Tuesday, September 9, 2014

Tiki Pop

Two days later, I am as puzzled by the exhibit Tiki Pop at the Quai Branly as I was when I first stepped out. Poking around a bit has only made the whole enterprise (and I do believe that's the word) stranger, so there is little to do at this point but plunge ahead and make a few notes, hoping that, when I teach this in the Politics of the Museum class, my students and I might make more sense of it. So. What puzzles. The Display. There's an oscillation between glass cases and experiential environments. You'd think a museum goer would welcome this as "variety," but it comes across as confusing. (Let me say right here that I understand that this oscillation/confusion may be "part of the point," but that point, the ultimate goal of the exhibition, never becomes clear/is torn between a love and a critique of Tiki Pop. Examples of this oscillation are most pronounced in the difference between the glass cases, which present hundreds of Tiki Pop artifacts as these "explain" the phenomenon and constructed spaces, such as the room above, that mingle artifacts with museum props. In yet other cases, Tiki Pop objects are themselves mingled with original Polynesia objects (everything from lanterns to sacred works of art). What does this mean? How is this juxtaposition to be understood? I bought the Beaux-Arts magazine of the exhibition for reasons I'll explain in a bit and found this answer (loosely translated): "In the exhibition, we present several pieces of our permanent collection coming from New Zealand, Hawaii or the Marquesas Islands. In no way are they there to speak for the Polynesia people. Rather, they are points of departure for an exhibition that I would qualify as modern art." There is much to unpack here starting with the ease of separating Polynesian art from the people who made it, and the insistence on a rift between Polynesian art and modern art, that leads to the idea of the artifacts both displaying and explaining Tiki Pop. There's a bit of the "Ils sont fous, les Américains" feel to the exhibition, which after all is subtitled "L'Amérique Rêve son Paradis Polynesien" (America Imagines (says the publication, but dreams is ok) its own Polynesian Paradise) and indeed the same Beaux-Arts article presents America in the 1960s as a time when the country could (again, translated) "achieve its craziest (les plus fous) dreams."

The show ostensibly entertains the years 1945-1968, but also presents a series of literary precedents (Melville, Stevenson, Gauguin slips in there quietly, and there is this intense image of Dix with an ancestral statue of his collection - and I'm going to need Mac to explain the image of Hitler in this book opening). It then presents a series of (frankly) pop psychology explanations: the economic prosperity that followed WWII made for a "stressed" (quoting from the wall text) population seeking escape and leisure. Enter (without discussion of American military presence or the annexation of Hawaii or anything geo-political) the Tiki. The case preceding that of dozens of Tiki glassware for cocktails is entirely dedicated to Prohibition, which explains (?) the American enthusiasm for cocktails. Ok. So am I sounding like an American calling foul at another culture's representation of American culture? Sure - high time that happened to Americans and American culture. But I also want to keep the focus on what is happening to Polynesian culture here, on how it is being portrayed as the soothing elixir to another culture without any analysis of the power structures that needed to be in place for that phenomenon to occur. There's an ease and an inevitability, an inexorability and a relentlessness, to the American appropriation of Polynesia culture. There is neither protest nor critique. A tiny bit comes at the end of the show when the "end" of Tiki Pop is explained by the Baby Boomers' generation being better educated and therefore cynical of their parents' enthusiasm for Tiki Pop culture, marijuana replacing the cocktail (!!!), and (and this has to be my favorite quote from the wall text) America losing its naïveté never to regain it. My defensiveness at my perceived misrepresentation of American culture is short-lived compared to my need for some kind of analysis of the conditions of possibility (beyond literary precedent and pop psychology) of what is an extensive period of political and economic exploitation.

The Curator. Ok, so maybe that need comes from being a humorless academic, which I'm not entirely so there's that. But I also don't think that poking gentle fun at wayward Americans is the only response to the American exploitation of Polynesian culture. And I understand that "Tiki Pop" as an exhibition title will draw more people than "American Exploitation of Polynesian Culture." Nonetheless, I felt the lack of analysis pretty insistently throughout the exhibition. This is the part that I would want to work out with students. What would be the mode, the tone, the emphasis, the material of an exhibit that acknowledges the politics of this cultural phenomenon? In some ways the answer is straightforward: go to history, go to geo-politics, go to economics (trace the movement's trajectory from California to Florida and then its spreading in the Midwest (when and how was the Tiki Bar at the University of Chicago, still in full swing when I was a grad student there opened?) and Everywhere Else in the States), involve Polynesian responses, bring in modern-day scars and inheritances. Bring in Sarah Vowell for goodness sake and have her read from Unfamiliar Fishes. In other ways, things get importantly complicated on questions of who speaks for whom, how dialogues can be created, who speaks with whom, how to live with legacies that prized pleasure and hid pain. Ok, so that's how I might start the conversation. It's not the conversation the curator, Sven Kirsten, is having. A self-titled "urban archaeologist," a cinematographer of music videos and Hollywood movies, and avid collector of Tiki Pop artifacts (whose introduction to Polynesia culture came by way of reading Thor Heyerdahl's book Kon-Tikifound on his parents' bookshelf in Germany), Kirsten adds this exhibit (and its hefty catalogue) to two previous publications exploring/celebrating the American appropriation of Polynesian culture for everything from hotels to ketchup dispensers that he has dubbed Tiki Pop (The Book of Tiki and Tiki Modern). Once I learned this, I will tell you that I became more skeptical about the provenance of nearly everything from the show being "collection particulière" (private collection). Whose? And whom does the display of these artifacts benefit (knowing that any object that is part of a museum exhibit increases in value)? So that's the ethics component. But back to the insistent need for analysis (which I wanted) vs. presentation (which is done very, very thoroughly - make no mistake, this is definitely the best collection of Tiki Pop artifacts in the world).

I'm in a bind here because (let's just be quick about it) American culture sees professionalism as elitism. So for me, an academic, to decry the lack of academic credentials of the curator of a museum exhibit will be interpreted by many as snobbery on my part. But there is, in fact, a special training that goes into being a curator, one that of course can be stifling and predictable, but also one that, at its best, would have more vocabulary and wherewithal in confronting the complexity of American appropriation of Polynesian culture. In the absence of analysis, this exhibit becomes a loving look with a bit of head-shaking at those wacky Americans and their Tiki Pop. It would be one thing if this benevolent head-shaking occurred in a book or on-line, but in the halls of the Musée du Quai Branly, whose tagline is "where cultures come to dialogue" it is another thing entirely. I'm not seeing the dialogue, as much as I'm seeing a reminiscence, an exposé, an enthusiasm. What I see is immaterial, however, to the thousands of people who have seen the show, and to the hundreds that waited in line to see it as Eleanor and I left it. Tiki Pop sells, as it always has, with an unnerving glee that defies complications.

 The Publications. Very different things get said in different places. The Tiki Pop catalogue is by Sven Kirsten, and published by Taschen (run by Benedikt Taschen, who also emigrated from Germany to California - and lives in the awesomely cool Chemosphere by John Launter no less!). The Beaux-Arts magazine devoted to the exhibition is the only place where I've found French academics and museum professionals doing the writing. Now, the Musée du Quai Branly has a long and complicated history (chronicled in Sally Price's incredible book), but it's within these pages that you'll find analysis of the annexation of Hawaii in 1959, here that you'll see a photograph of Obama growing up in Hawaii (!), here that you'll see more intertwining of the European articulation of "primitivism" with American Polynesian consumerism. There's analysis and a score of images not in the exhibition (and of course fewer images than are in the exhibition - have to go to the catalogue for that). Finally, there's the strangest little publication. At the entrance, or the exit (when I noticed it) is a little blue fold-out paper. I picked it up, my head full of images of Tiki statues, full of questions of how this all (the phenomenon, the exhibition) came to be, full of curiosity about how the show ends, with the definitive end of Tiki Pop - with its revilement by the next generation as kitsch, racist, colonialist (the words of the wall text), with this "loss of naïveté" of American culture. And I look at this little blue fold-out and I see instructions for How to Host Your Very Own Tiki Party...! In English, with links to cocktail recipes and a Deezer playlist (put together by the Musée du Quai Branly) and suggestions for the right décor. And my puzzlement was thus sealed. Until further consideration (in class), as they say.

P.S. And then we went to Café Branly, which is of course very expensive, but the Café Gourmand is reasonably priced and comes with these fantastic little delectables. Fantastic little companion comes separately.


  1. Interesting article and I liked the link to Sally Price's book; I came across that after first visiting the museum and being a little disoriented by what I'd just seen: they are still opening museums of "others"?!?

    In this context, I didn't think the Tiki Pop exhibition deserves to be called out particularly. The reality is that "serious" academics don't deem phenomena like the American fascination with polynesia during the 1950s and 1960s and the recent resurgence of this fashion worthy of serious consideration. Indeed, I think the point here is that people from the late 1990s onward have identified this in particular as something they want to recreate in something that, as best as I can understand it, resembles Baudrillard's third order simulacra. I also must admit that I feel an instinctive affinity to this, despite the fact that I am an historian who deals with issues relating to various forms of imperialism in cultural and political spheres. There has to be some place between understanding and denouncing, surely, but I think no-one has tried to find it. Up to this point, at least Sven Kirsten has tried to understand.

  2. Sorry, I mean "fourth order simulacra".It's always embarrassing when you mix up your orders of Baudrillard's simulacra ;)

  3. Thank you so much for your comment. This is difficult material and yes, I agree, that Sven Kirsten is generously bringing it forward for all different kinds of further considerations. The term alone is incredibly helpful in identifying what had been amorphous before.