This is one of those crossover posts that ought to be worked out in detail but almost certainly will never be properly upgraded. I had originally thought to post it to my joculum.livejournal blog, where the readership is more familiar with the context. But the readers of Counterforces will know more about the art issues.
There have been a growing number of crossover fictions gaining popularity in the artworld in recent years. An artist was invented and memorialized in a UK-published biography with illustrations, with both artist and artworks a complete fiction (the paintings did actually exist, though in the era of digital reproduction this was no longer an absolute necessity). This came a bit after a feature story in, I think, Esquire that profiled an unaccountably unrecognized younger actress who was unrecognized because Esquire had made her up. These exercises in documentary fictions have since been succeeded by a variety of made-up artists, though one needs to go back to Smile magazine and Karen Eliot and many other precursors to do this properly. Claire Fontaine and the Bruce High Quality Foundation are examples of currently popular artworld collectives using the concept of the fictionalized biography as a vehicle for collaborative endeavors (so it would be particularly appropriate to revisit the Karen Eliot model, but life is short).
Now, it so happens that the father of writer Tahir Shah engaged in a certain number of collaborative fictions of his own over the years, involving made-up characters. He used some of them as a test for would-be devotees of his thought: one anthology of writings was handed to an academic in America for publication, and when the academic published the entire collection verbatim, it was reportedly pointed out to him that the essays were internally contradictory, and that anyone taking all of them at face value was failing to absorb the specific lessons that were the whole point of the materials' overt content. The volume appeared under a different title in a much-diminished mass-market version later on, and there is still some question as to the intent behind what was included and omitted from that rendition.
So it comes as less than a complete surprise that earlier this year Tahir Shah (who is best known most recently for The Caliph's House,, which has done for Casablanca what Peter Mayle did for Provence) announced that he was in the midst of writing a novel based on the life of the forgotten Edwardian adventurer Hannibal Fogg, under the working title Hannibal Fogg and the Supreme Secret of Man.
Well, actually, the novel-in-progress came as a surprise. What was ultimately less surprising was that Hannibal Fogg proved to be even more elusive a character than the website of the Hannibal Fogg Society promised. Within a very short time indeed, researchers had determined that this individual whose works were supposedly suppressed for political reasons (though the Society had recovered many and recently begun to post them online) appeared to be a complete fiction inserted into online discourse only a matter of weeks earlier. Trails of site registrations and Wikipedia entries appeared to lead back to names associated with Tahir Shah.
Now, anyone familiar with the biographies of Percy Fawcett and Roger Casement, among others, could perceive a suspicious similarity between elements of Fogg's story and theirs. And of course, the echo of the name of Jules Verne's Phineas Fogg seemed a bit too good to be true. The titles of Fogg's suppressed books seemed to smell of a send-up, and Fogg's prose style in the online extracts seemed a trifle anomalous for someone writing a century ago. So it isn't surprising that searchers were on the case immediately.
What's curious and yet to be determined is where to place this incident in the realm of online hoaxes (which the evidence thus far—assuming we can take the evidence at face value—appears to suggest that it is).
People reading the texts on the site of the Bruce High Quality Foundation with its slogan "Professional Challenges. Amateur Solutions." do not take the foundation's declarations at face value. It is understood that artists' collectives have intentions and uses of online resources that do not coincide with the goals of historical research. But the BHQF has gone out of its way to make itself ineligible for a Wikipedia entry (by declaring that all the media reports have "misrepresented" it and by producing fact-subverting reportage), rather than inserting a fictional Wikipedia biography of the late sculptor Bruce High Quality.
So is Tahir Shah following in his footsteps of his trickster father or creating a less successful version of this young collective that has now found its way into the 2010 Whitney Biennial (BHQF's success thus proving that ridicule of artworld pretensions is sometimes as much of a path to fame as the more standard career-building route is)?
Ought we to be discussing Tahir Shah's literary gambit in the context of hoaxes, history of religions, or interdisciplinary artmaking? You tell me.