Zurich

Candida Höfer

Völkerkundemuseum

Eingelagerte Welten” (Worlds in Storage) was the title of this exhibition, consisting mainly of Candida Höfer’s photographs of ethnological collections across Europe and in New York. Sited in an enchanting park, just steps from the financial center of Zurich, the exhibition was like a storehouse in a globalized world characterized by increasing economic and diminishing cultural differences. If ethnological museums were once splendid displays of the trophies of colonial expeditions, today they are increasingly sites for reflection on one’s own culture.

As an artist working in the medium of photography, Höfer has developed her own way of reflecting on these museums. Her shots of dioramas, storage areas, and anterooms, of conservation studios, vitrines, shelves, and index cards, of crates and plinths, tables and technical equipment create a panopticon of objects from the most diverse cultures; above all, though, they produce a new vantage point for how we view the other. Through vitrines, the analytical gaze of the camera moves to walls full of photographs and documents until it is seemingly arrested by unprepossessing details it must investigate further. The subject matter thus becomes unfamiliar; the display of that which is foreign gains its own kind of foreignness. Often, mannequins wearing costumes and carrying objects stand in for absent human beings. Spread out on the white tile of a laundry room, oriental carpets seem to point out their new context. Only in one instance do the agents of this transcultural communication make an appearance: conservators fully masked and wearing white coats in front of a glass case full of masks and vessels. Theirs is a culturally specific ritual of treating the unknown with clinical distance.

Chronology, function, and pure formal aesthetics are the unavoidable ideological interpretive frameworks that the museums have to work with. In Höfer’s undramatic studies, they become visible and transparent. But then unintentional constellations of various objects occur more or less randomly on tables in the conservation studio or in mail and storage rooms. These nonsystems imbue the traces of other cultures with a bit of their unsanitized state, which is lost in the rigid interpretive context of a collection, even in its most surprisingly surreal configurations.

Aside from the laundry room with rugs, the only other photograph not of an ethnographical museum shows a bank in central Zurich. Raffia shawls of the indigenous people of the South American region of Orinoco, like carapaces for absent bodies, stand in rows across from a series of cubicles in the glittering light of an anonymous bank lobby looking like they were just denied access for economic reasons. The photograph, which captures the reflected light, lends the garments, in their juxtaposition of materials, a strong physical presence. They boldly take up space where modernist architecture has hidden behind blinding light and reflections. With the “stored worlds” of the ethnographic collections, Höfer has continued her extensive series of photographs of libraries, art museums, and theaters and added to them at least one new question: What sort of alienation attends a culture that has been resituated in its own context? By exhibiting in an ethnographic museum, Höfer has changed the context of her own work. Here, “art” is not guaranteed by the institutional framework, but rather by the openness of an unregulated gaze, which, in our culture, is made possible by art in the first place.

Hans Rudolf Reust

Translated from German by Sara Ogger.