Are superfictions art or are their creators just fooling themselves? Peter Hill speaks for the defence.
The storm that has been raging in the teacups of British newspapers about the self-proclaimed "Leeds 13" art students is the latest manifestation of a recent artistic fashion - "superfictions". These are fictional situations in which contemporary artists either take the visual arts into another area of human activity - the Swiss artist Res Ingold, for example, whose fictive airline exists only through the trompe l'oeil of its signage,promotional video and business plans - or play games with the press.
The Leeds 13 first gained notoriety when they leaked to the British tabloid newspapers that they were using university money to go on holiday to Spain. In fact, the 13 art students from Leeds University stayed in hiding for a week, spent none of the money and fabricated holiday photos on a nearby beach in Scarborough.
A few weeks ago the Leeds 13 presented their final degree show, made up entirely of work by other artists, ranging from Rodin and Damien Hirst to Marcel Duchamp.
How do university degree examiners assess such a submission? Should it get a first or a third?
It is not the first time such problems have arisen. Not so long ago, identical twins Jane and Louise Wilson submitted identical projects at different art schools in the UK. They are now candidates for the 1999 Turner prize.
The Leeds 13 are just the latest artists to create a superfiction that plays with the media and with the viewer's ability to correctly read visual material. It goes beyond the notion of a "hoax". Instead it illuminates, to paraphrase Picasso, how "art is a lie that can reveal the truth".
The Mona Lisa, of course, is not a hoax, but the very act of painting - taking raw material from the earth and playing with spatial relationships and evoking illusion upon a flat surface of calico - could be viewed as a little perverse until the illusions become accepted, then institutionalised and finally taken for granted. Superfictions interrogate this taken-for-grantedness, they make people question their assumptions about what constitutes art and how art works.
Artist, curator and critic John Tozer is completing an MA at Goldsmiths College, London. His work uses fiction to blur the boundaries of his three chosen professions. He says: "I am interested in fictional identities and in what occurs when the names of real artists are appended to the work of others." Tozer has created an artist called Lloyd Loraage, whose work he not only wants to exhibit in London but also plans to review under the equally fictitious persona of one Niles Bostmaamthe.
Tozer, like many artists who create superfictions, does not want his creations to be read merely as a hoax. "I am not interested in hoodwinking,fooling or taking the piss, but I am intrigued by the prospect of conducting the experiment just to see what the after-effects might be."
My own PhD research into superfictions at RMIT University Melbourne has unearthed more than 50 artists who are taking illusion out of the gallery and placing it within our daily lives. I am cataloguing these in my Encyclopedia of Superfictions, which can be found at www.nymoci.com. It covers artists such as Marcel Broodthaers and the late Helen Chadwick - who in the early 1980s transformed a London gallery into a social security benefits office in which, from each booth, the taped voice of a claimant struggled to be heard above the angry or defeated voices of its neighbours.
In Tasmania, Swiss artist Raymond Rohner created a project called Pigvision, which asks questions such as "Do pigs see in colour?" In Western Australia, art lecturer Rodney Glick formulated Klusian Philosophy and the nine steps to physical and moral enlightenment, while one of his students, Eve-Anne O'Regan, created and launched a fictional brand of cosmetics called Baby Face.
In my own work I mark the arrival of each superfiction with the production of a pen, each different and with its own logo and sometimes web address on the barrel. There is one for my fictitious oil company Cameron Oil, and its billionaire benefactors, Alice and Abner "Bucky" Cameron, who bankroll The Museum of Contemporary Ideas in New York.
It was in 1989 that I started to send out press releases for The Museum of Contemporary Ideas. Notionally, it was the largest arts space in the world, located on Park Avenue. I did this to create a particular illusion, not unlike the traditional trompe d'oeil, which would mirror and critique the real art world. But there was another reason. I had spent eight years as an undergraduate at UK art schools reading mostly philosophy. Karl Popper's "sophisticated methodological falsificationism" seemed to be asking the question, "How can we know when a given statement is true or false?" and answering it, via his black and white swan theory: "You can sight white swans any number of times, but you will never be able to say 'all swans are white'." However, a single sighting of a black swan does allow you to say "not all swans are white."
Juan Fontcuberto, a Spanish artist who has used taxidermy to create a whole range of invented creatures supposedly discovered by the 19th-century zoologist Dr Peter Ameisenhaufen, puts this well when he says: "We believe the photographs of the footsteps on the moon even though all the space expeditions could be an enormous montage. But we do not believe photos of UFOs."
And so superfictions become a sort of testing mechanism - not hoaxing the ordinary person in the street, but testing potentially subversive media reports and government propaganda machines. Do we believe the British or the Serbs about the accuracy of bombing missions?
In November 1989 I visited the Cologne art fair and was astonished to find that a German art magazine, Wolkenkratzer, had written about my Museum of Contemporary Ideas and had beautifully translated my fictional press release into German. Not only that, but once the editor, Wolfgang Max Faust, had got over the shock of finding out that this museum did not exist, he told me that the article had been widely discussed across Germany as the hottest new arrival in the museum world. As a result he was invited to chair a meeting of German industrialists to explore whether Frankfurt could build a similar museum.
I decided back in 1989 that for a period of ten years all the art I made would only exist to be photographed and reproduced in the press. I was not interested in selling art objects through commercial galleries. This has given me a tremendous freedom. It also helps me keep one step ahead of Interpol.
Peter Hill is a lecturer at Deakin University in Australia. He will deliver a lecture, "True Lies and Superfictions", at the Museum of Modern Art, Oxford, on November 19.