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Knight Moves – Again / Positions

Displacement as Creative Space

by Jennifer Allen

Richard Sennett’s book The Foreigner (2011) has a telling subtitle: “I look in the mirror and see someone who is not myself.” That sentence can describe our experience of Kader Attia’s “Mirror Mask” (2014, 2015). The artist added small mirrors to two traditional masks in the Africa Collection of the Ethnologisches Museum. Visitors peering into the vitrines may be startled to catch a glimpse of their own faces, like the way one could once be surprised by one’s image in the window of a video camera store or, today, how one discovers oneself shimmering in surveillance systems.

While closed-circuit monitors echo us in our immediate surroundings, Attia’s work juxtaposes the familiar and the dissimilar. Whatever our origins, our faces become visually attached to an African mask: our likeness overlays a disguise designed for someone else’s face, for another ritual, beyond looking at treasures in a museum. Since Attia’s mirrors are numerous and fragmented, we see our faces not only superimposed on the masks but also multiplied and divided into fragments. The vitrine spotlight produces more reflections, as a spotlight on a disco ball does. While the mask remains perfectly intact, our reflections suggest multiple personalities with mismatched parts, which cannot be put together to make one image, one surface, one face.

The mirror holds another idea, which addresses the unstable position of the foreigner. Kader Attia, Nevin Aladağ, Sunah Choi, and Mathilde ter Heijne all have this equivocal status; they were born in other countries and came to live long-term in Berlin, somewhat like the holdings of the Ethnologisches Museum. To create a link between the mirror and the foreigner, Sennett offers an unusual analysis of Édouard Manet’s “A Bar at the Folies-Bergère” (1882): the iconic painting of a melancholic waitress manning a bar in the infamous theater in Paris. Like many art historians, the sociologist duly notes that her reflection in the mirror, which is featured in the background, is optically impossible: her reflection shows not only the back of her body but also the face of a man talking to her, who does not otherwise appear in the painting. Yet Sennett sees, not a curious painterly perspective, but an attempt to imagine what could be positive about displacement. Neither Manet, nor the barmaid, nor the man, represent the foreigner. Instead, the perspective itself – a gap between the mirror and its reflection, the coexistence of the familiar and the strange – manifests the foreigner’s displacement as a creative, formal space. “Displacement creates value,” Sennett writes, “reflexive value, that is a value given to the viewer as part of the thing seen; and value given to the physical world itself, whose character and form we are forced to assess by looking at its transmutation in a distorting mirror.”

Attia, Aladağ, Choi, and ter Heijne create this perspective in different ways. Attia uses literal mirrors while Aladağ, Choi, and ter Heijne turn to other media, which produce a similar type of doubling along with the possibility of distortion. Aladağ’s “Musikzimmer” (Music Room, 2015) can be found in the museum’s ethnomusicology section. Yet her sculptural installation serves as both furniture and instruments, which look and don’t look like the guitars and the drums displayed in the surrounding vitrines. Her chair sports metal strings, like a guitar or a harp, under the arm rests; her table includes a bar chime, hanging like a decorative fringe; her circular footrest can double as a drum. In the Africa collection, ter Heijne created the multi-media installation “Pulling Matter from Unknown Sources” (2015) which includes a portable altar used by the Togolese vodou priest Togbé Hounon Hounougbo Bahousou, who actually lives in Berlin-Weissensee and who is training ter Heijne to become a priestess. Traveling to Togo and Benin in 2014, the artist-apprentice filmed vodou rituals which are projected on five monitors. While some visitors might recognize certain elements of the rituals, the largest monitor shows fantastically-distorted abstract images which seem closer to a science fiction film than to an ethnographic one: more futuristic than religious, traditional, or archaic. Like Aladağ’s instrument-furniture, ter Heijne’s vodou videos both fit and do not fit with the African fetish sculptures displayed in the surrounding vitrines.

In the Oceania collection, Choi created two installations which use a more explicit form of doubling and distortion. For “Projektion” (Projection, 2015), she selected various small objects from the collection, from a Samoan shell bracelet to a New Zealand fishing hook; she placed them on a glass plate in a traditional vitrine but on top of geometric patterns which were inspired by Polynesian and Melanesian tapa barkcloth designs but which were cut out of black and white polypropylene. The objects and the plastic tapa – illuminated from above by the vitrine light – cast strange shadows on the bottom of the vitrine, like ghosts fading into a grid. For “Belichtet” (Exposed, 2015), Choi used a similar method – selecting objects from the collection – but arranged them on a glass plate to create nine cyan-blue photograms. While “Projektion” leaves the objects on display, “Belichtet” forces us to imagine what they were by guessing from their deep blue shadowy outlines: a hook, a fishing net, perhaps a mat.

Again, the artists and the objects in the museum are foreign to Berlin. Instead of identifying with the objects or trying to return them to their origins, the artists create works that make the objects at once more familiar and more exotic. Like Manet, they use mirroring to transform displacement into a positive, creative, formal space. While opening a gap between their works and the rest of the collection, they close up the geographical distance and exoticism implied by an ethnological museum. Catching our reflection in Attia’s “Mirror Mask,” we become part of an African mask instead of viewing it as an icon that has traveled from another continent. Aladağ’s furniture-instruments look like local flea market fare, if not a friend’s living room. As ter Heijne’s altar suggests, vodou rituals are taking place not only in distant Togo and Benin but also right around the corner in a Berlin neighborhood. The doubling in Choi’s works give us the more immediate experience of recognizing the objects in their distorted shadows. We look into the vitrines at the museum, expecting to find a reflection of distant peoples from faraway places; instead, we find a reflection of ourselves, our surroundings, and our presence.

Dr. Jennifer Allen is a writer living in Berlin.