- Tiki Pop: America Imagines Its Own Polynesian Paradise, and: Tiki Pop: America Imagines Its Own Polynesian Paradiseby Sven Kirsten
The exhibit and book Tiki Pop: America Imagines Its Own Polynesian Paradiseopen up a sometimes troubling yet provocative exploration of a subject that is alternatively personal and pervasive in American popular culture, at least in certain periods and social milieu. As the subtitle makes clear, while these projects are ultimately not about the Pacific at all, but about America, the predicament for Tiki Popis that America and the Pacific are not separate cultural spheres. And it is precisely the kind of tiki imagery displayed here that constitutes some of the elaborate cultural tissues that bind them together. To further complicate the picture, these projects emerge from the collaboration of a German-American author, Sven Kirsten, and the Musée du Quai Branly (Quai Branly), a French museum in the heart of Paris.
If book and exhibit reviews had titles, I’d call this one “Civilized Art in Primitive Places” as a kind of double homage to Sally Price, anthropologist, museum critic, and author of Primitive Art in Civilized Places(1989) as well as Paris Primitive(2007), a study of the creation of the spectacular and elegant Quai Branly museum “in the shadow of the Eiffel Tower.” The latter is relevant here, as hosting the Tiki Popexhibit and copublishing the book of the same title were very much projects of the Quai Branly. A consideration of the exhibit and book also raises the question of what these productions say about the Quai Branly museum as a still somewhat new cultural institution in the heart of global tourism.
The book is a coproduction of the Quai Branly and the powerful art house publisher Taschen, placing it and its exhibit in the high end of art collecting and commerce. In this respect, the project evokes the museum’s own origin story as an institution born out of Jacque Chirac’s presidential vision for consolidating the collections of the major French ethnology museums (Musée de l’Homme and the Musée des Arts d’Afrique et d’Océanie) into a monumental new museum that would finally honor indigenous art and artists in one of the world centers of art exhibition. While the Musée du Quai Branly was created with the professed intention of recognizing the artistic traditions of non-Western peoples, the process of establishing it divided the French museum, art, and anthropology communities over concerns that such an approach would not adequately address the social and political dimensions of the objects and histories on display. Where some saw the celebration of artistic achievements and universal aesthetic sensibilities, others saw a fetishization of the aesthetic that erases “context” and history, especially the colonial projects that created the collections in the first place. [End Page 560]
More generous commentators noted that the Quai Branly museum is an institution of many parts, including two significant spaces for temporary exhibitions as well as the ability to host conferences and performances. Indeed, while the permanent exhibits seem largely frozen in a timeless space of objects and cultures without histories, the temporary exhibits, frequently involving guest curators, have often demonstrated the Quai Branly’s ability to use its prestigious location and reputation to showcase indigenous art in contemporary contexts. Previous exhibits have focused on New Ireland, Polynesia, and, recently, Solomon Islands. Even though some curators have felt caged in by an institution that does little to actively engage contemporary indigenous communities, the museum has at times offered (post) colonial artists, curators, and authors significant opportunities to expand the publics for their work.
With these sorts of precedent it would seem that the Tiki Popshow was well placed in a museum space where both Polynesian heritage and kitsch culture (as in the...