My/gration or Migrations of the Mind



The idea of categories and stereotypes, so central to Phantom Foreign Vienna also lies at the very heart of a number of contiguous issues which are relevant here. Among them are prejudice, racism and cultural categorisation. Xenographische Ansichten is a series about re-routing, re-interpreting and re-presenting. The word xenographic comes from the Greek xeno meaning foreign, foreigner, stranger but also guest, and graphos, meaning writing. In many of the words it is used it means an instrument which marks, portrays or records.



The series makes the initial impression of end of the nineteenth century, full-person formal, ethnological portraits. Cowboys and Indians, a Tibetan, a Kurd, a Turk and a Kenyan in richly decorated passepartouts. Black and white photos, toned paper, hand coloured. The subjects all look directly into the camera and at the viewer and in the captions they are typed as representatives of ‘their’ cultures - the Sri Lankan, the Indian and so on. But something is not quite right. The Scotsman looks more like a Scotsman than most Scotsmen, but the Guatemalan woman is certainly not a Mayan and the woman in what appears to be traditional Masai costume is most definitely white.



Xenography, like ethnology/anthropology, records that which is foreign but the former can also be read as a critique of the latter. They are not only concerned about looking at another culture, but are about one (our Western) culture looking at another. There is no neutral standpoint for ‘objective’ observation. In this way, just as xenography is ‘fake’ in one sense, anthropology / ethnology (and the classificatory methodology of seeing people into types and representatives), is ‘fake’ also - in a culturally biased way which still has important practical repercussions for way we see Others.



On a formal level, the superficial disguise as ethnological portraits, dusted with the nostalgia old photographs automatically acquire, is contrasted with the passepartouts made by colour-laser photocopying. At the same time they remind us of the pressed flowers and ferns which delighted the Victorians and which they included as part of a photo-assemblage in the family album or framed on the wall.