The current exhibit at the Dunlop Art Gallery in the main branch of the Regina Public Library may confuse you at first glance.
It doesn’t look like it belongs in an art gallery; it looks like it belongs in a museum. There are stuffed animals; artifacts in glass boxes; yellowing photographs and excerpts from scientific journals; even little headphone sets so you can take your own walking tour of the exhibit.
“It” is Fauna Secreta by Joan Fontcuberta and Pere Formiguera, and don’t let the looks deceive you: this is art, not science–an artistic exhibit deliberately disguised to look like a scientific one.
The fictional story behind Fauna Secreta is that Fontcuberta and Formiguera made a startling discover in 1987 in the attic of house of Glasgow. There they uncovered the archive of Dr. Peter Ameisenhaufen, who died in a car crash in 1955. Further research revealed that the doctor had discovered many previously unknown, bizarre creatures, and that his work had provoked great debate and controversy during his time.
For instance, he claimed to have discovered a creature called Solenoglypha Polipodida, a snake-like creature with 12 feet, that is supposed to be able to paralyze its prey with a high-pitched whistle. Sound unlikely? There’s a perfectly clear photograph of it in Fauna Secreta.
Then there’s Myodorifera colubercauda, a squirrel with webbed feet and a snake tail. There are both photos and a stuffed specimen on display at the Dunlop. There’s also a beautiful stuffed specimen of Centaurus Neandertalensis, a creature with the upper body and arms of a monkey and the lower body of a small deer. Dr. Ameisenhaufen didn’t know whether to treat it as a semi-humanoid, a living myth, or simply a zoological specimen.
Fauna Secreta was first displayed at the Museum of Natural History in Madrid. Fontcuberta and Formiguera simply set it up without stating whether it was art or reality, and were astonished at the number of people who took it at face value.
That is, of course, what makes it interesting art. It shows us how easily we can be fooled by supposedly authoritative documentation of the “truth.” The displays in Fauna Secreta are easily on a par with those that I saw last fall at the Field Museum in Chicago, one of the world’s greatest natural history museums. They look every bit as authentic. Who’s to say that these creatures are any less real than the stuffed ones in the Field Museum or our own Museum of Natural History?
Art has always been about fooling the senses; representational paintings, after all, attempt to fool us into thinking we’re looking through a window at a three-dimensional scene, when in fact all we’re seeing are some daubs of pigment on canvas. Fauna Secreta merely takes this fooling of the senses a step further.
I enjoyed the exhibit both for the way it plays with reality and because it is, in a sense, a work of science fiction–my favorite literary form as both a writer and reader. Science fiction is inspired by scientific discovery. “What if…?” is the starting point for all science fiction, and many stories have been written around a question similar to, “What if the archives of a deceased scientist, containing proof of the existence of seemingly impossible creatures, were found in an attic in Scotland?” What would be a science fiction story in the hands of a writer has become a work of art in the hands of two artists.
It’s a very interesting experience viewing Fauna Secreta. Even though I knew it was a work of art, and even though I have enough grounding in science to know that the creatures described and photographed are physically impossible, I had to keep constantly reminding myself of that fact. When presented with what looks like a real photograph of a real creature, it’s easy to just think, “Well, isn’t that interesting!” and accept it as fact, so well-trained are we to trust photographs.
Visit Fauna Secreta at the Dunlop for yourself. You’ll find it interesting, amusing and thought-provoking…everything you could ask for in an exhibit of art.
Or science, for that matter.