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I Never Expected to See a Mermaid Fossil at the Science Museum...

15/09/2014 16:33 BST | Updated 14/11/2014 10:59 GMT

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I think we can safely say that I never expected to see a mermaid fossil at the Science Museum. Nor photographs of a snake with legs or a flying monkey with a unicorn's horn. But welcome to the weird and wonderful world of Joan Fontcuberta and the new Stranger than Fiction exhibition of his work.

Joan Fontcuberta is an artist whose works investigate the truth and reliability of photography. How does he do this? He falsifies miracle in photography to cause us to question truth in what we see.

Now, Joan Fontcuberta is a pretty controversial character. Many consider him to be a pretentious charlatan so I was surprised the Science Museum put on this exhibition. Yet actually this exhibition is not only entertaining, it actually goes far in proving the importance of science and the perils in believing what we are shown.

The first part of the exhibition is dedicated to Fauna. Whether it's squirrels with snakes as their tail, armadillos with crocodile heads or deer with wings, the variety of the animal hybrids and chimeras created is quite extraordinary.

What surprised me most though was the extent of the work Fontcuberta has undertaken to 'prove' his forgeries as these creatures are all 'verified' not just through photographs, but also with sketches, forged field diaries and 'sound recordings'... Even stuffed versions of the 'animals' researched are available to gawp at.

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The most eye-catching part of the exhibition though is Sirens and its mermaid fossils.

One of the 'fossils' Fontcuberta created is on show and it is supported by some impressive underwater photography of the items being found in situe on ocean floors. Even videos of the exploratory dives were made and these too run on loop nearby.

Fontcuberta has also examined landscapes and even astronomy in his work.

In Orogenesis, a relatively recent project completed in 2002, Fontcuberta looked at landscape photography. Usually, the drama and majesty of mountains, forests and waterfalls is a reminder of the power of nature, almost of its permanent unmoveable presence.

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Yet Fontcuberta has digitally manipulated pre-existing landscape photography using a topographic computer program. As he explains in a video clip on show, Fontcuberta found this particularly interesting as he felt he was fooling a computer as well as his audience, adding a new contemporary dimension to his work.

For me, I found the section on miracles the most interesting.

In this section, Fontcuberta brings to life the old trends of spirit photography to show a clandestine order of monks who can perform miracles such as weeping blood, levitation and correlative deconstruction (passing through walls).

I found these images an interesting and important swipe at those false religions that trade, or have traded, on such 'miracles' as a means to exploit believers.

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At the close of the exhibition is a film of an interview with Fontcuberta, which also looks at some of his works. The most interesting aspect of this was Fontcuberta's assertion was that his 'miracles' fooled so many as so many were willing to believe it.

I suppose there is something in that as, whether conditioned by society or otherwise, so many of us would like to believe in mermaids and unicorns, that fantasy borne and romanticised through legend. Just like those who are still determined to prove that the Loch Ness monster exists.

The exhibition is open until November but Joan Fontcuberta will be talking with curator Greg Hobson at the Museum on Monday, October 27th, which will be a great opportunity to hear from and ask questions to the man himself.

Fontcuberta's work may not be science per se but this exhibition is very effective in making its point. The phrase "I'll believe it when I see it" is a dangerous one. Do we put too much faith in photography? Why do we believe when we see for ourselves?

Science demands proof beyond images and that is where this exhibition makes sense. For no matter how much we want to believe otherwise, this really will be your only opportunity to see a mermaid fossil.

Science Museum, London to November 9, 2014

Image credits:

1. Hydropithecus of Cerro de San Vicente, 2006 from the Sirens series by Joan Fontcuberta © Joan Fontcuberta

2. Cercophitecus Icarocornu from the Fauna series by Joan Fontcuberta and Pere Formiguera, 1985 © Joan Fontcuberta and Pere Formiguera

3. Bodyscape (Heel), 2004 from the Orogenesis series by Joan Fontcuberta © Joan Fontcuberta

4. The Miracle of Levitation, 2002, Joan Fontcuberta © Joan Fontcuberta