The room is dark and full of students. In the background there is a projection of a forest that recreates down to the smallest detail the habitat of the brown bear in the Picos de Europa. The image disappears and for a second the space falls into a total blackout. A spotlight turns on and directs a beam of light on an immense bear that seems to hibernate in the room itself. It breathes curled up on itself and the teenagers scream at the sight of it. Others spit on it.
No one expects to see a specimen of the predator at the top of the food chain sleeping peacefully in a nature interpretation centre. None of the visitors who pass through the room every day are able to distinguish the deep sleep of a real bear from that of a mechanically controlled one. It is an animatronic animal and is the work of two brothers, Ricardo and Guillermo Gruber. They have been working for more than 20 years to confuse people with informative purposes.
After several days with them, getting to know their work and their methods, one does not know if they make reality an illusion or illusion, reality. Ricardo shows an owl that moves thanks to a homemade system made with two CD’s that rotate on each other and a small modelling engine. First, they have investigated the movements of the bird until they have created a catalogue of gestures that make it real. They have turned a puppet into a replicant.
It is impossible not to think of the owl that Ridley Scott placed in Tyrel’s office, in Blade Runner, to reveal a synthetic and artificial life, in natural appearance. Philip K Dick, in Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? imagined that owls were the first animals to disappear as a result of nuclear contamination and that men reconstructed animal life with machines. Rick Deckard himself, a bounty hunter who retires rogue androids, suffered for the loss of his electric sheep. How to distinguish reality from illusion (if you don’t have a Voight-Kampff test)?
Confuse the beholder
That is the question that neither Velázquez in Las Meninas, nor Sánchez Cotán in his still lifes, nor Antonio López in his Gran Vía want you to solve, because with illusion they tried to make you forget that you were in front of a painted canvas and that you confused where the artifice began and where the truth ended. The Grubers have been trained in the art of deception, they are stage designers, sculptors, painters, musicians and they love nature. There is hardly any difference between what they do in their workshop in Vallecas -where they set up the diorama stages- and the baroque trompe l’oeil of Narciso Tomé in the transparent of the cathedral of Toledo.
Ricardo has a degree in Fine Arts, with honours, and Guillermo is a biologist. A perfect combination to make artificial nature look natural. Right now there are four griffon vultures on the table in Ricardo’s living room that he has to deliver to a French museum. He’s going to spend almost half a year working on them. Doesn’t he consider it art? “I don’t know, it depends on the eyes that look at it. There’s no depth or intention here, there’s technique,” he answers.
Ricardo says that a real specimen can have about 12,000 feathers, but he will only make 6,000. One by one. He uses a translucent plastic material, similar to vegetable paper but resistant. First he cuts the feather, then he paints it and finishes by placing it on the body of the fake bird. It is a process as tedious and precise as carving a sculpture. “Beauty is the door to knowledge,” says Guillermo. In his case, beauty is the result of hyperrealism. It is what the commissions demand.
“It must be indistinguishable from a live or stuffed animal”. The quotation marks are taken from the specifications of the last competition they have just won: they have to make several animals for the visitors’ interpretation centre of Picos de Europa, in Posada de Valdeón, in León. The Ministry of Environment of the Autonomous Community of Castilla y León has been building since 2018 and will invest in the building and content almost ten million euros. One of the three floors will house canvases of those painters – Carlos de Haes, Riancho or Campuzano – who crossed the paths of this natural park and left a record of its untamed essence. They also tried to confuse reality.
The Grubers have been the best candidates and have won the tender worth 55,000 euros. With that amount they have to make a wallcreeper, a ptarmigan, a red rock thrush, a chamois, an alpine newt, a common salamander, three griffon vultures, a vole, a bearded vulture, a golden eagle and a Egyptian vulture, among other “hyper-realistic replicas of the Iberian fauna”. In the sheet also clarifies that they can only be made with artificial materials. That is, taxidermy is prohibited. “Taxidermy is for the museum of horrors. It is something obsolete that does not fit with the contemporary social conscience”, explains Guillermo about the shot animals.
The most expensive animal that will be made for Picos de Europa is the bearded vulture, 5,800 euros. Each of the three griffon vultures is valued at 5,500 euros. The cheapest are the newt and the salamander, each at 500 euros. The jury valued the price but, above all, the morphostructure and the finishing materials. The essential condition for winning the tender was, as we have said, to create an animal that could not be distinguished from a real one. Replicants to make visible what is hidden from the eyes of an urban visitor.
The members of the jury (two forestry engineers and the head of the area of singular actions in the network of natural parks) valued the “dynamic aspect of the skeleton”, the muscles, the ligaments, the appearance, the placement, the texture or the durability of the finishes. The skin, feathers and hair had to be flexible and no rigid or painted animals were accepted. No sculptures. This was the closest thing to a fine arts competition, in which artificial naturalism was rewarded. Hyperrealism was awarded a maximum of 60 points, and the Grubers got 52.02 points.
Art and science fiction
“It is not a lie, it is only an illusion in which the spectator projects his intention to believe and think that it is natural”, explains the photographer and essayist Joan Fontcuberta to this newspaper about the presentation of these replicas. In 1987 he created together with the artist Pere Formiguera one of his first traps entitled “Secret Fauna”, in which he made known through photos a set of animals hitherto unpublished, found by the alleged German naturalist, Professor Peter Ameisenhaufen. With the help of a taxidermist, he created fantastic animals with fictitious Latin names, such as a twelve-legged viper. “Today this deception could not happen because the trust in the photographic document used to be very credible and today it is not. Back then people trusted the image,” says Fontcuberta, who replicated the museum’s devices so that the viewer would not even doubt what was being shown.
It sounds like a good plot for a science fiction novel: a platoon of artists creating a replicated robotic nature. “What we do is create ideal individuals that represent the most recognizable characteristics of the animal,” says Ricardo. A curator from the Museum of Natural History in New York has bought them a snowy owl and everything points to this being the beginning of their North American landing.
They both point to an event that determined this journey that fuses art and nature and that determined their taste, their sensibility and their future. Their father is the painter Eduardo Gruber and he used to take them to the country house near Santillana del Mar. One day they went to open the door and found a butterfly in the lock, which led them to collect many others and to go out into the bush to meet the animals. The second fact that conditioned who they are is their uncle Cristóbal, puppeteer and creator of the puppets of the French Canal +. He used to send them images of how they built the puppets and they made a Yoda… “When he saw that he told us something that has marked us: “Be persevering”, says Ricardo before laughing. “We listened to him”, he admits.
They began by making illustrations of the wild world for the students’ textbooks. From there, they went on to draw football moves for a Canal + programme, for very good money. “Rivaldo’s Chilean goal”, they remember. Soon they began to reproduce animals with the learning they had been accumulating. “Of my generation of Fine Arts nobody paints anymore”, assures Ricardo, who thinks that from those years training to be an artist he has retained the criterion, the instinct and the technique. Thanks to this he can model the head of a bone breaker with epoxy resin: “However, what was decisive was our education at home”, he adds. As good artists, they run the risk of getting bored doing the same thing, which is what they do for a living. They can’t bear to repeat themselves. They respect the word art, but they don’t renounce it either. “In our work there is no message, but there is emotion and beauty”, says Guillermo.