Man – Object – Jaguar / Positions
An Experiment Against the Certainty of Complete Knowledge
Museums distinguish themselves from other media (books, for example) through their objects, but they also fulfill an academic mission that equally corresponds with the audience’s curiosity regarding background information: museums conduct research and comment on the objects in overarching contexts, in themes. Almost by default, the thematic exhibition is also an exhibition of propositions, since scholarship reflects on themes by means of propositions. But in scholarship’s self-understanding, they amount to a search and do not give final answers to the questions that the audience poses to the museum.
“Man – Object – Jaguar” confronts the misunderstanding that the museum is a site of secured truth in an adroit and innovative way by conceiving a scientific exhibition as an artistic installation. For the audience does not expect a final truth from an individual arrangement or an experiment. Visitors do not encounter what is allegedly eternally valid in the interplay of interpretation and theory here, but instead, they encounter a science that is engaged in a quest. This is combined with the ethnological approach of “indigenous perspectivism” that explores changing shamanist perspectives.
However, it is precisely the approach of “indigenous perspectivism”, deriving from structuralism’s tradition of abstraction, that in its genes retains the distorted picture of a university discourse: objects and humans disappear behind the artful language. It is now in the process of overcoming this non-objective rhetoric by more strongly including concrete objects.1
An exhibition based on this approach could risk reinforcing the presumption that the university (the lord of theory) formulates the propositions that the museum (its maid, in charge of practical matters) then only needs to translate for the audience, which is despised as ignorant.
The project in Berlin avoids this distance to the objects by concentrating on the indigenous object (a small shaman’s stool) that the installation stages from several perspectives. The theme of perspective can thus be experienced with the senses. While an accompanying text may be required for understanding, the direct impression has priority. Similar to the classical ethnological path, the art installation initially exposes the viewers (like ethnology does with researchers) to perplexity, which is then replaced by understanding. The artistic appeal of the exhibition is worth the effort of dealing with an initially incomprehensible object, demanded from those who prefer to grasp the world through abstractions rather than things.
“Man – Object – Jaguar” prompts one to search for approaches stemming less from university abstractions than from the museum-ethnological exploration of the concrete. This was an attempt made by the exhibition “Augenblicke” (“Moments”) at the Weltkulturen Museum in Frankfurt in 2005/2006, for example: South American cultures were made accessible by explaining the symbolism of the patterns of a drinking vessel, while simultaneously presenting a drinking song celebrating the vessel, for instance. The story of the ceramic object was supplemented by photos and vitas of the ceramists. To explain the initially incomprehensible object, “Man – Object – Jaguar” employs the effect of the installation and the uncertainty that accompanies it in both art and ethnology. Through precisely this uncertainty and the effort to overcome it, the exhibition succeeds in breaking open set views of foreign ways of thinking.
1 See, for example, the focus on “Perspectivism” in Indiana, Vol. 29, Berlin 2012, e.g., the text by Dimitri Karadimas.
Prof. Dr. Mark Münzel was professor at (today’s) Institute for Comparative Cultural Research of the Philipps-Universität Marburg as well as the director of the ethnological collection from 1989 to 2008. He was custodian at the former “Museum für Völkerkunde” (now renamed the Weltkulturen Museum) in Frankfurt / Main from 1973 to 1989. This commentary is based on the keynote address which he held within the framework of an evaluation workshop of the Humboldt Lab Dahlem.
Experimental Forms of Curatorial Practice in Ethnological Collections
In their search for new educational approaches and forms of presentation, ethnological museums have recently been inviting artists to work with the artefacts of their collections.1 An important component of this cooperation is the presentation of the artistic processes and results within the exhibition spaces of ethnological collections. The Humboldt Lab Dahlem also offers artists a platform for concerning themselves with ethnological themes and objects.
The museums see this cooperation as an opportunity to provide visitors with new approaches to their collections. Dealing with ethnological objects and the institutional structures and conditions, in the sense of artistic research, engenders insights that are rarely granted through customary presentation forms.
Artists take on the function of curators at certain points, acting (relatively) free of institutional and specialist determinations. This is probably what makes this position so appealing to all sides: the artists deal with the order of the museum without having to comply with it; they can defy expectations and conventions and present unexpected results to the public.
However, the complex and profound knowledge that is required to adequately delve into ethnological objects must also be taken into consideration in the artistic endeavor. One possibility is for artists and curators to collaborate, as was the case with the project “Man – Object – Jaguar.” The presentation developed by Sebastián Mejía and the ethnologist Andrea Scholz was so compelling because the exhibited object, the shaman’s stool from the Amazonian lowlands, was not presented in a usual display case. It was a component of a complex multimedia staging that addressed the indigenous experience of the world in the Amazonian lowlands by academic and artistic means.
With regard to the artistic aspect, such a cooperation implies the consistent further development and opening of the existing concepts of authorship and artwork. Where scholarship and the museum are concerned, it entails that the curators, too, further explore the aesthetic dimensions of academic thought and action. The establishment of artistic research as an independent form of knowledge could conversely serve as a model for the practice of the museum as well. Inventive, experimental, poetic, and aesthetic methods and approaches should be grasped more distinctly than has hitherto been the case, as fields of activity of curatorial practice, alongside scientific insights and methods. A self-understanding of curators in cultural-historical collections expanded in this sense would certainly enrich the plans for the new Humboldt-Forum and prompt the urgently needed public debate.
1 The most prominent example in this respect is certainly the Weltkulturen Museum in Frankfurt / Main.
Prof. Dr. Viola Vahrson has been professor at the Institute for Fine Arts and Cultural Studies of the Universität Hildesheim since 2010. This commentary is based on a keynote address that she held in the frame of an evaluation workshop of the Humboldt Lab Dahlem.
Scenarios for Aesthetic Education
The Workshop Program
The project “Man – Object – Jaguar” was predominantly dedicated to conveying theoretical discourses. One crucial aspect was the attempt to abolish the conventional separation between the levels of production and reception and include specific target groups as critical actors in the process-oriented exhibition. The Eta Boeklund office was commissioned to conceive accompanying interventions and to support this process.
In four mostly one-day workshops, so-called para-experts were invited to deal with selected aspects of the installation. Body, critique, sound, and taxonomy were the discussion starting points. The results were made available to the visitors in the exhibition space in the form of references as well as research and reflection aids.
Taking up the theme of “body”, the choreographer and dancer Hermann Heisig dealt with the installation and developed movement instructions for the exhibition space, which were then placed in a cardboard box on the “Reflection Table”. The proposed choreographic instructions were supplemented by Polaroid shots of his own performance.
Taking up the theme of “critique and reflection”, a group of young cultural journalists engaged in a dialog with the team of artists/curators and two active museum guides (so-called live speakers) from the Humboldt Lab Dahlem to write reviews of the exhibition, which were also made available on the table.
The music ethnologist and sound specialist Matthias Lewy developed a new sound concept for the exhibition. His aim was to sensitize the visitors to the sonic atmospheres of Amazonia.
A group of animal rights activists, vegans and vegetarians shed light on the present-day relevance of the relationship between humans and animals addressed in the exhibition. Examining the categories of human, object and jaguar, the group developed a mind map with alternative approaches to the installation. A visual commentary designed by Sebastián Mejía (an equestrian statue on transparent plastic entitled “The death is dead,”), and half-masks depicting animals or patterns were tentatively included in the installation.
The series of interventions was rounded off by a final discussion. Most participants from the four workshops were present and had the opportunity to show each other their work.
Dr. Andrea Scholz has been a research assistant at the Humboldt Lab Dahlem since March 2014. She studied ethnology, sociology and Romance studies in Bonn, Germany, and conducted research in Mexico (2004) and Venezuela (2007 - 2009). The theme of her dissertation was the recognition of indigenous territories in Guayana/Venezuela, which was published in 2012 under the title “Die Neue Welt neu vermessen.” During the course of her field studies and internship at the Ethnological Museum (2012 - 2014), Andrea Scholz has intensively dealt with the material culture of the Guayana region.