Sputnik: The Odyssey of the Soyuz II

Joan Fontcuberta's 1997 Sputnik project is a classic of fictive art. Sputnik details the life and exploits of a little-known Russian cosmonaut named Ivan Istochnikov whose mysterious disappearance during the flight of the Soyuz 2 spaceship in 1968 was followed by an extensive cover-up on the part of the Soviet bureaucracy. Fontcuberta organized an exhibition of historical artifacts and documents pertaining to this lost episode—objects ranging from photographs to newspaper articles, videos, even a chunk of meteorite; in short, precisely the kind of paraphernalia one would expect to accompany an account of this kind. As the "Sputnik Foundation" website states: "The Art and Technology Foundation in collaboration with the Sputnik Foundation of Moscow is pleased to present an exhibition that brings together newly discovered material on the almost unknown history of Soviet space exploration: photographs, videos, voice transcriptions, original annotations, navegation instruments, personal effects and even a replica of the Soyuz 2 spaceship" [1].

However, "Ivan Istochnikov" is a rough translation of "Joan Fontcuberta", and the photos purporting to show Istochnikov (like the one below) are of Fontcuberta himself [2]. Fontcuberta, a photographer, spent years carrying out research in U.S. and Soviet archives to assemble the materials supporting his elaborate narrative.

Sputnik is exemplary of a type of fictive art project that relies for its plausibility on a calculated mix of created and archival materials; in such projects it is quite common for the artists to insert themselves directly into the project, as the embodiment and representation of the absent subject. Sputnik also aligns with those projects that exploit the high contemporary status of scientific and technical professions to lend an extra dimension of authenticity to the project. In this case, the well-known phenomenon of Soviet-era rewriting of history was an additional factor, one operating on two levels. In the first place, it situates the project as the victim of specific historical circumstances that neatly explain informational lacunae. At the same time, this factor makes it very difficult to ‘out’ the project as a fiction—Soviet authorities attempting to do so would be suspected of simply continuing the cover-up, while those from Western countries wouldn't have enough access to Soviet archives to make a final determination.

As a side note, it is interesting that the more superficially traditional body of photographs for which Fontcuberta is probably best known includes two series ("Herbarium" and "Fauna") depicting impossible or unlikely plant and animal hybrids. In some of these images—which stand within a long western tradition embracing the bestiary, the sideshow, and the curio cabinet—Fontcuberta uses devices such as deliberate age-spotting to (re)authenticate them [3].


1. Sputnik Foundation website (see sources for link).

2. Anonymous item on Space Place (see sources for link).

3.Joan Fontcuberta's website includes examples of these works (see sources for link).



Sputnik Foundation

Joan Fontcuberta web site

anonymous item on Space Place