The look in the mirror: The Museum for Foreign and Familiar Cultures


A talk with Lisl Ponger


In 2014, the artist Lisl Ponger realized her dream of her own museum in the Vienna Secession. With the exhibition “The Vanishing Middle Class”, she presented the “Museum for Foreign and Familiar Cultures”, MuKul for short, and made an enlightening contribution to the discussion about the future of ethnological museums. During my visit to Vienna in March 2016, Lisl Ponger explained her approach and her artistic perspective.


Beatrice Barrois (BB): From February 13 to March 30, 2014, your exhibition “The Vanishing Middle Class” took place in Vienna at the Secession. There you have realized the long-cherished wish of a museum for foreign and familiar cultures. How exactly did the idea come about?


Lisl Ponger (LP): It’s an old idea that I had about seven years ago, in 2009. It was clear to me that this idea could not be realized without an institution. For some time now I have been interested in ethnological and anthropological literature. During my research on American ethnology, Native Americans and First Nation People, I came across the American photographer Edward Sheriff Curtis, the so-called Indian photographer, whose photographs I was interested in. In the course of this research I came across the term “The Vanishing Indians”, a term I found particularly interesting and wanted to apply to other things. From this, the idea of a “Vanishing Middle Class” was born. In addition, there was the dream of once “building” a museum as an art project. When the request of the Secession came, I had about a year to realize it.


BB: Some of the exhibits in the exhibition come from your own collection, others are on loan. How did the selection and composition of the objects result?


LP: About 98% of the exhibited objects come from me. There were also loans, for example from the invented “Museum of the Emerging Middle Class” in Shanghai, of which many a visitor believed that it actually existed. By working with analogue photography in my artistic practice in order to take staged pictures, I have a large pool of objects at my disposal that I have collected. However, I bought most of the exhibits as part of the preparations for the exhibition.


BB: In the manner of an ethnological museum, all exhibits were provided with detailed inscriptions. How did this happen?


LP: I had a staff member of the then newly renamed Museum für Völkerkunde in Vienna at my side, a young scientist who is now a Curatorial Fellow at the Kunsthalle Bremen. She was ethnologically in charge of the exhibition. I learned a lot in the process, because artistic exhibition practices and the logic of a museum are two diametrically opposed issues. All object descriptions, inventory numbers, wall texts etc. were checked for their ethnological museum suitability, because it was very important to me to work with the methods of a classical museum.


BB: You are interested in classification systems of ethnological collections and have studied various museums and exhibitions in detail. What fascinates you about it and which aspects were relevant for your “Museum for Foreign and Familiar Cultures”, in short MuKul?


LP: I am mainly interested in ethnological museum presentations. I have travelled a lot and have visited different museums in every country and city, but above all ethnological museums. For my museum, I specifically referred to the exhibition “Brazil” of the former Museum für Völkerkunde in Vienna, now the World Museum. In recent years, the way in which ethnological exhibitions are presented have changed. Sometimes they are just modern showcases and typographies, but the content remains “classic”. The “Brazil” show was such an exhibition and I took a very close look at it and adopted many ideas.


BB: I remember the curtain on which a beach picture of the Cayman Islands could be seen and through which your museum was entered. An element of the “Brazil” show that you took over?


LP: Yes, exactly, there was also a curtain with an exotic Brazilian landscape through which one entered the exhibition.


BB: I find your work and the “Museum for Foreign and Familiar Cultures” impressive, because you use the means of an ethnological museum and thus manage to uncover common museological strategies and reveal their anachronisms ... I am thinking, for example, of the common concept of wanting to represent a culture by means of material objects. What contradictions did you notice during your research in ethnological museums? And how did you deal with it in your own museum?


LP: I had my big “aha experience” at my first visit of the “Brazil” exhibition, which I saw several times afterwards. The show was on the ground floor and there were two entrances. By chance I entered the exhibition through the “wrong” entrance and stood in a hall that was about the present. I thought to myself, “Now they have understood that one should not start in colonial times, but in the present time” and walked through the rooms, very happy, only to find out disappointedly at the end that the tour was arranged in a classical chronological way. I believe introducing an exhibition based on the present would be a different, more exciting and more contemporary narrative; not chronologically from one’s own collection, but vice versa. At the “Brazil” exhibition, for example, I also noticed that the contemporary space was rather poorly designed compared to the historical rooms: with white walls and utensils on shelves. The rooms of the past were colorful, with ... of course ... wonderful objects in glass showcases in exotic ambience. For my museum I have consciously applied the classical methods of ethnological museums and related them to a burning issue from a Western point of view.


BB: Collecting is a basic feature of every museum. What does collecting mean for you?


LP: Collecting means for me that I have things that I like, but I don’t have a collection that is worth much. Of course, I brought masks and figures etc. from my travels, but always with the good excuse that I need them for my work.


BB: For your museum, you have decided in particular for objects that have as many levels of meaning as possible. Another criterion was that they appeal to you aesthetically. Can you give me an example?


LP: When selecting the exhibits, I always proceeded first with the content. After that, aesthetics came into play. I have not chosen an object with which I would have had an aesthetic problem. One example is the perfumes in the first room. Representative utility objects of the “Middle Class” were shown here. These eau de parfums are called “rich” or “1 million” and speak for themselves. Another example are the board games, such as an anniversary edition of “Monopoly”, a collector’s edition from 1991, with a game board made of mahogany, and gold-plated and silver-plated game pieces. Then there are objects whose expressiveness is so great that nothing more can be said about them. For example, the “Lehman Brothers Emergency Evacuation Kit”, consisting of a gas mask, a flashlight, a whistle etc. That’s what all Lehman Brothers employees got after 9/11 to protect themselves from further catastrophes; didn’t work out so well ... or the number letters. These are first-day envelopes with stamps and a shrink-wrapped coin or banknote. If one speaks of tax havens, the island state of Vanuatu for example, which is also an exotic place of longing, then several levels of meaning come with this Numis letter to the surface. Another example is a golf ball covered with 24 carat gold.


BB: A more general question: Which function does your MuKul have for you?


LP: It was an attempt. I wanted to try out whether it was possible in a rather elitist art venue, which is the Vienna Secession, to appeal to a wider museum audience. In a museum, there are explanatory wall texts and object descriptions; in art exhibitions this is very rare and almost frowned upon. And many people who had never been to the Secession before came to visit “my museum”. The visitors were of course aware that they were in an art exhibition that functioned like a museum, with its didactic components and its potential for mediation.


BB: Ethnographic objects in exhibitions should convey a certain content and often feed stereotypical ideas. What do you think about it and how do you think one could break with these habits of seeing?


LP: In my MuKul, I deliberately played with these ideas and worked with typifications, just as it was the case in many ethnological museums or still is. Habits of seeing are deeply anchored in our history and certain objects and images recall certain stereotypes. One might have to question this process and pass on questions to the visitors. In my museum this aspect was quite obvious, it worked well. As curator of my museum, I have given twenty guided tours in six weeks. Many young, interested people came. One of the favourite objects of the visitors was a living casting, a half-figure made of plaster with the title “Generation Praktikum”. Here I made a reference to the anthropological studies and the live effusions of the so-called rescue ethnology and at the same time was able to deal with a burning topical question. The American “Salvage Ethnology” made plaster casts of the “last Indians” for posterity. It was about keeping them in the museum after trying to wipe them out. It had never been the goal to save their culture. It was more a matter of eliminating them as a threat, annexing their land and locking them in reservations. If they were then no longer a threat, artists, photographers and ethnologists stepped onto the scene to save what was to be saved. The objects were musealized in order to conjure up a nostalgic image of them as noble savages of the past. This is also where my exhibition on the disappearance of the middle class begins. We are at a time when the middle class is disappearing, democratically with drastic consequences. Now you have to collect quickly in order to be able to show later what it was like ...


BB: Do you think that you can create a picture of the past from objects, pictures, photographs or reports?


LP: Of course, it’s not. It’s always a construct. What we get to see from ancient cultures, such as the Egyptians in museums, are mostly only objects of the upper, ruling classes. The objects of the poorer population were mostly not made of permanent materials and are irrelevant from a cultural-historical point of view. This is an example of the invisible standards that are taken for granted and never spoken about. So, what one can learn about a past culture mainly concerns the rich classes. It is interesting to see which pictures are produced in this way.


BB: Your exhibition includes the MuKul with coloured rooms, glass showcases and dioramas, scenographically all classic building blocks of ethnological museums, as well as the special exhibition “Wild Places”, an art exhibition in the White Cube with your own photographic works. What relationship do you make between these two elements?


LP: Long before the theme “Can art save ethnological museums?” came up, I was sometimes invited to exhibit in such a place, often at the end of a tour in a small room. Hence the art exhibition in my museum in the last room. Art in ethnological museums should always have a critical potential.


BB: In your special exhibition “Wild Places”, you can see ten photographic works from very different years. Can you explain some of the work to me in more detail? Let’s take a look, for example, at the work “Let a thousand flowers bloom” from 2007, which by the way was also part of the exhibition of the same name at the Kunsthaus Dresden in 2009. The photograph shows a still life. Next to a flower vase there is a figure, which was also exhibited in a showcase in the third hall of the MuKul. What’s it all about?


LP: In general, I wanted to create links to the main exhibition on various levels with the works shown in the special exhibition. I chose the work “Let a thousand flowers bloom” because in the main exhibition I talk about China in connection with the emerging middle class. For a long time, I wanted to make a flower still life, especially since for several reasons I have been intensively involved with Dutch and Flemish baroque painting. Firstly, I am interested in their photographic view of the world; secondly, the almost God-given central perspective in painting was only one aspect that has prevailed. The Dutch and Flemish had a completely different approach to perspective. I also believe that the central perspective has contributed significantly to our idea of “The West and the rest”. Flower still lifes interested me because on them flowers that grow at different times in different places were made visible for the first time in a picture. I was very inspired by that idea. I have worked with artificial flowers in many of my photographs. I am interested in all these fake objects that are always available and can be bought for little money. These objects say: “Our social system has access to everything.” A few years ago, I was looking for artificial tulips in winter. In an artificial flower department of a large department store I asked a saleswoman about it. Stunned, she told me that tulips had no season now! It was new to me that artificial flowers were also sold after the season. Near Dresden, there was one of the largest production companies of artificial flowers until after the Second World War. With globalization, all this has migrated to the East. China had a long tradition in this respect and is now the world market leader. I visited the former production site in Sebnitz. “Let a thousand flowers bloom” is about western projections on China. At the left edge of the picture there is an Egyptian obelisk, an allusion to Athanasius Kircher and his claim that Chinese writing developed from the Egyptian hieroglyphics. The figure to the right of the vase, which is also displayed in a showcase in the MuKul, is an imitation of a figure originally from the period of the Cultural Revolution. These figures are produced again today for tourists and I bought mine on eBay. It is a soldier holding a banner in her hands that says in Chinese “Down with capitalism”. This inscription was of course in a completely different context at the time. Mao accused the renegade party comrades of having taken the capitalist path. As an object in the MuKul, this statement naturally takes on a completely different meaning. In the metal ball to the left of the vase, I mirror myself while photographing, an allusion to Dutch painting. On the left of the table is a shirred reprinted upholstery fabric from the Chinoiserie period, including a red silk fabric embroidered with a saying from EuroMayday 2007: “No more illusions, let’s struggle and organize ourselves”. In front of the vase is the “Little Red Book of Mao”. Between 1956 and 1957, the Communist Party of China called on the people to express themselves critically on the situation of the state. “Let a hundred flowers bloom, let a hundred schools compete.” However, this movement was only of very short duration. The title “Let a thousand flowers bloom” refers to it. There are still several shells to be seen, one of which was drawn by Rembrandt. The red starfish plays with the red communist star. Behind it is an artificial coral made of felt. In the Dutch still lifes, flowers have an iconography that I was not interested in. However, I have researched the meaning of different flowers in China. There is also a story about the blue and white vase, because this type of porcelain was traded between Asia and Europe, in both directions. In this picture, as in all my other works, there are many hidden stories ...


BB: One photograph is entitled “Indian(er) Jones II – The Glass Bead Game”. How does this work relate to the MuKul?


LP: This picture is actually the most important one in relation to the main exhibition. It is about Western museum presentations of non-European objects. How do different approaches to exhibiting change the meaning we ascribe to the objects? Exhibition practices are subject to fashions, as is the renaming wave of museums in recent years: suddenly these are called “world museums” or “world cultures museums”. In ten years, there may be new names again, following a new discourse. These changes are cyclical and not new. As early as 1913, ethnographic objects were presented as art in the “Armory Show”, officially called the “International Exhibition of Modern Art”. In 1984 the exhibition “PRIMITIVISM IN 20TH CENTURY ART, Affinity of the Tribal and the Modern” took place at the MOMA in New York. Often one gets the feeling that discourses produce an ultimate and unchangeable truth, but of course every discourse is also dependent on geographical, political and socio-economic conditions and is constantly changing. This statement also belongs to the invisible standards with which operations are performed. Let’s get back to Indian(er) Jones II. This is about the different presentation of non-European objects and private collections. There’s a template for this photo. I am referring to a painting by Willson Peale entitled “The Artist in His Museum” from 1822, a painting that many US Americans know from their textbooks. He himself, a painter and naturalist, can be seen opening his museum, America’s first private natural history museum. He lifts the red curtain and reveals his collection. Peale dug up dinosaur bones himself and devised classification systems. My work also deals with collections and classifications. You can see that the objects placed behind the curtain were divided into the categories Art, Artefact, Specimen, Trophy and Curio. Pablo Picasso was a passionate collector and Georg Baselitz also has an incredible collection of African objects. I got the idea that many painters who make money try to enroll in this genealogy since Picasso and start collecting African objects. My Indian(er) Jones series currently consists of four parts, just like Steven Spielberg’s Indiana Jones movies. Another one is in preparation and I will react with a fifth picture. “Indian(er) Jones III – High Stakes” from 2012 is a poker game between Indian Jones, the adventurer, conqueror or perhaps conquistador Hernán Cortez and the Mayas and Aztecs. The Indians have lost the game and left the table. Everything that Indian Jones has earned has turned to gold. But he knows that he was playing with his cards in the rack, maybe someone will claim his winnings after all. “I’d rather be armed and keep my hand on the gun”, he thinks. One of his booty pieces is the Cross of Coronado, invented for the film and modeled by me. But the Spanish conquistador Francisco Vásquez de Coronado, after whom it is named, really existed. The red powder in a bowl, in the middle of the table, is cochineal, a dye obtained from aphids, a very valuable commodity at the time. In this work, too, every object and every element is precisely researched and selected. The picture “Indian(er) Jones IV – Dreams of New Worlds” from 2013 shows Indian(er) Jones as a banker and representative of the neoliberal system. The work refers to a wall painting by Diego Rivera titled “Dream of an Afternoon in the Alameda Park” from 1947–1948. To the left of Indian(er) Jones stands the Mexican woman Tod. She is also the constant companion of the neoliberal system. Behind them there is a demonstration, on the signs, different photographs are shown. One shows “La belleza de la desobediencia”, translated “The beauty of disobedience” as graffiti. Another shows the basketball court in a small village in the mountains of Chiapas, where talks between the Mexican government and the Zapatistas took place. It is a tribute to the Zapatista movement, the first of all system-critical anti-capitalist movements.


BB: In the picture “Indian(er) Jones I – Fact or Truth”, the hero stands with his back to the viewer and looks at a wall with several photographs. What’s it all about?


LP: For me, Indian(er) Jones is actually Indian Jones, hence the bracket in his name. I find it very exciting to work with an iconic figure from popular culture. The Indian Jones of the object is a prison academician and anthropologist who collects for representation. He is an adventurer in search of gold objects. If he finds something, you can see the sparkle in his eyes. But before greed overpowers him, he says: “I’m collecting for the museum.” In my four pictures, he is actually always a different one, but also Indiana Jones, the Western conqueror, ethnologist, archaeologist etc. In “Indian(er) Jones I”, I refer to photographs by Edward Curtis. Curtis was a photographer who at the end of the 19th century tried to photograph all the Indian tribes of North America. He was actually one of the good guys for his time. In search of the former “free, wild Indian”, however, he travelled through the country in a wagon full of costumes. If an Indian’s garment did not fit into his concept, he dressed him up. This can be seen in the photos in which the same shirt can be seen with different ethnic groups. Back to “Indian(er) Jones I – Fact or Truth”: The back figure alludes to Caspar David Friedrich’s painting “Der Wanderer über dem Nebelmeer” from 1818. However, my figure does not look into a painted landscape, but at photographs. I chose the painting as my starting point because in Caspar David Friedrich’s romantic approach to landscape I see a parallel to Edward Curtis’s romantic view of the “Indian peoples”. The first known ethnological feature film “Nanuk, the Eskimo” from 1922 was made by Robert J. Flaherty. Another one of this genre is the film “Tabu” by Friedrich Murnau, shot on Tahiti. These films are a mixture of ethnological observations and feature film elements. Actually, the first movie of this kind came from Edward Curtis. It was called “In the Land of the Head Hunters”, renamed “In the Land of the War Canoes” and was shot in 1914 in British Columbia, Canada. It’s a tragic love story with First Nation actors. I’ve been to some places where Curtis made the movie and took the pictures. My work shows Indian(er) Jones looking at various photographs with his back to us. There are pictures from the environment of today’s First Nation People, totem poles, community houses, souvenir items and a demonstration. The title “Fact or Truth” refers to a scene from the third film “Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade”. Indiana Jones says in a lecture to his students: “... Archeology is not just a cross on a map and it’s definitely not mainly about finding treasures.” The next scene shows him in a library. On the ground, there is a huge cross and exactly there is the entrance to his next adventure, although he had just claimed that archaeology was not an adventure but a serious science. Archaeology is about facts and truth. It became my title, Fact or Truth. This work deals with documentary photography and the question of the extent to which the documentary, with its claim to truth, at least at that time, has always been a construct. Edward Curtis has depicted the “Indians”, but also invented their depiction in parts.


BB: Let’s take a look at the photograph “Fuimus Ibi” from 2008. What stories are there in the individual picture elements?


LP: In this work I refer to the painting “Man with the Red Turban” by Jan van Eyck from the year 1433, in which he probably portrayed himself. My photograph shows a person equipped with several exotic elements: a turban-like headgear, as can be seen in Oriental paintings by many “Western travelers”, an Indian shirt with a world map in its breast pocket and an African fabric in the background, whose pattern reminds me of the central aperture of an analog camera. The man therefore also carries a small camera in his right hand. The title “Fuimus Ibi” refers to the famous painting “Arnolfini-Hochzeit” by Jan van Eyck from 1434, with the inscription “Fui ibi” above a mirror in the background, “I was there” in Latin. In the mirror he can be seen himself. All this should certify his presence at the wedding. So “Fui ibi” became “Fuimus ibi”, “We were there”, an allusion to our presence in different functions at different times in “elsewhere”.


BB: In the picture “En Couleur” from 2007, you can see a woman putting her head diagonally on a table and holding an issue of a National Geographic magazine to her right. What’s this all about?


LP: This is an update of a photograph by Man Ray entitled “noire et blanche” from 1926, of which there are several versions, by the way. On one of them, a white woman is holding a black mask in her hand. I was interested in the question of how Man Ray would photograph this subject today. On the cover of the National Geographic magazine is a Bororo Fulani from Niger. It’s one of those favorite ethnological ethnicities. Robert Gardner shot the film “Deep Hearts” there in 1981. The film is about a contest in which the most perfect male Bororo is chosen, a beauty contest. So I’m also alluding to a gender issue here, because you could almost think that the person on the front page of National Geographic is a woman. I was also interested in Man Ray because at the time of the Paris Colonial Exhibition in 1931 he was a member of the Surrealist circles. They published a manifesto and leaflets that were directed against the colonial exhibition with its human views and decidedly adopted an anti-colonial attitude.


BB: I have a more general question: Would you say that you could speak of a mimetic procedure in relation to your museum? Moreover, could the term deconstruction be applied to your work?


LP: My aim is to recognize structures and make them visible. It is a political work, and a deconstruction it certainly is. In the system in which we live, there is less and less freedom and therefore I use what already exists and try to fill it with other content. I have no reservations about working outside the art context. Sometimes, for example, I am invited by ethnological museums. It’s clear to me, of course, that artistic work in this context is an experiment with an uncertain outcome. Will one be able to survive in the neighborhood of this powerful discourse of a colonial collection? Surely it is easier to exist in one’s own delimited space than with an artistic intervention that has to assert itself surrounded by ethnological objects. I would describe my approach of working something out as associative research. For the World Museum Vienna, I am currently preparing a work with the title “The Master Narrative”. Of course, I will present art works there and not my MuKul. To work in an ethnological museum with the methods of ethnology would not be perceived as critical work, I believe.


The interview took place on March 19, 2016 in Vienna. Special thanks to Lisl Ponger for the publication and permission to use images.