mechanism, while engaging upon a variety of facets that affect different creative fields.

Joan Fontcuberta and Pere Formiguera, 1989

Technical details

Original title:
Registration number:
Fontcuberta, Joan - Formiguera, Pere
Date created:
Date acquired:
MACBA Collection. MACBA Foundation
Object type:
Media installation
Organic elements, photography, paper, glass and audiovisual material
Various dimensions
MACBA Collection. MACBA Foundation
© Pere Formiguera; © Joan Fontcuberta, VEGAP, Barcelona
It has accessibility resources:

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FONS ÀUDIO #28. Joan Fontcuberta