Observing collectors of the exotic

Missionaries – mercenaries – ethnographers – tourists…

One might say that collecting things is a basic human urge.  Some people collect clocks,  antique books, vintage clothing, rubber ducks, bottle tops, even umbrella sleeves (!) – you name it, somebody will surely be collecting it.   (I personally admit to an out-of-control collection of (artificial) birds occupying every possible surface in my living room.)   Lisl Ponger observes and documents such occupations artistically and with a critical eye in her exhibition The Master Narrative at the World Museum (Weltmuseum Wien) .

Items from other cultures have held a fascination for people since the early Western explorers brought back their tales and artifacts from their travels to Europe.  Missionaries, traders, travelers, and representatives of governing colonial regimes from foreign (Western) countries have been  collecting many types of cultural artifacts at least since the 17th century.

The concept of the formal description of foreign cultures (ethnography) was  developed in the early 1700s.   For more information on the field, check the link.  Suffice it to say here that a long history of collecting “exotic” artifacts has led to the large object collections on display at  ethnological collections around the world, including at Vienna´s elegant Weltmuseum.

Weltmuseum Wien

Telling stories about history – the Master Narrative

Today I had a special opportunity to see this exhibition at the Weltmuseum with its creator.  The Austrian photographer/artist Lisl Ponger has long had a deep interest in ethnology, the types of artifacts people collect, and especially the cultural background and the narrative behind such collections.    She has created her own (fictitious) Museum for Foreign and Familiar Cultures, the MuKul, walls and all, inside the Weltmuseum.  In it she has placed her latest exhibition of large-scale, colorful and bright choreographed photographs in light boxes, calling it  The Master Narrative.  The term  “master narrative” (or metanarrative) was introduced by the French philospher and sociologist Jean-François Lyotard.  He criticized institutional and ideological forms of knowledge in his 1979 book The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge.  Such master narratives tell  stories about history and humans´goals in a way that legitimizes what we think we know and our cultural practices.

The exterior “wall” of the special exhibition room “MUKUL”, a separate structure within the architecture of the Weltmuseum


According to the artist, her pictures require their own room (which by the way has to be at a 45 degree angle to the existing museum architecture), separate from the other exhibits at the museum, so as to be seen as a critique and not become part of the collection.  The room is dark, the only light is from the photo installation, giving it a purposely mysterious atmosphere, which, she says, is meant to stimulate discourse.


MUKUL inside
Inside the dark room of the MUKUL the only lights come from the photo lightboxes.


Lisl Ponger produced three of the six staged images shown here especially for this exhibition, but her earlier works also fit the theme, because Ponger has been concerned with these issues for a long time.  Composing such pictures takes a lot of planning effort and research (including searches for artifacts on auction websites and flea markets to ensure the proper setting).   She photographs with an analog camera and then has the negatives directly transposed onto the material in the light boxes, so unlike with digital photos there is no room for correcting mistakes with editing software.  The staging has to be precise, as does the lighting and all else that is required for crisp photographs with great depth such as these.

Observing the observer

Anthropologist  Bronisław Malinowski  coined the term participant observation.    Anthropologists, he argued, should be in direct contact with their subjects of observation to properly understand and describe a different culture.  Lisl Ponger´s self-portrait, in which she is looking at herself in a mirror, reflects a criticism of ethnologists, who, according to some, can only observe other cultures through their own cultural mirror.

Participant observer
Lisl Ponger as Participant Observer (2016)


The photographer does not exempt herself from this: “I myself am part of what I am criticizing,” she says.  The fabric on her dress is accordingly symbolic: an African wax print with eyes, another piece of fabric strews on the floor with an image of a camera, and tennis shoes that stare at you through comic eyes — all objects Lisl Ponger found during her eternal search for artifacts.


Indian(er) Jones, Sigmund Freud, and other collectors

Both the (fictitious) Indiana Jones, a favourite character in this exhibition, and the (real) Sigmund Freud were enthusiastic collectors of exotic artifacts.  Two staged photographs in the exhibition make reference to this.  In The Loot the viewer sees a recreation of Sigmund Freud´s office (the original can still be seen at the Sigmund Freud museum, by the way).   A series of objects is placed on a desk the way they also stood at his, while a young woman dressed in “tourist art” (Museumskunst) is browsing a collection catalogue.

The centre image, Wild Places (also on view at the Dommuseum , which has a second copy of it), shows a re-imagination of an old postcard from Amsterdam with a tattoo artist.  In this scene, the artist crosses out the words “missionary”, “mercenary”, … and adds “artist” – an allusion to the original photo, where the client has crossed out all the names of previous boyfriends and has the name of the most recent one tattooed on.

At right, a very attractive Indian(er) Jones lifts a stunning red curtain and is displaying his artifacts.  This is one of the most charming photographs, and Lisl Ponger admits to liking the quirky book and movie character quite a bit.  She is not the only one.

Three images by Lisl Ponger
The Loot (2006), Wild Places (2001), Indian(er) Jones (2010)
The Garden Party is a scene photographed at the Weltmuseum itself, in its beautiful marble columned lobby.  Against a background of an “exotic landscape” wallpaper on a “real fake lawn” (Ponger), actors portray famous anthropologists Margaret Mead, Franz Boas, and Malinowsky, while Christopher Columbus points – where else – West to unexplored lands.  Dressed in glaring white, they make reference to the way early photographs of foreign explorers and colonialists looked.
Garden Party
Garden Party (2016), a reference to several famous ethnographers and their students, and one famous explorer


Don Durito, the beetle

The exhibition The Master Narrative is rather small, but it is worth taking your time with it.  The longer you examine the large colorful displays, the more interesting details you will discover, from postcards, to fabrics, to the way the light shining on a woman´s face seems to mirror that in a certain Dutch Renaissance painting, to the curious artifacts standing on a desk.  In addition to looking at the photos in lightboxes, if you have a lot of time on your hands, you could sit there and listen to Lisl Ponger´s own narrative voice via headphones for an entire museum day, accompanied by a slide show of historic first edition stamps – which she selected because such stamps also show what a nation´s governing institutions consider culturally valuable.  (Some of the first edition stamps from the USA include images from the films Gone with the Wind and the Wizard of Oz (!) – but also of Martin Luther King, to be fair.) The artist is also trying to document the effects of colonialism, of ethnological museum collections, and especially of non-European objects on the visual arts, literature and film.

The audio installation is cryptically titled The Master Narrative and Don Durito,  who isa well-dressed, pipe smoking beetle from the Lacandon Maya jungle, the shield bearer chosen by Subcomandante Marcos of the Zapatista Liberation Army” (Ponger).  Although her critique is earnest, Lisl Ponger appears to have a healthy sense of humor. “Art also has to be fun,” she says. “These are serious subjects, but you don´t always have to be serious about it.”

Even just a few minutes of listening in on her stories are interesting, and you can go back time and again at different times to hear different bits.


Otaheite Olé (2016)
Otaheite Olé (2016) stages a conference of famous ethnographers and collectors.


In a previous exhibition  at the Secession, The Vanishing Middle Class, Lisl Ponger related the historical development of the middle class – in the way ethnologists document the disappearance of old cultures, collect artifacts from them, and put them into a museum – and conveyed her thoughts on its relation to democracy and neoliberal capitalism.  I´m so sorry I missed that one.

As we were ending our tour I noticed the bag of one of my fellow bloggers (who writes a nice Vienna and travel blog in German #Daheimistlangweilig, by the way) with an “ethno” print – quite a good match for this exhibition theme – so I could not resist taking a picture…

A nice pattern to match the exhibition catalogue. What´s the narrative here?


Thank you, Anna Attems of Kunst Für Uns and Weltmuseum for this special blogger meet!


The Master Narrative can be seen at the Weltmuseum Wien daily except Wednesday, 10 am to 6 pm and Friday until 9 pm.

Read more about it on Lisl Ponger´s own website.

Follow her on Instagram, where you can also find her recommended readings, a BOOKLIST IN 10 CHAPTERS FOR 2 CHANNEL VIDEO INSTALLATION : THE MASTER NARRATIVE UND DON DURITO, 2017

Coming up: A new exhibition in Salzburg, at the Rupertinum of the Museum der Moderne.  The 16th “Otto Breicha Prize for Photographic Art – Museum der Moderne Salzburg” 2017 was awarded to Lisl Ponger. 

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