Lisl Ponger

For the Dak’Art Biennial of Contemporary African Art 2004, Austrian artist Lisl Ponger hoped to photograph selections from the famous ethnographic collection of Dakar’s Musée d’Art Africain. As she waited for permission from the museum, she started a series of photographs in her hotel room; when the official okay never came, these works became her biennial contribution. Si j’avais eu l’autorisation . . . (If I Had Had Authorization . . .)—thus ran the project’s subjunctive title—then she wouldn’t have stayed in her room photographing props from her own personal archive of materials relating to the themes of colonialism, globalization, and travel. She grouped these items on the tile mosaic of the hotel floor according to classificatory patterns: ethnologist, painter, photographer, tourist. Although this was not the project that Ponger originally planned, it hews closely to her interests. Her politically motivated work continues to investigate issues of colonialism, ethnology, ideology, and constructions of identity.

A visual artist, photographer, and filmmaker, Ponger is equally at home at Documenta (she participated in 2002) and at film festivals. Acting (often in the same work) as director, set designer, performer, and archivist, she investigates the interfaces between art and science, between sociology, art history, and political activism, moving obliquely through these disciplines to create compositions of explosive power and precise observation.

Ponger interrogates the resonances of non-Western art within Western modernism. She asks how Western artists have approached the “exotic” and how these tactics can be read. The central work of her recent exhibition at Charim Galerie was a large-scale color photograph, Die Beute (The Booty), 2006. The image brims with Western interpretations of the exotic. In the middle of the photograph stands a young woman, posed like Vermeer’s girl with a pearl earring—but dressed in a T-shirt with the image of one of Gauguin’s Tahiti paintings and, in place of a turban, a scarf of Klimt’s Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer I, 1907. Her surroundings, modeled after Sigmund Freud’s study, are similarly filled with antiquities from Egypt and the Far East and decorated with an Oriental rug. No doubt, however, the sculptures in the photograph are, like her attire, museum knockoffs; indeed, on the table lies a jigsaw puzzle of Picasso’s Demoiselles d’Avignon, 1907. Clinching Ponger’s theme, the woman holds open the catalogue to William S. Rubin’s “Primitivism” exhibition, which took place at the Museum of Modern Art in 1984.

The hand-colored photographs comprising Ponger’s “Xenographic Views” series from 1995 chronicle a world voyage through the topography of Vienna. In one photo she stages herself as a “xenographer”—Ponger’s own word, meaning one who describes strangers—while in another she uses costumes and accessories to transform a Viennese woman into a Bedouin (thus, by association, turning the Tiergarten Schönbrunn into a desert landscape). Masterfully, and with a light touch, Ponger investigates the echoes of the anthropological representations of the nineteenth century within today’s cultural constructs. She tells stories of the readymades of life, of the trophies of the everyday that make up the kernel of cultural identity. She also manages, beyond that, to combine her artistic and political concerns, making no distinction between the aesthetic goal of interpreting the world and the political one of changing it.

Brigitte Huck

Translated from German by Diana Reese.