Posts Tagged ‘Māori


Exhibition: ‘Cosa Mentale: Art and Telepathy in the 20th century’ at the Centre Pompidou-Metz, Paris

Exhibition dates: 28th October 2015 – 28th March 2016


Telepathic art in the 20th century. What a fascinating subject for a spiritual, phantasmagoric exhibition which explores artists’ fascination with the direct transmission of thought and emotion. A lot of phenomena – for example telepathy, X-rays, psychoanalysis – were named or discovered in the last half of the nineteenth century or are concepts and things that began to gain popularity in the collective consciousness at that time, such as the unconscious mind, the anima and animus, the study of signs, photographs of thought, photographs of hysteria (Charcot) and notes and photographs on unexplained paranormal experiences.

“The exhibition enables the spectator to understand how, throughout the 20th century, attempts to give material and visible form to thought processes coincide with the experiments of avant-garde artists. This fantasy of a direct projection of thought not only had a decisive impact on the birth of abstraction but also influenced surrealism and its obsession with the collective sharing of creation and, in the post war period, it gave rise to numerous visual and sound installations inspired by the revolution in information technology, leading to the declaration of “the dematerialisation of art” in conceptual practices.”

Love the work of Émile Cohl and Len Lye, both a revelation to me.


Many thankx to the Centre Pompidou-Metz for allowing me to publish the photographs in the posting. Please click on the photographs for a larger version of the image.



Louis Darget. 'Fluidic Thought-Image Photography' 1896


Louis Darget
Fluidic Thought-Image Photography

(L) Inscribed: “Photo… of thought. Head obtained by Mr. Henning, having a plate wrapped in black paper on his forehead while he played the piano. Opposite him on the piano was a portrait of Beethoven. Could this be that [same] portrait reflected by the brain onto the plate through the black paper. Comt. Darget”

(R) “Photograph of a Dream: The Eagle.” 25 June, 1896.
Inscribed: “Obtained by placing a photographic plate above the forehead of Mme Darget while she was asleep.”


Edvard Munch. 'Madonna' 1895


Edvard Munch
Paris, Centre Pompidou, Musée national d’Art moderne
© Centre Pompidou, MNAM-CCI, Dist. RMN-Grand Palais / Georges Meguerditchian


Odilon Redon. 'Portrait de Paul Gauguin' 1903-1906


Odilon Redon
Portrait of Paul Gauguin
Paris, Musée d’Orsay
© RMN-Grand Palais (musée d’Orsay) / Hervé Lewandowski



Émile Cohl
Le retapeur de cervelles (The creators brain)


Auguste Rodin. 'Le Penseur [The Thinker]' 1903


Auguste Rodin
Le Penseur [The Thinker]
Plâtre patiné / patinated plaster
72 x 37 x 57,50 cm
© Photographe : Christian Baraja
© Musée Rodin, Paris



When conceived in 1880 in its original size (approx. 70 cm) as the crowning element of The Gates of Hell, seated on the tympanum, The Thinker was entitled The Poet. He represented Dante, author of the Divine Comedy which had inspired The Gates, leaning forward to observe the circles of Hell, while meditating on his work. The Thinker was therefore initially both a being with a tortured body, almost a damned soul, and a free-thinking man, determined to transcend his suffering through poetry. The pose of this figure owes much to Carpeaux’s Ugolino (1861) and to the seated portrait of Lorenzo de Medici carved by Michelangelo (1526-31).

While remaining in place on the monumental Gates of Hell, The Thinker was exhibited individually in 1888 and thus became an independent work. Enlarged in 1904, its colossal version proved even more popular: this image of a man lost in thought, but whose powerful body suggests a great capacity for action, has became one of the most celebrated sculptures ever known. Numerous casts exist worldwide, including the one now in the gardens of the Musée Rodin, a gift to the City of Paris installed outside the Panthéon in 1906, and another in the gardens of Rodin’s house in Meudon, on the tomb of the sculptor and his wife. (Text from the Rodin Museum website)


Stephen Haweis and Henry Coles. 'Le Penseur' c. 1903-1904


Stephen Haweis and Henry Coles
Le Penseur
c. 1903-1904
Epreuve au charbon / Charcoal
23 x 16,60 cm
© Musée Rodin, Paris



“Cosa Mentale  is a unique exhibition that offers a re-reading of the history or art from 1990 to modern day by exploring artists’ fascination with the direct transmission of thought and emotion. It invites the spectator to re-live one of the unexpected adventures of modernity: telepathic art in the 20th century. This exhibition traces a chronological path from symbolism to conceptual art with a collection of some one hundred works by major artists, ranging from Edvard Munch to Vassily Kandinsky, and from Joan Miró to Sigmar Polke. These artists provide innovative ways of communicating with spectators that take us beyond conventional linguistic codes.

The exhibition enables the spectator to understand how, throughout the 20th century, attempts to give material and visible form to thought processes coincide with the experiments of avant-garde artists. This fantasy of a direct projection of thought not only had a decisive impact on the birth of abstraction but also influenced surrealism and its obsession with the collective sharing of creation and, in the post war period, it gave rise to numerous visual and sound installations inspired by the revolution in information technology, leading to the declaration of “the dematerialisation of art” in conceptual practices.

The exhibition begins with the invention of the term “telepathy” in 1882, at a time when the study of psychology interacted with rapid developments in telecommunications. Endeavours ranged from the creation of “photographs of thought” in 1895 to the first “encephalograms” in 1924 (the year when the Surrealist Manifesto was published) and it was the actual activity of the brain which was to be shown in all its transparency, which encouraged artists to reject the conventions of representation by suppressing all restrictions of translation. Telepathy was far from remaining an obscure paranormal fantasy and consistently intrigued and enthralled artists throughout the 20th century. Always present in the world of science fiction, it resurfaced in psychedelic and conceptual art in the period from 1960 to 1970 before reappearing today in contemporary practices enraptured by technologies of “shared knowledge” and the rapid development of neuroscience.


Pascal Rousseau, professor of contemporary history of art at the University of Paris I Panthéon Sorbonne. Pascal Rousseau has also curated Robert Delaunay exhibitions: From impressionism to abstraction, 1906-1914, at the Centre Pompidou (1999) and To the origins of abstraction (1800-1914) at the Musée d’Orsay (2003).”

Press release from the Centre Pompidou-Metz


Joan Miró. 'La Sieste' July-September 1925


Joan Miró
La Sieste
July – September 1925
© Successió Miró/ ADAGP, Paris, 2015


Vassily Kandinsky. 'Bild mit rotem Fleck [Tableau à la tache rouge / Image with red spot]' 25 February 1914


Vassily Kandinsky
Bild mit rotem Fleck [Tableau à la tache rouge / Image with red spot]
25 February 1914
Paris, Centre Pompidou – Musée national d’art moderne
© Centre Pompidou, MNAM-CCI, Dist. RMN-Grand Palais / Adam Rzepka


Frantisek Kupka. 'Facture robuste' 1920


Frantisek Kupka
Facture robuste
Strasbourg, Musée d’Art moderne et contemporain
© ADAGP, Paris, 2015
© Centre Pompidou, MNAM-CCI, Dist. RMN-Grand Palais / Jacques Faujour



Len Lye (New Zealand/America, 1901-1980)
10 min. 5 sec.



As a student, Lye became convinced that motion could be part of the language of art, leading him to early (and now lost) experiments with kinetic sculpture, as well as a desire to make film. Lye was also one of the first Pākehā artists to appreciate the art of Māori, Australian Aboriginal, Pacific Island and African cultures, and this had great influence on his work. In the early 1920s Lye travelled widely in the South Pacific. He spent extended periods in Australia and Samoa, where he was expelled by the New Zealand colonial administration for living within an indigenous community.

Working his way as a coal trimmer aboard a steam ship, Lye moved to London in 1926. There he joined the Seven and Five Society, exhibited in the 1936 International Surrealist Exhibition and began to make experimental films. Following his first animated film Tusalava, Lye began to make films in association with the British General Post Office, for the GPO Film Unit. He reinvented the technique of drawing directly on film, producing his animation for the 1935 film A Colour Box, an advertisement for “cheaper parcel post”, without using a camera for anything except the title cards at the beginning of the film. It was the first direct film screened to a general audience. It was made by painting vibrant abstract patterns on the film itself, synchronizing them to a popular dance tune by Don Baretto and His Cuban Orchestra. A panel of animation experts convened in 2005 by the Annecy film festival put this film among the top ten most significant works in the history of animation (his later film Free Radicals was also in the top 50). (Text from the Wikipedia website)


Rudolf Steiner. 'Untitled (drawing on blackboard at a conference of 14 May 1924)' Dornach, 14 May 1924


Rudolf Steiner
Untitled (drawing on blackboard at a conference of 14 May 1924)
Dornach, 14 May 1924
Chalk on black paper
Rudolf Steiner Archive, Dornach
© Rudolf Steiner Archiv, Dornach
© ADAGP, Paris, 2015



A room of the exhibition features ten blackboards by Rudolf Steiner. They are the instructions of a new design language that the artist wants to develop. Steiner believes in the development of a supersensible consciousness, a big change for the future of humanity. He gives many lectures in which he details his research on the concept of transmission and its influence on the social. Whether true or not, artists such as Piet Mondrian, Wassily Kandinsky and others are interested in the complex graphics of Steiner and his research. Mondrian will even write: “Art is a way of development of mankind.” (Text from the Culture Box website translated from French)


Victor Brauner. 'Signe' 1942-45


Victor Brauner
© ADAGP, Paris, 2015



Exhibition layout


The exhibition starts with a version of the famous figure of Rodin’s Thinker, set off against a sequence of seven photographs from the start of the century, in which the pictorialist dimension seems to attempt to show lighting emissions produced by the cerebral concentration of the subject. This collection is presented opposite TV Rodin, a video installation created by the artist Nam June Paik who, in the 1970s, reinterpreted electromagnetic animation of closed-circuit thought, when interest in cybernetics was at its peak.


The direct visualisation of thought and emotional states and the impact of this on the beginnings of abstraction at the start of the 20th century.

The first room focuses on the passion during the century for “photography of thought.” As a direct response to the discovery of radiography by Röntgen, in 1895, numerous amateur researchers attempted to produce images of the brain on photosensitive plates. Since it was possible to see through opaque bodies, why not try to see through the skull, which was now transparent? A curiosity cabinet presents the photographic experiments of Hippolyte Baraduc and Louis Darget with “psychic ones” or “images of thought.” This selection of photographs interacts with two film animation extracts by Émile Cohl, showing, with some humour, the direct projection of thought onto the big screen with the arrival of the cinema.

In the second room, a collection of engravings from the theosophical works of Annie Besant and Charles Leadbeater, presented by the American artist Christian Sampson, reveals the close relationship between the representation of emotional states (thought-patterns) and early abstract painting. They inspired many pioneers of abstract painters, including Kupka and Kandinsky. A group of auras and halos is shown, associated with a colour code for different effects, captured by Kandinsky in order to paint authentic abstract (auto) portraits. In the same vein, paintings by Wilhelm Morgner, Janus de Winter and Jacob Bendien present “psychic portraits” which illustrate a psychological range of emotions by means of chromatic signs.

The third room presents a sequence of ten “blackboards” by Rudolph Steiner, the founder of anthroposophy (the “science of the mind” that was a major influence on some of the members of the avant-garde abstract movement), showing how he developed his theories of the “mental body” and “psychic force”. Next to this is a collection of watercolours by the Swedish painter Hilma af Klint, a pioneer of abstract art. Around this area a multimedia installation by the artist Tony Oursler has been specially created for this exhibition reinterpreting the historical imagination of these “mental projections”.

Magnetic fields

The spread of telepathy in the inter-war period and its influence on surrealism.

In 1924, André Breton published the Surrealist Manifesto (1924) just when the neurologist Hans Berger invented the first electroencephalogram as a result of experimental research into telepathy: this being a less than accidental coincidence, relating to automated transcriptions of the mind. The “exquisite corpses” or “communicated drawings” of the surrealists are linked to experiments that took place at that time into the telepathic transfer of images.

The first room presents a sequence of photographs of the surrealist group in poses in which heads and bodies communicate with each other to produce a collective work under the mysterious influence of “magnetic fields.” Tusalava (1929), a film by the Australian artist Len Lye, illustrates the cinematographic solution found to make mental activity visible, in the form of abstract ideograms taken from aboriginal language.

The second room shows a collection of photographs from the 1920s, some of which are presented by the artist Frédéric Vaesen, relating to the materialisation of psychic entities, the famous “ectoplasms” which give a more tangible reality to imponderable thought. Next to this is a series of works by Joan Miró, in which the painter depicts coloured auras, including a mental map of emotional states, a “photograph of his dreams”.

Mind expander

With the reconstruction of the post war period, divided between the cybernetic model and psychedelic liberation, telepathy remained more than ever a creative horizon for artists in search of perception extended to the electromagnetic manifestations of consciousness.

The New Age spirit of the 1960s witnessed the curious revival of “photographs of thought” (Ted Serios and Salas Portugal), which influenced experimental cinema and psychedelic video (Jordan Belson), a well as some photographic practices (Anna and Bernhard Blume, Dieter Appelt, Suzanne Hiller, John Baldessari and Sigmar Polke).

Under the influence of psychotropic drugs or immersed in highly intense audiovisual devices, electric thought in motion is captured with a penetrating eye. Experimental and radical architectural patterns embody “expanded consciousness”, as is seen in the Mind Expander project (1967) by the Austrian group Haus Rucker Co, which invites the spectator to venture into “superception.” Music has its role here, with the rise in “biomusic” at the end of the 1960s, led by Alvin Lucier, Pierre Henry and David Rosenboom, who produced authentic “brain symphonies,” by means of the sound transcription of the activity of electric waves emitted by the brain, directly captured by electrodes.


The establishment of telepathic art in the 1970s influenced by conceptual practices.

On the margins of pop art, avant-garde artists in the 1970s produced a critique of both form and the art market, by means of strategies that emphasised language and sociological discourse. This also involved a major project in the dematerialisation of art works in which telepathy could be an ideal model for a new non-standard form of communication.

The American artist Robert Morris produced his own Autoportrait in the form of an encephalogram (EEG Portrait) at the same time as his compatriot Robert Barry, a central figure in conceptual art, produced Telepathic Pieces (1969) and Vito Acconci explored extra sensory perception through the form of video (Remote Control, 1971). Against this backdrop, we see considerable new interest in a utopia of shared creation (Robert Filliou and Marina Abramovic) in the era of global communication and the “noosphere” prophetically declared by Teilhard de Chardin and Marshall McLuhan.

The exhibition ends with a vast installation by the artist Fabrice Hyber, a major figure of contemporary art in France, with experimental telepathic booths, paintings, drawings and “prototypes of operating objects” (POF). Hyber invites the spectator to participate, alone or in groups, in an experience which has several surprises, reminding us how, today, under the influence of information networks, neuroscience and the globalised internet, telepathy (ultra democratic and utopian yet also obscure) is more topical than ever and can be explored by artists with the same spirit of derision or anticipation.”

Press release from the Centre Pompidou-Metz


Haus-Rucker-Co. Laurids, Zamp and Pinter with 'Environment Transformern (Flyhead, Viewatomizer and Drizzler)' 1968, from the 'Mind Expander project'


Laurids, Zamp and Pinter with Environment Transformern (Flyhead, Viewatomizer and Drizzler)
From the Mind Expander project
Photo: Gert Winkler



Taking their cue from the Situationist’s ideas of play as a means of engaging citizens, Haus-Rucker-Co created performances where viewers became participants and could influence their own environments, becoming more than just passive onlookers. These installations were usually made from pneumatic structures such as Oase No. 7 (1972), which was created for Documenta 5 in Kassel, Germany. An inflatable structure emerged from the façade of an existing building creating a space for relaxation and play, of which contemporary echoes can be found in the ‘urban reserves’ of Santiago Cirugeda. The different versions of the Mind Expander series (1967-69), consisted of various helmets that could alter the perceptions of those wearing them, for example the ‘Fly Head’ disoriented the sight and hearing of the wearer to create an entirely new apprehension of reality; it also produced one of their most memorable images.

Haus-Rucker-Co’s installations served as a critique of the confined spaces of bourgeois life creating temporary, disposable architecture, whilst their prosthetic devices were designed to enhance sensory experience and highlight the taken-for-granted nature of our senses, seen also in the contemporaneous work of the Brazilian artist Lygia Clark. Contemporary versions of such work can be found in the pneumatic structures favoured by Raumlabor and Exyzt. (Text from the Spatial Agency website)


Installation view of Haus-Rucker-Co, 'Mindexpander 1' 1967 in the exhibition 'Cosa mentale' at the Centre Pompidou-Metz


Installation view of Haus-Rucker-Co, Mindexpander 1 1967 in the exhibition Cosa mentale at the Centre Pompidou-Metz.
Photo Pompidou Centre. MNAM CCI-distrib. RMN / G. Meguerditchian.



In 1968, the Austrian collective Haus-Rucker-Co designed the Mind Expander as an immersive capsule propelling the audience into a new mode of perception of reality: the “Superception”. This, then, is a synthesis of avant-garde utopias, throughout the twentieth century, influenced by the imagination that gave rise to the development of telecommunications, seeking to develop a way of live transmission of emotion. Its aim was to invent a new, immediate, relationship between the artist and the viewer.


Haus-Rucker-Co. 'Mind Expander' 1967


Mind Expander
1967 Vienna
Epreuve gélatino-argentique
Photo: Michael Plitz. Haus-Rucker-Co.


David Rosenboom. 'Portable Gold and Philosophers' Stones in Paris 1' 1975


David Rosenboom
Portable Gold and Philosophers’ Stones in Paris 1
© David Rosenboom 1975
All rights reserved.



Pianist-composer J.B. Floyd, a long-time collaborator with David Rosenboom is seen with electrodes attached to his head while performing a solo version of Rosenboom’s brainwave music composition Portable Gold and Philosophers’ Stones at Centre Culturel Americain in Paris on 7 January 1975. The equipment shown includes a brainwave monitoring device and an ARP 2600 Synthesizer. The performance occurred simultaneously with a lecture given by David Rosenboom in a presentation titled Biofeedback and the Arts. Artist Jacqueline Humbert, who also participated in the performance, is seated off to the right of the picture frame.


Nam June Paik. 'TV Rodin' 1976-1978 (detail)


Nam June Paik (American, b. 1932 – 29-01-2006)
TV Rodin (detail)
Plaster, video camera, tripod, monitor, pedestal
132 x 110 x 115 cm



Long considered the most important video artist since the advent of the form in the late 1960s, Nam June Paik’s TV Rodin is one of several related works that involve sculpture – in this case, a cast of Auguste Rodin’s Thinker, studying itself in a small video monitor via closed circuit television. As museum visitors walk around the work and look over the sculpture’s shoulder, their image also appears on the screen. Paik’s influential vision of television as a global cultural force found intelligent and witty form in his videotapes, video sculptures, and intercontinental satellite performances. (Text from the Carnegie Museum of Art website)


Nam June Paik. 'TV Rodin' 1976-1978


Nam June Paik (American, b. 1932 – 29-01-2006)
TV Rodin
Plaster, video camera, tripod, monitor, pedestal
132 x 110 x 115 cm
Photo: Primae / Claude Germain. The Estate of Nam June Paik


Marina Abramovic and Ulay. 'That Self - Point of Contact' 1980


Marina Abramovic and Ulay
That Self – Point of Contact
Performance au De Appel Art Centre, Amsterdam
© Adagp, Paris 2015
Courtesy Marina Abramovic Archives


Sigmar Polke. 'Untitled (Blue)' 1992


Sigmar Polke
Untitled (Blue)
Set of 10 Cibachromes trials
61 cm x 51
The estate of Sigmar Polke / ADAGP, Paris, 2015


Fabrice Hyber. 'screen+télépathy' 2013


Fabrice Hyber
Watercolor, charcoal on paper
76 x 57 cm
Collection of the artist
© Photographie Marc Domage


Susan Hiller. 'Homage to Marcel Duchamp: Aura (Blue Boy)' 2011


Susan Hiller
Homage to Marcel Duchamp: Aura (Blue Boy)
© Susan Hiller



Centre Pompidou-Metz
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Tel: +33 (0)3 87 15 39 39

Opening hours:
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Exhibition: ‘Tattoo’ at Museum für Kunst und Gewerbe Hamburg

Exhibition dates: 12th February – 20th September 2015


Because it took such a long time to collate and construct this MONSTER posting will have to last you nearly a week – until next Wednesday anyway.


Although I have ten tattoos by different artists – including a full back job by Alex Binnie of London – and scarification done in 1992, you always remember your first tattoo. I was in my early twenties when I decided to get inked. And the person recommended for the job was the legendary Alan Oversby (aka Mr. Sebastian), an S/M tattooist and one of the primary figures in the development of contemporary body piercing.

I remember travelling down to the East End of London and rocking up to this non-descript office block, climbing to the third floor I think it was, and entering a tiny square room, Alan’s studio. What an experience it was to be tattooed by him. Not so much the tattoo itself, which was a tiger on my upper left arm – first part of my earth, air, water, fire, void elemental sequence – but his presence and being surrounded by these fantastic, outrageous photographs on all four walls, floor to ceiling. Here was men’s tackle of all different shapes and sizes, the cocks and pubic area heavily tattooed and some of them heavily pierced, lying on pristine white dinner plates. Welcome to lunch.

For a young man this was an amazing, wondrous display. I totally loved him, the photographs, and his work. Unfortunately I don’t have any photographs of that studio and there are none that I could find online. Suffice it to say that the experience only confirmed me on my path of delicious deviancy that will not stop until the day I die.

Dr Marcus Bunyan

Many thankx to Museum für Kunst und Gewerbe Hamburg for allowing me to publish the photographs and text in the posting. The videos were all sourced from YouTube. Many thankx also to Becky Nunes who I contacted directly and who provided the wonderful photographs of Tã moko facial tattoos of the Maori in New Zealand.



Alan Oversby (Mr Sebastian)


Alan Oversby (Mr. Sebastian)


Alan Oversby (20 February 1933 – 8 May 1996) was one of the primary figures in the development of contemporary body piercing in Europe. He was better known by his professional name Mr. Sebastian.

Originally an art teacher, Alan Oversby left his initial profession to pursue his interests in tattooing and piercing instead. From his studio in London, he promoted both tattooing and body piercing, especially within the gay leather community. He was a correspondent of both Doug Malloy and Jim Ward. Sponsored by Malloy, he visited Los Angeles. Malloy also sponsored trips to London to visit him, bringing along Ward and Sailor Sid Diller. These exchanges were critical to the global spread of the techniques and technology used in contemporary body piercing.

Oversby was also responsible for the adoption of the use of topical and local anesthetics as part piercing procedure in Europe. Although they are used less now, it used to be standard practice to use anesthetics when performing piercings in England, where in North America this practice is almost unknown. He was interviewed in the fourth issue of PFIQ. He performed much of the tattooing and piercing on Psychic TV musicians Genesis P-Orridge and Paula P-Orridge. His vocals were used in the Psychic TV track “Message from The Temple” which appeared on their first album Force the Hand of Chance.

In 1987, Alan Oversby was one of 16 men charged as a part of Operation Spanner, a series of raids that resulted in the arrest of men who were all engaged in consensual homosexual BDSM activities. Alan, like the other men, was charged with assault occasioning actual bodily harm for performing a genital piercing on a client. He was also charged with using anaesthetic without a licence and for sending obscene material through the post (photographs of piercings). As the judge was not willing to take the consensuality of the participants into account, Alan pleaded guilty along with the other 15 men. He received a sentence of 15 months, which was suspended for two years.

Text from Wikipedia website


Masahiko Adachi. Film still from 'Flesh Color' 2010


Masahiko Adachi (*1983, Tokyo)
Film still from Flesh Color
Animation / 4 Min.
© Masahiko Adachi


Ruiko Yoshida. 'One Holiday of a Japanese Masseuse, Tokyo, 1978' 1978



Ruiko Yoshida
One Holiday of a Japanese Masseuse, Tokyo, 1978
27 x 27.2 cm
© Museum für Kunst und Gewerbe Hamburg


Unknown artist. 'Tattooed Man' 1880-1890


Unknown artist
Tattooed Man
Albumen paper, hand-colored
21 x 27 cm
© Museum für Kunst und Gewerbe Hamburg


Unknown artist. 'Tattooed Man' 1880-1890 (detail)


Unknown artist
Tattooed Man (detail)
Albumen paper, hand-colored
21 x 27 cm
© Museum für Kunst und Gewerbe Hamburg


Utagawa Kuniyoshi. 'Tengan Isobyôe and Yajin Ran' 1830-1845


Utagawa Kuniyoshi
Tengan Isobyôe and Yajin Ran
Color woodcut, paper
37 x 25 cm
© Museum für Kunst und Gewerbe Hamburg


Christian Warlich. 'Tattoo flash sheet by Christian Warlich, Hamburg' c. 1930


Christian Warlich
Tattoo flash sheet by Christian Warlich, Hamburg
c. 1930
© Tattoo Museum Willy Robinson


Ruiko Yoshida. 'I Am a Japanese Taxi Driver, the Front, Tokyo, 1978' 1978


Ruiko Yoshida
I Am a Japanese Taxi Driver, the Front, Tokyo, 1978
Silver gelatin paper
40 x 28.6 cm
© Museum für Kunst und Gewerbe Hamburg


Bodysuit tattoo by Luke Atkinson


Bodysuit tattoo by Luke Atkinson
© Luke Atkinson


Tattoos by Gwendal & Karl Marc


Gewendal & Karl Marc
Tattoos by Gwendal & Karl Marc
© Karl Marc


Ashleigh tattooed by Saira Hunjan


Ashleigh tattooed by Saira Hunjan
Foto: Tareq Kubaisi
© Saira Hunjan


Ralf Mitsch. 'René' 2014


Ralf Mitsch
From the series Why I love tattoos
© Ralf Mitsch


Ralf Mitsch. 'Trudy' 2014


Ralf Mitsch
From the series Why I love tattoos
© Ralf Mitsch


Ralf Mitsch. 'Tim' 2014


Ralf Mitsch
From the series Why I love tattoos
© Ralf Mitsch


Marlon Wobst (*1980) 'Skin Ball' 2012


Marlon Wobst (*1980)
Skin Ball
Oil in canvas
55 x 50 cm
© Schwarz Contemporary, Berlin



The Tattoo exhibition is dedicated to old traditions and new stories. It takes a look at the vibrant, innovative and multi­faceted tattoo culture, with a focus on artistic, artisanal and culture-specific issues. International exhibits from diverse perspectives are displayed and current debates considered. This is the first time that an exhibition has brought together such a broad range of references, presenting the phenomenon of the tattoo with a particular focus on art and design, since these enduring pictures, words and symbols inspire artists and designers. The theme of the exhibition is therefore the reciprocal influence of art, traditional and lived tattoo art and visual design. The exhibition Tattoo throws light on the ambivalence of the tattoo between a mark of distinction, a sign allocating its bearer to a social class, a badge of identi­ty and a stigma in various cultures, social classes and epochs. Tattoo shows over 250 pieces of work, including photo­graphs, coloured woodcuts, paintings and sculptures, as well as video clips and audio installations, stencils and historical specimens of tattooed skin. From tattooing instruments made of simple tools available in nature to intricate precision machines, colors and pigments convey an impression of the craft in practice. In this show the MKG also looks back on the long tradition of the Hamburg tattoo scene, which had its cradle in the port milieu of the late 19th century. Historical photos which have never before been on public show document the typical tattoos of the working class in Hamburg around 1890. Legendary tattooists such as Christian Warlich (“The Tattoo King”) and Herbert Hoffmann exemplify a many-facetted and highly expressive art form which generates ever new experimental designs. A glimpse into this is given by work from local tattoo artists who let themselves be inspired by the museum’s collection. A picture loop shows many pieces of work by celebrated tattooists, men and women, from the current international scene, which is marked by a huge diversity of stylistic approaches and new aesthetic movements.

The traditional cultural technique

All over the world, many cultures use the human skin as a surface to carry images. The tradition of tattooing is among the earliest art forms and the most ancient crafts. The exhibition shows selected examples. The facial tattoos of Chin women in Burma are part of a rite of passage marking the transition from childhood to adult­hood. With the help of thorns or needles, female tattooists incise patterns into the skin which vary from one family clan to another. Tā Moko, the facial tattoos of the Maori in New Zealand, indicate a person’s family affiliation and social sta­tus. Each part of the face is reserved for a particular type of information. A tattoo on the center of the forehead, for in­stance, testifies to high status. In Thailand, sacred tattoos – known as Sak Yant – are widespread. They are intended to protect their bearer from bad luck and to help them lead a morally impeccable life. Tattoos have a long tradition in Japan too, dating back to the 3rd century. Their design follows a particular harmony and elegance and is characterized by clear­ly demarcated areas of color. The tattoos often cover wide expanses of the body surface and connect to a cohesive image. The motifs often reference subjects of traditional woodcuts or represent mythological beings which are supposed to ex­emplify particular qualities of their bearer’s character. For instance, the dragon stands for virility, power or heaven. Since tattoos were banned from 1870 to 1948 in Japan, they were for a long time associated with the criminal milieu of the Yakuza, a Japanese mafia organization.

The spread of tattooing in the Western world

In the 18th and 19th centuries, illustrated travel reports were a major influence on the way people viewed other cultures in far-off lands and fired curiosity about the practice of tattooing, which seemed exotic in those days. The word tattow in the Polynesian language is first mentioned in James Cook’s reports of his expeditions to the South Seas in the 18th century. Modern tattooing became widespread in the West through the very popular early ethnographic drawings and prints as well as later through photographs. At the beginning, the art of tattooing often stood for the erotically titillating flair of the exotic and magic-mystical in a world attended by strange cults and rituals. Tattoos flourished in Europe and America during the years leading up to the World War I. For this reason, the members of the American upper class and of almost all European royal families – including the German imperial family – were tattooed. In this period, this form of body decoration was regarded as an expression of good taste. In the 19th century a more ambivalent attitude towards tattooing develops, however, above all among the bourgeoisie. In consequence, very little lies between fascination and rejection in the Western historical view of tattooing: this is what underlies the dual character of tattooing as stigma and mark of distinction.

Codes and their reinterpretation

The functions and meanings attributed to tattooing proliferate due to its diffusion throughout different social classes and groups over the last century. First and foremost, its ambiguity, signaling both stigma and distinction, is symptomatically revealed in the different tattooing practices followed in different milieus. While sailors and soldiers flaunt the record of their travels with exotic images, tattoos develop into veritable badges of recognition in the criminal underworld. In the context of photographic “mugshots”, first used in the hunt for criminals at the beginning of the 20th century, tattoos already take on great significance as a means of identifying suspects. In Russian prison camps of the late 19th century tattoos and branding are systematically employed by the state to mark out people as convicts. In response professional criminals in Russia, however, get around this form of stigmatization by adopting their own informal tattoos. They modify traditional motifs and develop a system of secret signs, which reveals the group they belong to, their convictions or their rank in the criminal hierarchy. The French photographer and filmmaker Christian Poveda has documented the heavily tattooed members of the Latin American gangs of the Mara Salvatrucha and M-18, the lettering and symbols displayed on their skin have an important function in recognition and promotion of group affinity. The work of the Austrian Klaus Pichler traces the current significance of tattoos in prisons and offers a photographic glimpse into what are actually forms of coping with imprisonment within the penal system.

Women and tattoos

Another aspect of the exhibition are objects dealing with the relationship between women and tattoos. Historical photos highlight the vicissitude, ranging from the exhibition of the heavily tattooed female body as a fairground attraction in the 1920s up to the glamour girls in the vaudeville shows of the 1960s and the first female tattooists, who independently and with great determination carved out a place for themselves in a male-dominated profession. Tattoo culture is meanwhile unthinkable without women and they play an important role as artists in the contemporary scene.

Tattoos in contemporary art

The complex spectrum of meanings conveyed also plays a major role in contemporary art. The Japanese woman artist Fumie Sasabuche, for instance, takes as the theme of her sculptural and photographic works the interplay between the traditional Japanese tattoo motifs of the Yakuza and the aesthetic impulses of Western mass culture. Enrique Marty’s sculptures from his series Art is Dangerous, too, fall back on the Yakuza iconography in order to raise ironic questions about the role of art and the meaning conveyed by tattoos in combination with the grotesque effect created by the figures. The Spanish concept artist Santiago Sierra discusses the subject from the perspective of social and capitalistic criticism in his films. He pays members of socially marginalized groups to have a continuous line tattooed on their backs as part of a performance. With the deliberately unsteadily drawn line he is alluding to the precarious existence they lead and the social stigmatization that goes with it. The Polish artist Artur Żmijewski addresses relentlessly and provocatively the practice of tattooing prisoners in the Nazi concentration camps. His video 80064, which sparked fierce and controversial debate among its viewers, shows Josef Tarnawa, a 92-year old survivor of Auschwitz, whom the artists persuaded to have his fading camp number freshly tattooed. On the one side, Tarnawa is being stigmatized all over again by this procedure, on the other side the number on his left forearm takes on the function of a shocking admonition not to forget. Active remembrance, Artur Żmijewski seems to be saying here, is channeled today into much too orderly forms. The burn mark and the involuntary tattoo have faded out of view today in the Western history of tattooing, but what was practiced during the Second World War remains deeply engraved on the artist’s memory.

The tension between the tattoo as a work of art and its existence on the “living canvas” is the subject of an exemplary treatment by the Belgian concept artist Wim Delvoye. The exhibition shows the tattooed pig Donata, which the artist decorated under anesthetic in 2005, with the help of several professional tattooists, on his Chinese “Art Farm”. Delvoye subsequently exhibited the animal as a living work of art, and had it stuffed after it died. The second work by Delvoye shown in the exhibition picks up on this idea and articulates critical questions about moral principles in the art market, power and the right to make use of the human body as an artistic object. The Swiss Tim Steiner had a work by the Belgian artist tattooed on his back between 2006 and 2008; in 2008 it was purchased by a Hamburg art collector, together with the right to pass Tim Steiner on as an item on loan, to sell him, to bequeath him and to have his skin conserved after his death. Since then the work Tim has been the subject of great international controversy. He will be on show in the Hamburg exhibition on 11 and 12 April and on 27 and 28 June 2015.

Pricking the skin with a needle demands the same aesthetic imagination and care, the same controlled craftsmanship and knowledge of materials and color sense as any other design technique. The contemporary tattooing scene is highly innovative, transcending the traditional language of tattooing and renewing the medium. A picture loop in the exhibition shows international work in a great variety of styles and in outstanding quality.

With contributors including: Masahiko Adachi (JP) / Diane Arbus (USA) / Imogen Cunningham (USA) / Wim Delvoye (BEL) / Chris Eckert (USA) / Goran Galić & Gian-Reto Gredig (CH) / Herbert Hoffmann (DE/CH) / Mario Marchisella (CH) / Enrique Marty (ESP) / The Rich Mingins Collection (GB) / Ralf Mitsch (NL) / Becky Nunes (NZ) / Jens Uwe Par¬kitny (DE) / Klaus Pichler (AUT) / Christian Poveda (FR) / Rodolphe Archibald Reiss (DE/CH) / Fumie Sasabuchi (JP) / Santiago Sierra (ESP) / Aroon Thaewchatturat (THA) / Timm Ulrichs (DE) / Christian Warlich (D) / Artur Żmijewski (POL). Work in the picture loop by: Luke Atkinson (DE) / Curly (GB) / Mike DeVries (USA) / Thea Duskin (USA) / Lionel Fahy (FR) / Sabine Gaffron (DE) / Valentin Hirsch (DE) / Saira Hunjan (GB) / Inma (GB) / Bastien Jean (FR) / Jon John (GB) / Guy LeTatooer, (FR) / Filip Leu, (CH) / Karl Marc, (FR) / Volko Merschky & Simone Pfaff, (DE) / Lea Nahon, (FR) / Roxx (USA) / Minka Sicklinger (USA) / Liam Sparkes (GB) / Jacqueline Spoerle (CH) / Kostek Stekkos (BE) / Amanda Wachob (USA) / Seth Wood (USA).

Tattoo is a production of the Gewerbemuseum Winterthur, Schweiz, curator Susanna Kumschick, and is being shown for the first time in Germany.

Press release from the Museum für Kunst und Gewerbe Hamburg website



Installation view of the exhibition 'Tattoo' at the Museum für Kunst und Gewerbe Hamburg

Installation view of the exhibition 'Tattoo' at the Museum für Kunst und Gewerbe Hamburg

Installation view of the exhibition 'Tattoo' at the Museum für Kunst und Gewerbe Hamburg

Installation view of the exhibition 'Tattoo' at the Museum für Kunst und Gewerbe Hamburg


Installation views of the exhibition Tattoo at the Museum für Kunst und Gewerbe Hamburg



Kept under wraps in winter and proudly displayed in summer: tattoos are now ubiquitous. However, they are much more than just a current mass phenomenon and trendy fashion accessory: many cultures throughout the world are familiar with the tradition of tattooing, and human skin has always been used as a canvas. Tattooing is one of the earliest art forms and oldest handicrafts.

Tattoos last for a lifetime. Pigments are inserted under the skin forever, yet they are as transient as the life of the person who bears them. They tell personal stories, create identity and affiliation, embellish, heal, protect – and they can both fascinate and repulse. For a long while they were most commonly known as a mark of social distinction or as a means of identifying social outcasts, and as a method of self stigmatization used by sailors, criminals, prostitutes and gang members to distinguish themselves from “the other”. It is easy to forget that the craze for inking one’s body spread even to aristocratic circles in the later nineteenth century, in a trend that is now echoed by the current fashion for tattoos.

The Tattoo exhibition is dedicated to old traditions and new stories. It takes a look at the vibrant, innovative and multifaceted tattoo culture, with a focus on artistic, artisanal and culturespecific issues. International exhibits from diverse perspectives are displayed and current debates considered. This is the first time that an exhibition has brought together such a broad range of references, presenting the phenomenon of the tattoo with a particular focus on art and design, since these enduring pictures, words and symbols inspire artists and designers. The theme of the exhibition is therefore the reciprocal influence of art, traditional and lived tattoo art and visual design.


Johann Baptist von Spix. 'Journey to Brazil on command Maximilian Joseph I, King of Bavaria, in the years 1817-1820'


Johann Baptist von Spix
Journey to Brazil on command Maximilian Joseph I, King of Bavaria, in the years 1817-1820
/ made and described by Johann Baptist von Spix and Carl Friedrich von Martius – Munich: [sn], 1823 – 1831
Loan: Museum of Ethnology, Hamburg


Expedition to Brazil

Johann Baptist von Spix, 1817-1820

Between 1817 and 1820, the zoologist Johann Baptist von Spix and the botanist Carl Friedrich Philipp von Martius undertook an expedition to Brazil at the behest of Maximilian Joseph I, King of Bavaria. They were also interested in the culture of the Brazilian indigenous tribes on the Rio Yapurà, and they published their findings in a three-volume travel report. The illustration is a portrait of Juri, “The son of a cacique of the Juri nation”.

Illustrated travel books were very popular in the 18th and 19th centuries. They shaped western ideas about foreign cultures and also indicate the early interest in exotic tattooing practices. James Cook’s reports on his expeditions to the South Seas in the 18th century contain the mention of the word “tattow” derived from the Polynesian. The term quickly spread and tattooing became popular in the Western world soon afterwards.

Early ethnographic drawings and engravings such as those made by Georg Forster and Karl von den Steinen attracted widespread interest, as did photographs at a later date such as the studio portraits taken by Felice Beato in Japan. They helped to make the art of tattooing into a symbol of the eroticized alien, and a magico-mythical world of cults and rites. Tattoos elicited a mixture of fascination and revulsion right from the start, particularly in middle-class circles during the 19th century: tattooing thus developed a dual character as both stigma and mark of distinction.


Enrique Marty. 'Pablo & Ruth' 2010


Enrique Marty (*1969, Spain)
Pablo & Ruth
From the series Art is Dangerous
Oil paint on latex on polyurethane, human hair, textiles, metal
155 x 90 x 53.5 cm/143 x 60 x 35 cm
Loan: Deweer Gallery, Otegem, Belgium


Real portraits are always the starting point for Enrique Marty’s tragicomic sculptures. The tattoos of Pablo & Ruth in the Art is Dangerous series reflect the iconography of the tattoo motifs in Japanese yakuza which the artist has explored in detail and incorporated into his work. His grotesque figures also make reference to early sculptural traditions such as those used in the quaint waxworks exhibitions of the 19th century. He builds on these themes and develops an original sculptural world. Ironic inversions and humour are essential strategies which he uses as an effective weapon. “Art is dangerous”: protest or parody? An allegory of the market system? Can art be dangerous? Or should it be? What role does the art of tattooing play?



Tattoo equipment

Throughout the world tattooing is performed by introducing pigments to the dermis, or second layer of skin. Pieces of wood, thorns, bones, horns, tortoiseshells, metals and shards can be worked into tools. Depending on the shape of the tattooing implement, the patterns produced may be smooth or dotted, narrow or broad. The individual instruments have not changed greatly over the years. However, one notable step forward was the use of electricity which resulted in new techniques and styles at the beginning of the 20th century after Samuel O’Reilly had patented his rotary tattoo machine in 1891. The electric motor moves the needles up and down regularly, enabling the operator to work smoothly and steadily. It is also a less painful process for the client. These electric machines are in widespread use today. Nevertheless, traditional tools, which have hardly changed, are also still employed.

Tattoo inks

It was not until the 20th century that tattoo inks began to be manufactured as industrial products. Previously, they had been mixed in small quantities according to individual recipes using pigments, oils and plant juices. Synthetic pigments not only altered the colour spectrum and production techniques of tattoo inks, but also led to new requirements and constraints as is clear from developments over the last forty years. Today, challenges in the manufacturing process for tattoo inks primarily concern the purity of the ink production process and the quality of the pigments procured. Other requirements tend to be connected with new problems which are no longer to do with the actual pigment that is inserted into the skin. Nowadays the main focus is on the risks posed by laser treatment for tattoo removal.


The Rich Mingins Collection: 1288 Pictures of Early Western Tattooing from the Henk Schiffmacher Collection 2011


The Rich Mingins Collection: 1288 Pictures of Early Western Tattooing from the Henk Schiffmacher Collection



The Rich Mingins Collection

Rich Mingins (1916-1968) ran a tattoo studio with his father and his brother Alf Mingins in Cumbria, which is in the north-west of England, and later in London. Tattooing was his passion and he was a master of his craft. He also collected photographs and newspaper cuttings about tattoos. Today all that remains is his photo album which documents the history of tattooing from 1922 to 1949. Unfortunately, it lacks a chronology or any precise dates, and no accompanying commentary has been found. The digital version with extracts from the photo album shows his clients, other well-known tattoo artists of his era, copies of pictures that were in circulation at the time and the artist himself: Rich Mingins poses for the camera with clenched fists, displaying the picture of Jesus Christ with crown, that was tattooed on his chest by his brother Alf Mingins (no. 424).



Painting The Lily! (1936, 1.12 mins.)

In this documentary, George Burchett (1872-1953) tattoos two women with permanent makeup at his studio in the West End of London. His clientele included members of the English upper classes and European royalty such as King Alfonso XIII of Spain, King Frederick IX of Denmark and King George V of England. George Burchett also tattooed Horace Ridler, the legendary Zebra Man also known as “The Great Omi”.



Tattoo Soldiers (1942, 1.15 mins.)

Three Australian soldiers talk about their tattoos from all over the world.



Woman Tattooist (1952, 1 min.)

The first British female tattooist, Jessie Knight (1904-1994), tattoos young women soldiers in Aldershot, Hampshire. She ran a number of studios from the 1920s up to the 1980s.



Tattoo Club (1954, 1.51 mins.)

The well-known British tattooist Les Skuse (1912-1973) founded the Bristol Tattoo Club in 1953 and in 1955 he organized the world’s first tattoo competition, the precursor of the tattoo conventions of today. In the 1950s the Bristol Tattoo Club was the focal point of the tattoo scene, counting famous people such as Bob Maddison, Al Schiefley, Albert Cornelissen and Tattoo Peter among its members.


Photograph from the Christian Warlich estate, 1961


Photograph from the Christian Warlich estate, 1961
Loan: Hamburg Museum, Sammlung Fotografie



Christian Warlich: the “King of the tattoo artists”

During his lifetime, Christian Warlich (1890-1964) was held to be the greatest tattoo artist in Germany and gained an international reputation as “King of the tattoo artists”. He had taught the craft to the Hamburg tattoo legend Herbert Hoffmann and later made him to be his “Crown Prince”. Warlich himself is believed to have come into this profession by chance. After an apprenticeship as a boilermaker he had gone to sea and become acquainted with tattoo artists in the United States. From there, he brought back one of the first electric tattoo machines. In 1919, Warlich opened an inn in today’s Clemens-Schultz-Straße in St. Pauli, Hamburg, where one of the corners served as a “Modern Tattoo Studio”. Warlich took on tattooing as a serious business: he promoted the store, traded with tattoo machines and tools and in addition to his tattooing, he offered a residue-free and painless removal of tattoos by using a special tincture. Warlich was not only noticed because of his business sense, his work was characterized by craftsmanship and artistic standards, too. Unlike other tattoo artists of his time, he strove for a continuous improvement of the shapes and for the modernisation of the image repertoire. For these purposes, he developed new designs and collected all kinds of templates, for instance from Chinese sample books, movie posters or advertising images. In addition, Warlich kept in contact with tattooists all over Europe, North America and Asia. They exchanged sketches photographs and celluloid stencils with which the outlines of the motifs were transferred to the skin of the customers.

The tattooist Herbert Hoffmann: a legend

The world famous tattooist Herbert Hoffmann (1919-2010) lived through and helped shape various stages of the history of western tattooing. Throughout his life he was very keen to help tattoos gain acceptance and social approval. Having been trained by Christian Warlich, he later became the proprietor of Germany’s oldest tattoo studio in the St. Pauli district of Hamburg, where he worked until 1980. He then moved to Switzerland, where he lived with his partner Jakob Acker in Schwendi bei Heiden in the canton of Appenzell Ausserrhoden. Hoffmann was active in the tattoo scene right up to his death in 2010, attending conventions throughout Europe and acting as an important role model for younger tattoo artists. He himself bore tattoos by Christian Warlich, Tattoo Peter, Tatover Ole, Horst Streckenbach and others. Throughout his life he was also a keen photographer and collector. Many of his photographs were published in the photo book Living Picture Books, Portrait of a Tattooing Passion 1878-1952, which is now out of print. The images displayed in the exhibition are from his private archive and have rarely been shown before. These are photographs from his personal albums with portraits of his friends and clients. They depict Herbert Hoffmann himself at different stages of his life, as well as his environment. At the same time, they narrate an important chapter in the history of tattooing from the 1920s to the 1970s. Unfortunately his written comments can no longer be traced.

Women and tattoos from the private collection of Herbert Hoffmann

The picture archive of the tattooist and collector Herbert Hoffmann (1919-2010) also includes photographs of tattooed women from the 1920s up to the 1970s. Some of them are photographs he took himself but others are copies and images that were circulated in various forms by like-minded people. They are not systematically arranged, most of them are undated and there is no commentary. The collection also includes iconic photographs which had a decisive impact on how tattooed women were viewed at that period. This selection of Herbert Hoffmann’s pictures is a chronicle of women with tattoos, from circus attractions of the 1920s and glamour girls of the 1960s to the predecessors of the famous “new burlesque” artists like Dita Von Teese. However, there are also photos of “ordinary women” with tattoos in the prim-and-proper 1950s and – more rarely – of female tattooists. Herbert Hoffmann’s collection ends with the “renaissance” of tattooing in the 1970s. At that time, women in particular were discovering tattoos as a sign of self-empowerment and the number of female creative tattoo artists making their way in this male-dominated profession began to increase. Today there is a huge variety of (self-)expression by tattooed women, and female tattoo artists play an essential and influential role in the rich contemporary tattoo culture.


Maud Stevens Wagner, Tattoo Artist (1877-1961, photo from 1907)


Maud Stevens Wagner, Tattoo Artist, USA (1877-1961, photo from 1907)


Maud Stevens Wagner (1877-1961)

The American tightrope walker and contortionist Maud Wagner was the first well-known female tattooist in the Western world. Like others of the small number of female tattooists in the 1920s, she learned her craft from her husband, Gus Wagner, whom she met at the St. Louis World’s Fair in 1904.


Lady Viola (1898-1977) Nd


Lady Viola (1898-1977)


Lady Viola (1898-1977)

Ethel Martin Vangi, who became famous as “Lady Viola”, was a circus performer and later tattooist; she had portraits of presidents Woodrow Wilson, George Washington and Abraham Lincoln tattooed on her chest. Her left thigh was tattooed with pictures of popular figures of the day, such as Babe Ruth and Charlie Chaplin.


Artoria Gibbons (1893-1985) Nd


Artoria Gibbons (1893-1985)


Artoria Gibbons (1893-1985)

Like many tattooed circus attractions, Anna Mae Burlington Gibbons was a working-class woman who had herself tattooed when she fell on hard times, and then earned good money as a result (especially as a woman). She and her husband, the tattooist Charles Gibbons, travelled all over America in the 1920s and worked as a team in the circus business. She had one tattoo showing a section of Botticelli’s Annunciation, another depicting a part of Michelangelo’s Holy Family, and her chest featured a portrait of George Washington.


Cindy Ray Nd


Cindy Ray


Cindy Ray

The last great circus lady, Cindy Ray – also known as “Miss Technicolor” or “The Classy Lassie with the Tattooed Chassis” – toured Australia and New Zealand in the 1960s. She learned how to do tattooing and is still working today under her real name, Bev Nicholas, at the Moving Pictures Tattoo Studio near Melbourne.


Imogen Cunningham. 'Irene "Bobbie" Libarry' 1976


Imogen Cunningham (1883-1976, USA)
Irene “Bobbie” Libarry
Silver gelatin estate print
19.3 x 17.8 cm
Loan: The Imogen Cunningham Trust, Lopez Island, USA


Irene “Bobbie” Libarry (1893-1978)

Irene “Bobbie” Libarry (1893-1978) worked as a circus performer, magician and market vendor. She was tattooed by her husband in 1918, ran her own sideshow “The World’s Strangest People” in the 1930s and later worked as a tattoo artist in San Francisco.


Unknown. 'Karl Paul Johann Frank' c. 1880s - 1890s


Unknown artist
Karl Paul Johann Frank
c. 1880s – 1890s
Inv. Nr. 2013 – 4492
© Museum für Kunst und Gewerbe Hamburg


Unknown. 'Carl Wilhelm August Otto Sternke' c. 1880s - 1890s


Unknown artist
Carl Wilhelm August Otto Sternke
c. 1880s – 1890s
Inv. Nr. 2013 – 4491
© Museum für Kunst und Gewerbe Hamburg



Images of an epoch

Numerous historical portraits of tattooed men have been preserved in the inheritance of the tattoo artist Christian Warlich (1890-1964). The pictures probably originate in the 1880s to 1890s [see both images above]. Especially typical contemporary garments, the beard and hair fashion of the time, relevant tattoo motifs from the German Empire under William I or the symbol of the tenth World Expo in 1889, the Eiffel Tower, give information about this type. All images are carefully rear numbered and labeled with the names of the people portrayed. On display are mainly dock workers and seafarers; members of underprivileged workers who were not used to posing in front of a camera. In the late 19th century, the loading work in the ports was extremely cumbersome and labour intensive, roosts such as the Hamburg Gängeviertel hosted thousands of working families. In this milieu relevant subjects such as anchors, sailboats or professional characters show the belonging to a social group. The tattoos document but beyond the story of people’s lives. There are references to the military service or the crossing of the equator, as well as prison stays or religious motives.

Preserved tattoo specimens

The specimens date from around 1900. At the time they were used to identify unknown corpses. Photography was not yet in routine use at that period and preserved specimens offered almost the only opportunity to document a tattoo in detail and keep it for later identification. The oldest known report of successful identification thanks to a tattoo dates back to the 11th century: King Harold II of England fell in battle and is said to have been identified by the inscription “Edith and England” tattooed above his heart, thanks to which he was buried in a manner befitting his rank.


Emile Lavril, Romeo und Julia Tattoo 14 November 1913, front


Emile Lavril, Romeo und Julia Tattoo
14 November 1913, front


Rudolf Archibald Reiss (1875-1929)

The criminologist, lecturer and photographer founded the “Institut de police scientifique” at the University of Lausanne in 1909. He also helped to set up courses in photography for investigative purposes at the same institution. Forensic photography, which was being carried out according to standard criteria for the first time was an essential component in his teaching. Since tattoos are important identification features, Reiss paid particular attention to them [see photograph above]. However, the technology available at the time made it difficult to obtain a sharp and accurate image. Reiss used photographs purely for forensic purposes. He refused to accept the then common opinion that offenders could be recognized simply because they had tattoos.


Arkady Bronnikov (*1926) 'Photographs of Russian convicts' 1960-1980


Eyes on the stomach denote homosexuality (the penis makes the ‘nose’ of the face). Stars on the shoulders show that an inmate is a criminal ‘authority’. The medals are awards that existed before the revolution and as such are signs of defiance towards the Soviet regime.


Arkady Bronnikov (*1926) 'Photographs of Russian convicts' 1960-1980


The devils on the shoulders of this inmate show a hatred of authority. This type of tattoo is known as an oskal (grin), a baring of teeth towards the system. They are sometimes accompanied by anti-Soviet texts.


Arkady Bronnikov (*1926) 'Photographs of Russian convicts' 1960-1980


The double-headed eagle is a Russian state symbol that dates back to the 15th century. After the fall of Communism, it replaced the hammer and sickle as the Russian Federation’s coat of arms. This Soviet-era photo is a bold symbol of rage against the USSR; the Statue of Liberty implies a longing for freedom.


Arkady Bronnikov (*1926)
Photographs of Russian convicts
Digital print on paper
Loan: Fuel Design and Publishing, London
© Arkady Bronnikov



Photographs of Russian convicts

Up until the end of the 19th century, it was usual for the government to burn the initials “B.O.R.” (Russian for thief) into thieves’ skin as a punishment. Subsequently, tattoos developed as a distinctive feature of professional criminals; serving as demarcation, identification, as well as a secret means of communication: they transmit information such as affiliation, profession, number of convictions or position in criminal hierarchies. This informal practice transliterated the original stigmatisation inflicted through the government, using a pictorial repertoire borrowed from traditional tattoo imagery while assigning a new meaning. Most of the prison tattoos were done with primitive instruments, such as modified electric shavers with attached needles. Oftentimes, a self-made mixture of rubber and urine was used as substitute ink, bearing great health risks. Arkady Bronnikov (*1926) was a leading forensic doctor at the interior ministry of the USSR. From the mid-1960s until the mid-1980s he interviewed and photographed numerous inmates of labour camps in the Urals and Siberia. Today, Bronnikov is a leading expert on tattoo iconography and owns what is considered to be one of the biggest photographic collections of Russian prison tattoos.


Klaus Pichler (*1977, Vienna) 'Untitled' (detail) Nd


Klaus Pichler (*1977, Vienna)
Untitled (detail)
Paper on aluminium
60 x 40 cm
© Klaus Pichler


Prison tattoos

The Austrian photographer Klaus Pichler (*1977) spent eight years looking for ex-prisoners, photographing their tattoos and writing down the stories behind them. The result was an impressive documentary account of the still poorly researched history of prison tattoos. The pictures and interviews were published in the book Inked for Life. The World of Prison Tattoos.


Unknown artist. 'Japanese Tattoo' 1880-1890


Unknown artist
Japanese Tattoo
Albumin paper
27 x 21 cm
© Museum für Kunst und Gewerbe Hamburg


Tradition and taboo

The acceptance of tattoos in Japanese society is subject to constant change. In the 19th century, large tattoos were considered decorative and were carried openly by rickshaw drivers, for example. For the scantily clad men an ornate body was helpful for their business because it attracted the attention of customers. The image of bullies and petty criminals adhered to rickshaw drivers, as well as to other professions from the simple population which led to a long-term negative perception of the skin images. As an identifying feature of “outlaws” they also function in the criminal milieu of the yakuza. In the Japanese mafia organization, tattoos still illustrate the milieu name of the bearer (“serpent”, “dragon”, etc.) and document his gang membership. The result was a social aversion to tattoos which continues to this day and also unjustly criminalises innocent citizens. Unlike their historical predecessors, taxi drivers today would only flaunt their tattoos for a photographer; because they are not good for business. Tattoos in Japan were rarely shown openly; in public bath houses they are even forbidden to this day. It was only through the appreciation of the Japanese tattoo tradition by the American tattoo scene of the 1960s and 1970s that the taboo was partially revised.



Masahiko Adachi (*1983, Tokyo)
Flesh Color
Animation / 4 Min.


Utagawa Kuniyoshi. 'Tanmeijirôgenshôgo' 1827-1830


Utagawa Kuniyoshi
Tanmei jirôgenshôgo
Colour woodcut on paper
38.7 x 26 cm
Inv. Nr. S2012.56
© Museum für Kunst und Gewerbe Hamburg



Japanese colour woodcuts: The 108 heroes of the “Suikoden”

The Japanese name “Suikoden” stands for a famous Chinese adventure story that became very popular in both countries. In this story, a group of rebels fights against corruption and injustice, campaigning for the poor and the disadvantaged. The story originates in the 14th century and is set in the 12th century. For the first time, Kuniyoshi displays these rebels with naked, tattooed bodies which lead to a great success of the book. Until today, the Suikoden is a well-known theme of Japanese culture such as computer games and TV series.


Fumie Sasabuchi (*1975, Tokio / Berlin) 'Untitled' 2004


Fumie Sasabuchi (*1975, Tokyo / Berlin)
Pencil on paper
29.5 x 20.5 cm
Loan: private collection, Austria
© Fumie Sasabuchi


Fumie Sasabuchi draws irezumi tattoos on the skin of pictures of young girls taken from the children’s fashion magazine Vogue Angels. The motifs of the tattoos are part of the traditional repertoire of the Japanese yakuza mafia, and symbolise mortal danger, superhuman strength and special protection, among other things. Sasabuchi unites two media from Western and Eastern popular culture: photography from modern fashion magazines and the traditional woodcut. She combines Japanese myths with Western picture subjects and plays with the ensuing ambivalent images.


Christian Poveda. 'El Gangster de Iberia (Mara Salvatrucha)' San Salvador, 2008


Christian Poveda (1955-2009, France)
El Gangster de Iberia (Mara Salvatrucha)
San Salvador, 2008
Paper on aluminium
60 x 58 cm
Loan: Agence Vu’, Paris
© Christian Poveda / Agence VU’



The Mara Salvatrucha gang warfare in El Salvador

Twelve years of civil war in El Salvador came to an end in 1992. Today, gang warfare is an everyday reality in San Salvador, mainly because of two gangs: the Mara Salvatrucha (MS) and the Mara 18 (18). Every year 2,000 people die as a result. Some 14,000 abandoned youths dedicate their lives to the gangs which replace their families. They are the successors of the US gangs that were founded in the 1980s by refugees from the Salvadoran civil war. The Mara gangs today, which originated in the ghettos of Los Angeles, have over 70,000 members in El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras. Members generally have a tattoo containing the letters M or MS, as well as the number 13 which refers to the position of M in the alphabet. Tattoos in the shape of teardrops represent the number of murders committed, or commemorate the death of a fellow Mara member and friend. The words “La vida loca” stand for “the crazy life” in the Mara, and a downward-pointing M formed with the fingers is used as a sign of recognition.

The Spanish-French photographer and documentary filmmaker Christian Poveda spent over a year with members of the Mara. He followed the lives of these “lost youths”, documenting them through interviews, impressive photographs and the film La vida loca (El Salvador / France / 2008 / 90 mins.). Poveda was killed by several shots to the head in San Salvador in 2009 while working on another film.


Jens Uwe Parkitny. 'Ma Hla Oo, Laytu-Chin, Northern Rakhine' 2005


Jens Uwe Parkitny (*1965, Singapore)
Ma Hla Oo, Laytu-Chin, Northern Rakhine
Paper on aluminium
30 x 30 cm
© Jens Uwe Parkitny


Face tattoos, Burma

The face tattoos of the Chin women in Burma form part of a ritual to mark the transition from childhood to the adult world. Female tattoo artists use thorns 17 or needles to prick patterns into the skin. The symbolic meaning of the lines and dots cannot be ascertained, since no records exist. All that is known is that the patterns differentiate one clan from another. Although the tradition of facial tattooing has died out in many parts of Burma, it is now experiencing a partial revival.


Becky Nunes. 'Shane Te Ruki' 2005


Becky Nunes
Shane Te Ruki
From the series Mau Moko, The World Of Maori Tattoo
Digital print
© Becky Nunes


Becky Nunes. 'Taurewa Vic Biddle' 2005


Becky Nunes
Taurewa Vic Biddle
From the series Mau Moko, The World Of Maori Tattoo
Digital print
© Becky Nunes


Becky Nunes. 'June Tangohau' 2005


Becky Nunes
June Tangohau
From the series Mau Moko, The World Of Maori Tattoo
Digital print
© Becky Nunes



Tã Moko, New Zealand

The Tã moko facial tattoos of the Maori in New Zealand give information about family membership, ancestors and social position, as well as the specific abilities of the tattooed person. Each part of the face is dedicated to a particular type of information. Few people have a tattoo in the centre of the forehead, for example, since this indicates high status. Men can usually wear tattoos over the entire face, whereas women have them only on the chin area. This tattoo tradition has been suppressed for a long period, as also happened in other cultures, but the Tã moko have recently been experiencing a renaissance.

Mau Moko:
photographic images of the world of Maori tattoo by Becky Nunes

“These are impressive and moving images, which deserve exhibition simply in their own right.
More than that, they place moko in a contemporary context, expressing the art as a living, relevant force in our culture and not some struggling remnant of a distant past. They strongly counter the negative connotations of moko.” (Hamish Keith, Art Historian 2009)
Mau Moko: the World of Maori Tattoo
 began as a research project at the University of Waikato, and evolved into a major publication, a scholarly yet entertaining journey from the art’s Pacific chisel origins to the marae workshops and sophisticated urban studios of Aotearoa today. It has been essentially a visual experience – the exacting portraiture of Parkinson and Jenner-Merrett, the iconic canvasses of Goldie and Lindauer, the pretty, ubiquitous postcard albums, and most recently, the brooding, elemental image-making of Westra and Friedlander, have all marked their own place, in their own time. With Mau Moko, and the consummate artistry of this collection, we reach the twenty first century. Becky Nunes’ eloquent lens engages the viewer, and the viewed, and one wonders who is saying
“Tirohia, he moko!”
It is about us. And yes, it is forever.

Ngahuia Te Awekotuku. May 2008

In December 2007 Penguin Books published Mau Moko, The World Of Maori Tattoo. The result of several years’ research, the book explores the cultural and spiritual issues around ta moko, and relates the stories of its wearers and practitioners. Mau Moko was authored by Ngahuia Te Awekotuku and Linda Waimarie Nikora with contemporary portraits photographed by Becky Nunes. Becky Nunes is a photographic artist and educator, making images for a range of commercial and editorial clients, as well as her own personal work. She heads the Photo Media department at Whitecliffe College of Arts & Design. For the Mau Moko project Nunes travelled through both the North and South Islands of Aotearoa/New Zealand meeting and photographing wearers and practitioners of ta moko. For more information please email Becky Nunes.


Aroon Thaewchatturat. 'Num, blessed photograph' Bangkok, 2010


Aroon Thaewchatturat (*1975, Bangkok)
Num, blessed photograph
Bangkok, 2010
Paper on plastic
60 x 40 cm
© Aroon Thaewchatturat



Sak Yant, Thailand

Sacred tattoos known as Sak Yant are commonly found in Thailand. They protect the bearers from accidents, misfortune and crime. At the same time they help them to lead a morally upright life. However, the rules set by the tattooist must be obeyed or the tattoos lose their power. Sak Yants are not intended for public view and therefore often kept hidden. The motifs used are derived from ancient Khmer script writings and animal symbols such as tigers, dragons, birds, snakes and lizards. The tiger, or Yant Sua, is a popular subject and is associated with strength, fearlessness and power.

Tattoo Master

There are several hundred tattooists in Thailand. Monks tattoo in their temples, and tattoo masters in studios. They are authority figures and their followers also seek advice from them. The sacred tattoos link tattooist and tattooed for a lifetime. 38-year-old Achan Neng Onnut is a tattoo master in On Nut, a district of Bangkok. The pricked motif is called Pho Kae. It depicts a recluse, or hermit, and bestows wisdom, goodness and a peaceful mind to the bearer. The tattoo master recites a mantra in order to activate the tattoo.



Santiago Sierra (*1966, Madrid / Mexico D.F.)
250 cm line tattooed on six paid people
Espacio Aglutinador, Havanna / Cuba / doc. / 28.17 mins. / no sound
Loan: Galerie Kow, Berlin


In 1999 Santiago Sierra recruited six young unemployed men in Havana to stand in a row and have a horizontal line tattooed on them, running continuously from one man’s back to the next, in exchange for 30 dollars each. Further versions of this performance were carried out and documented as simply as possible. It alludes to the unequal values of capitalist society and to the relative and haphazard nature of remuneration. The imprecise line drawn of the tattoos suggests scarring, so the participants in the performance – members of socially marginalized groups – were subjected to further stigmatisation.


Artur Żmijewski. '80064' 2004


Artur Żmijewski (*1966, Warsaw)
11 mins.
Polish with English subtitles
Loaned by the artist and Galerie Peter Kilchmann, Zürich


The Polish artist Artur Żmijewski takes an unsparing and provocative look at the tattooing that took place in the Nazi concentration camps. His video shows 92-year-old Auschwitz survivor Josef Tarnawa whom the artist persuaded to have his fading camp number re-inked. While the tattooist is renewing the numbers, Josef Tarnawa recalls the most traumatic time of his life. Artur Żmijewski’s video work polarises opinions. On the one hand, Josef Tarnawa is stigmatized for a second time, but on the other, the number on his left forearm acts as a shocking memorial. According to Artur Żmijewski, nowadays active remembrance is often far too conventional.

In the history of western tattooing, brands and involuntary tattoos have receded into the background, although the practices used during the Second World War remain deep in people’s memories. Whereas the prisoners in Auschwitz were numbered, members of the SS had their blood group tattooed on their upper arms. This meant that after the war, what had started out as a useful medical information turned out to be an irreversible identification mark. The social connotations of a tattoo change over time, with proud insider symbols becoming the stigmata of an outsider group.



Wim Delvoye (*1965, Belgium)
Tattoo, loan: Sammlung Reinking, Hamburg


Tim Steiner, a Swiss citizen, has had a work by the Belgian conceptual artist Wim Delvoye tattooed on his back. In 2008 the tattoo was sold to a Hamburg-based art collector who acquired the right to lend, sell and bequeath Tim Steiner as a loan object and to preserve his skin after his death. Since then, the work, called Tim, has given rise to international controversy. It raises important questions about ethics in the art market, and about power and the right to dispose of the human body (and its organs, such as the skin).


Chris Eckert. 'Auto Ink' 2010


Chris Eckert (*1968, USA)
Auto Ink
Metal, paint, microelectronics
137 x 56 x 50 cm
Loaned by the artist



The kinetic sculpture of American artist Chris Eckert draws a random religious symbol on the arm of a volunteer subject. Membership of a religion integrates, connects and offers an ethical and moral framework for living with others. Yet many faiths compete with each other and regard the others with resentment and politically motivated enmity. Chris Eckert’s tattooing machine explores how having a particular faith can affect peaceful coexistence in a globalized world.

In European history, the now defunct tradition of religious pilgrim tattoos is an example of the practice of tattooing as a mark of identity and segregation. Examples include the crusader tattoos and tattooed guild symbols in the Middle Ages.


Thea Duskin. 'Untitled' 2011


Thea Duskin
Foto: Kimberly Frost
© Thea Duskin


Contemporary tattoo art

Inking the skin requires the same aesthetic imagination and care, the same manual dexterity, and the same knowledge of materials and colour as other artistic processes. The innovative contemporary tattoo scene is transcend¬ing the language of classical tattooing and regenerating the medium. The image loop shows a diverse range of top quality works by international tattoo artists in a huge variety of styles.


Frank Taki. 'Über(leben)' 2014


Frank Taki


Tradition and modernity

The rich and cross-cultural collection of the MKG has served as an inspiration for creative work to artists and craftspeople for over 130 years. The classic ornaments of historism, the floral patterns of art nouveau or the spirited characters of Japanese wood cuts: the continuous examination with this kind of historic artwork and its adaption into one’s own visual language are just as much a part of the art of tattooing as the creation of new images. In the autumn of 2014, the MKG has invited a selection of Hamburg tattoo artists to use the museum’s collection as a starting point for new tattoo designs.


Timm Ulrichs. 'The End Eyelid tattoo' 1970/1981/1997


Timm Ulrichs (*1940, Berlin)
The End
Eyelid tattoo, 1970/1981/1997
Inkjet print on canvas on stretcher bars, 150 x 150 cm
Loaned by the artist


In 1981, Timm Ulrichs had THE END tattooed on his right eyelid by “Tattoo Samy” (Horst Heinrich Streckenbach). The tattoo, which can only be read when the eye is closed, recalls the final credits of a film, the last performance and the final moment. This tattoo event was also documented on film, created in the context of the video of the same name which juxtaposes 60 final images.



Museum für Kunst und Gewerbe Hamburg
Steintorplatz, 20099 Hamburg

Opening hours:
Tuesday to Sunday 10 am – 6 pm
Thursday 10 am – 9 pm
Closed Mondays

Museum fur Kunst und Gewerbe Hamburg website


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Review: ‘Unnerved: The New Zealand Project’ at NGV International, Melbourne

Exhibition dates: 26th November 2010  – 27th February 2011

A Queensland Art Gallery Touring Exhibition


Ava Seymour. 'Sate Highway 1' 1997


Ava Seymour (New Zealand b. 1967)
State Highway I
from Health, happiness and housing series
Colour photograph of a photomontage


Ava Seymour. 'Day Care Walkabouts' 1997


Ava Seymour (New Zealand b. 1967)
Day Care Walkabouts
from Health, happiness and housing series
Photomontage on colour photograph



New Zealand art adrift in a myriad of stories and symbols – not a brave ‘new world’

This is an underwhelming group exhibition of over 100 works drawn from the Queensland Art Gallery collection, a show to wander around on a lazy weekend afternoon and not get too excited about. The large number of works in the exhibition make it impossible to review each work individually (although I critique some works below) but one does get an overall sense of the investigation by New Zealand artists into their history, place, culture and identity. While there are a few good works in the exhibition there are also some very mediocre works as well and, other than a few splashes of self-deprecating humour (such as the wonderful The Horn of Africa (2006) by Michael Parekowhai, below) it all seems importantly earnest: an exhibition for serious people (apologies to Oscar Wilde).

On the evidence of this exhibition the country of New Zealand must be a very unnerving place to live, mainly because their artists can’t seem to keep their hand off it  – cultural history that is.

Throughout this exhibition we have psychological unease, physical unease, a little humour, parody, poetry, symbology, allegory, mythology, colonialism, post-colonialism, nationalism, commercialisation, representation, anthropology, travel, landscape, topography, advertising, first contact, sacred spaces, indigenous politics, Māori culture, Pacific Islander culture, pakeha (non-indigenous) culture, tools, guns, rabbits, seals, pianos, traditional tattoos, tourist sites and museums, surfing, suburbia, personal journeys, family albums, androgyny, identity, public housing, ambiguous states, hyperreality, surreality, dislocation, disenfranchisement, alienation, bodies, portraits, subjects, past, present, future (and more!)

Ronnie van Hout exhibits three atmospheric, eerie, dark photographs of constructed model landscapes: of a Nazi doodlebug and the words ABDUCT and HYBRID. The wall text tries, unsuccessfully, to link the images to the obscure and haunted landscapes of New Zealand – a very long bow to draw indeed. Bill Cuthbert’s “nice” photographs offer generalised statements of light and place but really don’t take you anywhere and in fact could have been taken anywhere. The wall text offers that the photographs are a “self-conscious, critical response” to the dismantling of colonial ideas of empire and nation … this is art speak gobbledygook at its worst trying to justify basic photography.

Mark Adams panoramic photograph of one of the sites of first contact – an important historical moment of encounter between Māori and pakeha (non-Māori people of European descent) – are a beautiful photograph of a sound and mountains that has then been dissected, fragmented and individually framed and then mounted unevenly on the gallery wall – just to make sure we get the point about the ‘nature’ of the scenery and its cultural implications. Lonnie Hutchinson’s cut wall work Cinco “offers an interplay between paper and space and explores the ‘va’ or space between – a relation between the Samoan people and the landscape saturated with the dialogue of our ancestors … being adrift in a sea of memories caused by feelings related to cultural loss and uncertainty.” I know how they feel: adrift, underwhelmed by the art and overwhelmed by the text.

Other than the striking photograph of the Dandy (2007, below) Lisa Reihana’s series Digital Marae (2001 – ) also fails to inspire. The marae is a highly structure space where Māori families come together – an outdoor, cleared area, a communal or sacred place which serves religious and social purposes in Polynesian societies. Here can be found male sculptures called poupou featuring diverse forms of masculinity, Māori gods and goddesses. The elder Mahuika, while sometimes described as male, is deliberately depicted in her female state in this series. In Reihanna’s digital interpretation of the marae her gods and goddesses become slick, media-inspired glossy magazine type images printed large, mounted on aluminium and lit for maximum theatrical effect. The unstructured spaces behind the figures have no context, no placement and give lie to the inspiration for the series (a highly structured space) and, as such, they land with a commercial thud onto the cleared earth.

The lowest point in the exhibition must be reserved for the 80 photographs of the series ‘The homely’ (1997–2000) by Gavin Hipkins. Usually when reviewing I refrain from saying anything really bad about works of art but this is an exception. This series is awful. Robert Nelson in The Age describes it as “visually and conceptually incoherent.” Taken over 4 years and supposedly “examining notions of nationhood that are unstable and fractured” Hipkins describes it as “a post-colonial gothic novel.” !!

The series features flat, one-dimensional images of symbols: sculptures, closed doors, open doors, flags, people, repeating circles and vertical elements – where the aggregate of all the images is supposed to MEAN SOMETHING. These are the most simple, most basic of year 12 images formed into a sequence that is conceptually irrelevant in terms of its symbolism and iconography vis a vis the purported critical examination it seeks to undertake. This person really needs to look at the sequences of Minor White to see how a great artist puts photographs together – not just in terms of narrative but the meaning in the spaces between the images, their spiritual resonance or, if wanting to be more literal, study that seminal book ‘The Americans’ by Robert Frank to see how to really make a sequence. Ultimately, these are images I wished I had never seen.

On to better things. For me the absolute gem of this exhibition were the photomontages of Ava Seymour from her ‘Health, happiness and housing’ series (see photographs above). These are just fantastic! Featuring as a backdrop photographs of state houses built in the 1950s and 60s Seymour assembles her cast of characters – composite figures of found limbs, bodies and faces taken from old medical text books – and creates stark, psychological sites of engagement. The can be seen as family portraits, social documents of unseen alienation and dis-enfranchisement with communities and also a comment on the conduct of the welfare system and state housing, but in their ironic, self-deprecating humour they become so much more. Even though they use old photographs the artist recasts them ingenuously to become something new, a new space that the viewer can step into, unlike most of the work in this exhibition.

Most artists in this exhibition seem intent on a form of cultural excavation to make their work, digging and rooting around in cultural history and memory to find “meaning”, to make new forms from old that actually lead nowhere. They excavate symbols and signs and reform them hoping for what, exactly? All that appears is work that is stunted and fragmented, chopped up dislocations that offer nothing new in terms of a way forward for the culture from which these histories and memories emerge. There is no holistic, healing vision here, only a series of mined observations that fragment, distort and polarise, descending into the decorative, illustrative or the commercial. The same can be said of some Australian art (including the exhibition Stormy Weather: Contemporary Landscape Photography at NGV Federation Square that I will review next). As Robert Nelson succinctly observed in his review of this exhibition in The Age (Wednesday, December 29th, 2010), this exhibition “reveals a weakness that also exists in our scene: fertile tricks and noble intentions, but patchy skill or poetic imagination for connecting them.” Well said.

“”When the soul wants to experience something she throws out an image in front of her and then steps into it.” (Meister Eckhart) It is an evocation of the image as a threshold leading to new dimensions of meaning. Symbolic images are more than data; they are vital seeds, living carriers of possibility.”1

New dimensions of meaning, vital seeds, living carriers of possibility. Everyone of us is a living, breathing embodiment of cultural history and memory. We know that intimately in our bones, as human beings. What artists need to do is observe this legacy but offer a way forward, not constantly excavating the past and hoping this is enough when creating work. These are not new spaces to step into! The cohabitation of indigenous and ethnically mixed non-indigenous cultures in both Australia and New Zealand requires this holistic forward looking vision. It is a redemptive vision that is not mired in the symbols and archetypes of the past but, as Australia writer David Malouf envisages it, ‘a dream history, a myth history, a history of experience in the imagination’.2 It is a vision of the future that all post-colonial countries can embrace, where a people can come to know their sense of place more fully.

Rather than an escapist return to the past perhaps a redemptive vision of New Zealand’s cultural future, a history of experience in the imagination, would be less insular and more open to the capacity to wonder.

Dr Marcus Bunyan


  1. Ronnberg, Ami (ed.,). “Preface,” in The Book of Symbols. Cologne: Taschen, 2010, p. 6
  2. Footnote 6. Daniel, Helen. “Interview with David Malouf,” in Australian Book Review (September , 1996), p. 13 quoted in Ennis, Helen. “The Presence of the Past,” in Photography and Australia. London: Reaktion Books, 2007, p. 141

Many thankx to Jemma Altmeier for her help and to the National Gallery of Victoria for allowing me to publish the photographs in the posting. Please click on the photographs for a larger version of the image.



Lisa Reihana Ngāpuhi: Ngāti Hine, Ngāi Tu 'Hinepukohurangi' 2001


Lisa Reihana (Ngāpuhi: Ngāti Hine, Ngāi Tu New Zealander, b. 1964)
From Digital Marae 2001-
Cibachrome photograph mounted on aluminium
200.0 x 100.0 cm
Purchased 2002
© Lisa Reihana


Lisa Reihana Ngāpuhi: Ngāti Hine, Ngāi Tu 'Dandy' 2007


Lisa Reihana (Ngāpuhi: Ngāti Hine, Ngāi Tu New Zealander, b. 1964)
From Digital Marae 2001-
Colour digital print mounted on aluminium
200.0 x 120.0 cm
Queensland Art Gallery, Brisbane
Purchased 2008 with funds from the Estate of Vincent Stack through the Queensland Art Gallery Foundation Queensland Art Gallery, Brisbane
© Lisa Reihana



Yvonne Todd (New Zealander, b. 1973)
From the Vagrants’ reception centre series
Light jet photograph
100.0 x 73.8 cm
Queensland Art Gallery, Brisbane
Purchased 2007. Queensland Art Gallery Foundation Grant
©Yvonne Todd


Michael Parekowhai Ngāti Whakarongo 'Kapa Haka (Whero)' 2003


Michael Parekowhai (Ngāti Whakarongo New Zealander, b. 1968)
Kapa Haka (Whero)
Automotive paint on fibreglass
188.0 x 60.0 x 50.0 cm
Queensland Art Gallery, Brisbane
Purchased 2009 with funds from Tim Fairfax AM, through the Queensland Art Gallery Foundation
© Michael Parekowhai



The National Gallery of Victoria today opened a major exhibition celebrating the extraordinary work of 26 contemporary New Zealand artists in Unnerved: The New Zealand Project.

Unnerved explores a particularly rich, dark vein found in contemporary New Zealand art. The psychological or physical unease underlying many works in the exhibition is addressed with humour, parody and poetic subtlety by artists across generations and mediums. Bringing together more than 100 works ranging from intimate works on paper to large scale installations by both established and emerging artists, Unnerved engages with New Zealand’s changing social, political and cultural landscape as the country navigates its indigenous settler and migrant histories. These works explore a changing sense of place, the continued importance of contemporary Maori art, biculturalism, a complex colonial past, the creative reworking of memory, and the often interconnected mediums of performance, photography and video. If the vision is unsettling, it is also compelling and Unnerved: The New Zealand Project offers us new ways of seeing one of our closest neighbours.

This fascinating exhibition explores a rich and dark vein found in contemporary art in New Zealand, drawing on the disquieting aspects of New Zealand’s history and culture reflected through more than 100 works of art.

Jane Devery, Coordinating Curator, NGV said: “The works presented in Unnerved reveal a darkness and distinctive edginess that characterises this particular trend in New Zealand contemporary art. The psychological or physical unease underlying many works in the exhibitions is addressed with humour, parody and poetic subtlety.

The exhibition reflects the strength and vitality of contemporary art in New Zealand with works created by both established and emerging artists, across a range of mediums including painting, photography, sculpture, installation, drawing, film and video.

Unnerved engages with New Zealand’s changing social, political and cultural landscape, exploring a shifting sense of place, complex colonial past, the relationships between contemporary Māori, Pacific Islander and pakeha (non-indigenous) culture, and the interplay between performance, video and photography,” said Ms Devery.

A highlight of the exhibition is a group of sculptural works by Michael Parekowhai including his giant inflatable rabbit, Cosmo McMurtry, which will greet visitors to the exhibition, and a spectacular life-size seal balancing a grand piano on its nose titled The Horn of Africa. Also on display are a series of haunting photographs by Yvonne Todd, whose portrait photography often refers to B-grade films and pulp fiction novels.

Gerard Vaughan, Director, NGV said this exhibition demonstrates the NGV’s strong commitment to interesting and challenging contemporary art secured from around the world; he noted that the NGV has made a special commitment to exhibition the contemporary art of our region.

Unnerved will introduce visitors to the rich contemporary arts scene of one of our closest neighbours, fascinating audiences with works ranging from the life size installations by Parekowhai through to the spectacular 30 metre photographic essay by Gavin Hipkins. This truly is a must see show this summer!” said Dr Vaughan.

Unnerved will also offer a strong and engaging collection of contemporary sculpture, installations, drawings, paintings, photography, film and video art by artists including Lisa Reihana, John Pule, Gavin Hipkins, Anne Noble, Ronnie van Hout, Shane Cotton, Julian Hooper and many others.

Press release from the National Gallery of Victoria website


Michael Parekowhai Ngāti Whakarongo 'The Horn of Africa' 2006


Michael Parekowhai (Ngāti Whakarongo New Zealander, b. 1968)
The Horn of Africa
Automotive paint, wood, fibreglass, steel, brass
395.0 x 200.0 x 260.0 cm
Queensland Art Gallery, Brisbane
Purchased 2008 with funds from the Queensland Government’s Gallery of Modern Art Acquisitions Fund in recognition of the contribution to the Gallery by Wayne Goss (Chair of Trustees 1999-2008)
© Michael Parekowhai


Michael Parekowhai. 'Cosmo McMurtry' 2006


Michael Parekowhai (Ngāti Whakarongo New Zealander, b. 1968)
Cosmo McMurtry
Synthetic polymer paint on polyvinyl chloride, fibreglass, air compressor
734.3 x 506.4 x 739.1cm (variable)
Presented by the Melbourne Art Fair Foundation with the assistance of funds donated by NGV Contemporary, 2006
National Gallery of Victoria
© Michael Parekowhai


Gavin Hipkins. 'Christchurch (Mask)' 1998


Gavin Hipkins (New Zealander, b. 1968)
Christchurch (Mask)
From The homely series 1997-2000
Type C photograph
60.0 x 40.0 cm
Queensland Art Gallery, Brisbane Purchased 2008. The Queensland Government’s Gallery of Modern Art Acquisitions Fund
© Gavin Hipkins


Fiona Pardington Kai Tahu, Kati Mamoe, Kati Waewae 'Sweet Kiwi, from the collection 'Whanganui Museum'' 2008


Fiona Pardington (Kai Tahu, Kati Mamoe, Kati Waewae New Zealander, b. 1961)
Sweet Kiwi, from the collection ‘Whanganui Museum’
Gold-toned gelatin silver photograph
61.0 x 50.8 cm
Queensland Art Gallery, Brisbane
Purchased 2008 with funds from Gina Fairfax through the Queensland Art Gallery Foundation
© Fiona Pardington


Max Gimblett. 'Balls' 1990-97


Max Gimblett (New Zealander/American, b. 1935)
Brush and ink, synthetic polymer paint and pencil on handmade paper
59.8 x 79.3 cm
Queensland Art Gallery, Brisbane
The Max Gimblett Gift.
Gift of the artist through the Queensland Art Gallery Foundation 2000
© Max Gimblett


Anne Noble. 'Ruby's room no. 6' 1999


Anne Noble (New Zealander, b. 1954)
Ruby’s room no. 6
Colour digital print
67.0 x 100.2 cm
Queensland Art Gallery, Brisbane
Purchased 2006
© Anne Noble



NGV International
180 St Kilda Road

Opening hours
Daily 10am – 5pm

National Gallery of Victoria website


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Dr Marcus Bunyan

Dr Marcus Bunyan is an Australian artist and writer. His art work explores the boundaries of identity and place. He writes Art Blart, a photographic archive and form of cultural memory, which posts mainly photography exhibitions from around the world. He holds a Dr of Philosophy from RMIT University, Melbourne, a Master of Arts (Fine Art Photography) from RMIT University, and a Master of Art Curatorship from the University of Melbourne.

Marcus Bunyan black and white archive: ‘Orphans and small groups’ 1994-96 Part 2

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