The crisis currently affecting museums of ethnology is reflected in the fact that very few now go by that name. The word ‘ethnology’ is too reminiscent of dark chapters in recent history: colonialism, nationalism, raciology, genocide. In Frankfurt, the ethnological museum was renamed the Museum of World Cultures in 2001. In Paris theirs now bears the name of its location, Musée du quai Branly. And in Vienna the Museum of Ethnology was renamed Weltmuseum Wien (Vienna World Museum) in 2013.
But does a more self-aware position and a straightforward renaming change anything about the now-questionable collections, the construction of an Other, and the still-popular mechanisms of the exotic? Not really. In her exhibition The Vanishing Middle Class, Lisl Ponger worked through this dilemma of lenient self-awareness. With great extravagance, she installed a complete ethnological museum at the Secession in Vienna – with bright and expensive-looking wall colours, vitrines and dioramas, object labels and explanatory texts, with a board of staff and a ‘photo point’. At the entrance, over a faded inscription with the old name ‘Völkerkundemuseum’, stood the bold new moniker ‘Museum for Foreign and Familiar Cultures’. The minor shift towards ‘familiar cultures’ revealed what the now usual name ‘World Museum’ deceptively conceals – the fact that what is understood by the term is not ‘the world’ but, as with ‘world music’ before it, ‘the world beyond the Occident’.
More shifts were to follow: the design by exhibition designers Toledo i Dertschei rotated Ponger’s museum-space-within-a-museum-space through 45 degrees against the Secession’s clearly defined matrix. On the outside wall of the inserted museum, an imaginary spray-paint activist had left the message ‘Down With Neo-Imperialism’, adding to the realism. And finally, for her parody of an ethnographic show, Ponger departed from the usual focus on some faraway people. Under the title The Vanishing Middle Class, three rooms tracked the historical development of the western bourgeoisie – the very stratum of the educated and upwardly-mobile from which an art institution like the Secession typically draws its audience.
The materials illustrating this theme were many and varied, ranging from genuine and fake branded goods, to café furniture, through to board games like Monopoly. Vitrines were devoted to Native American costumes for carnival and tattoos fashionable among young creatives. Ponger’s main focus, however, was the world of tax havens and the rise of China – topics well suited to the ironic slant she was aiming for here: ‘exotic’ destinations such as Mauritius, the Caymans and the Cook Islands, which are both tax havens and holiday paradises and ‘unfamiliar China’ where the kind of middle class that is currently dying out in Europe is emerging on a grand scale. The show included postage stamps from the tax havens, with the Caymans also represented by a sunset and a stuffed specimen of the giant lizard from which the islands take their name. From China, there were the latest technological status symbols such as mobile phones, as well as historical propaganda material. But the items on show were not easy to read, their network of criss-crossing allusions lending itself more to melancholy than to any kind of committed political or social stance – just as in any other museum.
In the fourth and final room Ponger presented a series of her own photographic works from 2000 to 2010 in a white cube atmosphere, the title: Lisl Ponger. Wild Places – a ‘special show by a contemporary artist’. The large-format photographs showed various re-enactments of colonial topoi, including the figure of Indiana Jones in front of his imaginary collection (Indian(er) Jones II – Das Glasperlenspiel, 2010), an Indian woman dressed in grid-print fabric holding a surveyor’s rod in reference to the tradition of anthropometry (Measures in the Afternoon, 2000), and a tattooing scene with the word ‘Artist’ being inked onto a lower arm where the words ‘Missionary’, ‘Mercenary’, ‘Ethnologist’ and ‘Tourist’ have already been crossed out (Wild Places, 2001). As a reference to the birth of world trade and the ‘tulip mania’ – the extraordinary rise and crash of tulip bulb prices – of the period, the arrangements stylistically echoed the still lives of the Dutch baroque. Even if this ‘special show’ gave only a limited insight into Ponger’s work, which also includes film and reportage, it did achieve something else: Institutional Critique with an unusual wealth of references beyond the confines of the art world.
Translated by Nicholas Grindell
First published in Issue 14