Recently I had the displeasure of attending a show by a white Australian artist developed during a residency overseas. The video dealt with some micro history as seen through a totalizing Western worldview, putting forth a theme that sounded like a disturbing documentary but looked like a bad tourist video. It was evident that most people in the audience lacked the language, knowledge or context to understand the cultural practices on display, yet the crowd seemed insatiable. Tirelessly stuffing their eye sockets in a grotesque spectacle of cultural gluttony.

However, if the artist had been a migrant, the same feast would have arguably been met with its share of smirks. A large portion of the audience would have turned into a condescending mob moaning about their alienation, complaining with a great sense of entitlement about their inability to relate to this foreign figure and the impossibility of comprehending why such a show is exhibited in Australia. The rest would have probably enacted a circus of curiosity, pestering the artist with un-welcomed holiday musings (“I went overseas last year and...”). Oh, and there are always the micro racists that resent the artist because they believe that they are playing up to their exoticism (without acknowledging, of course, the predictability and obviousness that is at play in their own unmarked practice). The bright side is that at least a few would still engage with the artist as an artist: evaluating their work in relation to a broader history of art and theoretical ideas. In other terms, employing the codes of contemporary art rather than those of neo-colonialism. It remains unfortunate, nonetheless, how audiences tend to retreat to a simpler space in the face of ethnic markers. Where they search for myths that can turn difference into exoticism and thus, tame unfamiliarity. The Pauline-Hanson area of the brain where prejudice, essentialism and an unapologetic retro-racial view runs rampant. But why do these supposedly ‘cultured people’ slip so easily into small-village mode?

Art theory may provide us with some cues. In “The Syncretic Turn: Cross-Cultural Practices in the Age of Multiculturalism” (1996), Jean Fisher argues that these readings share an impulse to understand non-Western art solely in terms of its cultural “origin”. These interpretations are limiting, as they reduce arts practice to “a sub-category of sociology or anthropology, diminishing its aesthetic or critical efficacy”.[1] Moreover, in my opinion, the viewer is more likely to make recourse to superfluous and populist notions of cultural identity rather than digested forms of knowledge – cheapening discourse to a ‘kitchen table’ conversation. The end result is a negation of the artwork’s constitution (form, content and context) and an overall flattening of its meaning. Fisher pin points ethnic markers as the triggers for this mode of engagement, particularly when they are abundant in the work. To negotiate this injurious reading practice, she proposes a methodology based on syncretism. Which the art critic defines as a form of “resistance”, a “masquerade, where the alien sign is used to disguise the meaning of the repressed referent”.[2] Here, the signifier retains its indigenousness while the sign adopts the language of dominant culture. Allowing the artist to participate in the contemporary art world without conjuring a fixed ethnic framework.

What Fisher’s text fails to recognize, however, is that syncretism is also often perversely empty. Indeed, the syncretism that we find in contemporary art is generally corrupted because it requires a tokenism to be legible – a reference to widely known customs, artifacts or modernist fetishes. Art that attempts to articulate a repressed pre-colonial character through Western semiotics often fails to admit that its form (the colonial sign) is continually exceeding and consuming its content (the colonized referent). What we are looking at is not an “alien sign” that hides a “repressed referent”, but a simulacrum that conceals its nothingness.

The absence of ethnicity from signs that pretend to signify it informs the production of Postcard eXotica. Postcard eXotica is a 30min video that was developed in Melbourne, Australia, by producing a non-linear script based on a selection of 10 vintage postcards of ethnic types photographed mostly by Americans. The postcards appropriated in this work are of interest as they were produced circa The Mexican Revolution (1910-1920). An event that provoked great curiosity in America and thus attracted many photographers and entrepreneurs that exploited the Mexican battle for their financial gain. These images later served as a reference point for Hollywood productions, cartoons and advertisements that eventually gave form to the Mexican stereotype known to us today (violent, lazy, criminal and hypersexual). The final script extends this sense of cross-pollination by incorporating references from popular culture that evoke the idea of the “Mexican” to varying degrees, such as the Mexican standoff in Quentin Tarantino’s Reservoir Dogs (1992) and the bigoted media personality of Donald Trump.

Even though these pastiches emerged in a stream of consciousness manner, a deliberate effort was made to avoid anything that carried ‘true’ ethnic depth. In other words, Postcard eXotica represents cultural identity through the lens of other cultures. My experience migrating to Australia accounts for my interest in this slippage, as it has made me aware of the pathological inability in the West to recognize the difference between representation and reality in matters of ethnicity and race. To further negate any sense of authenticity or realness in the work, the performances were delegated to non-Mexican actors of eclectic backgrounds residing in Melbourne (including Middle Easters, Asians, Australians and South Americans). Thus, the overall aim in Postcard eXotica was to script a network of signs without a referent, where each sign would refer to the next without ever arriving to reality.

This field of emptiness proved confusing to some audience members during the first screening of the work, which took place at ACMI on the 14 of September 2016 followed by a Q&A. The latter lasted for 30min and allowed me to gain insight into the reception of the work. Even though I admit that my perception might be clouded by bitterness, I sensed instances in which I was expected to perform a diplomatic rather than an artistic role (the image of a caricature proclaiming “I present to you the songs and stories of my people” comes to mind). Perhaps this is the inherent downfall of dealing with cultural identity, as one becomes a character in a postcard, a synecdoche of country. The work is evaluated, as Jean Fisher explains, solely in terms of its cultural origin.

This became particularly evident when one audience member expressed confusion about a close-up scene of a tattoo on an actor’s forehead which reads ‘Guatemala’. They seemed even more confused when I replied that none of the actors were Mexican and that performer just happened to be from Guatemala (the tattoo was real and his own). I proceeded to explain that my casting choices were guided by the idea that images such as the original postcards could be staged by hiring subjects that just happened to be brown, regardless of their actual ethnicity or race, and scenes such as that one, were meant to announce to the viewer that the actors were in fact simulating an identity on screen. I encountered another odd example of this tendency to confuse representation with reality days later, when I was conversing with a colleague who was in the audience who asked me in what part of Mexico the video was shot – even though the content of the video takes place in a photographic studio and its location in Melbourne is credited at the end of the film (plus I have resided in Melbourne for almost a decade now, which makes filming overseas rather improbable).

These encounters inevitably provoked an art school regression that landed on Jean Baudrillard’s account of the hyperreal. In Simulacra and Simulations (1981), Baudrillard theorizes a society that has lost the capacity to discern the distinction “between the real and the imaginary”.[3] He coins the term “hyperreal” to describe this condition, where reality is realized by simulations rather than itself. This occurs when a copy resembles an original to the point in which it becomes its own original – a simulacrum. At this stage, the image needs to develop a new reality outside itself to keep functioning, however, since the simulacrum is now as real as reality, it simulates an enhanced version: a hyperreality.

Baudrillard, so sci-fi indeed, also posits that simulacra conceal the absence of the real by producing a binary opposite that validates its own simulation. For instance, in The Precession of Simulacra, Baudrillard provides the example of Disney as an entity that is more unreal than America and consequently, makes the country appear more real. However, in the words of art historian Rex Butler, it is important to note that simulation is not “simply a form of illusion, the replacement of the world by its image”.[4] Rather, it is an account of how society conjures meaning through signs. Simulation and simulacra are concepts that are rather applicable to ethnic stereotypes, as what we call a stereotype is often a copy that has transformed into a simulacrum, which is apparent by how difficult it is to identify a single instance in which a stereotypical image originates. Yet, they are also misinterpreted as accurate or essential depictions of the people they represent. And in fact, produce a predetermined way of perceiving these Others.

The concept of the hyperreal is also linked by Baudrillard to nihilism. He states this explicitly in a chapter titled On Nihilism in Simulacra and Simulations, where he (almost comically) declares himself a nihilist. Nihilism, from the Latin word nihil (nothing), is a complex philosophical condition that would ideally require a lengthy definition. However, it suffices to explain that it is a concept most commonly understood through the writings of Friedrich Nietzsche. In The Banalization of Nihilism (1992), Karen L. Carr summarizes Nietzsche’s approach to nihilism as a crisis of interpretation, which manifests as a negation, an absence or a multiplicity of meaning.[5] It is a process of devaluation, in which life appears futile and essential Christian concepts, such as morality, are debased of significance. Even though the impossibility of truth might appear commonplace at present, it represented an intellectual cataclysm for Nietzsche in the 19th century.

Thus, Nietzsche’s philosophy formulates nihilism as a disease linked to Christian thought. The anguished philosopher sees it as a logical extension of Christianity’s structuring of ‘truth’, since it positions the physical world as a secondary realm subjugated to heaven – a world meant to be more meaningful than the ‘real’. In other words, it devaluates the present moment in favor of an imagined future that lies beyond death. The will to truth taught by Christianity, as Nietzsche puts it, inevitably exposes its own teachings as mythologies. This realization is destined to cause a crisis in the Christian mind, since life is originally taught to be lived at the service of heaven. Without the possibility of this realm, the post-Christian world becomes meaningless and futile.

Nietzsche identifies two responses to this conditions: passive and active nihilism. The former surrenders while the latter seeks to create new values through the destruction of Christian knowledge. Nietzsche professed a form of active nihilism by carrying the allegory of a sickness to its fullest. Arguing that the immune system can either die or strengthen by overcoming a disease, and so nihilism could in fact produce a stronger character by its own virulent logic.  

The concept of nihilism may initially seem at odds with postcolonial thinking, however, it complements some important aspects of the colonial experience. To proceed any further we must first understand that nihilism is a phenomenon linked to Western philosophy, therefore, subscribing to it unfortunately entails the prolongation of Western knowledge as an authoritative voice. In addition, the devaluation of morality (an important Nietzcheism) betrays the overall mission of postcolonialism, which in many respects exists as a response to the injustices of the colonial enterprise. Nevertheless, the shattering of the world as we expect it to be resonates deeply with the legacies of colonialism. For example, when a corrupt government orders the military to disappear its citizens, there is no why that can absolve such event. This is simply one more manifestation of the black hole that sits at the center of the postcolonial galaxy. One can either surrender (passive nihilism) or resist (active nihilism) its pull, but its event horizon (point of no return) remains a palpable threat.

Returning to Baudrillard we can appreciate how, unlike Nietzsche, he exercises a form of passive nihilism, as he observes but never resolves his pessimistic theorization of postmodernity. His notion of hyperreality also corrupts interpretation (blurring the lines between the real and the image), and requires the obliteration of meaning (the real) to take place. For Ashley Woodward, author of Nihilism in Postmodernity (2009), the absence of referents in simulacra causes an additional hyper-relativism of sorts, where it becomes pointless to erect systems of value since structures of knowledge are predicated by simulations – leading to an “impossibility of knowledge”.[6] More broadly, there is a palpable amoral approach to Jean Baudrillard’s writing that becomes evident when he devalues human life. His treatise on the Gulf War, The Gulf War Did Not Take Place (1995), is a prime example of the perversity that permeates his musings, as he puts forth the war as a non-event even though there were a great number of victims.

Postcard eXotica conceives similarly of The Mexican Revolution, glossing over the destitute quality of many of the original postcards it appropriates. A sense of sympathetic humanism is absent because these ‘people’ are effectively unreal, as the postcards produced in America circa The Mexican Revolution were often produced by entrepreneurs, rather than photographers or ethnographers. In Border Fury: A Picture Postcard Record of Mexico’s Revolution and U.S. War Preparedness, 1910-1917, authors Paul Vanderwood and Frank Samponaro delve into the case of Walter Horne, a postcard photographer that exemplifies this nihilistic practice. Horne was an entrepreneur who entered the postcard business in El Paso, Texas in 1911 after a series of unsuccessful business ventures. He began photographing border troops and selling the postcards back to the soldiers who were eager to share their experiences with friends and relatives. His fortune changed when he began to capture scenes from the Mexican Revolution’s battle line – a struggle that held wide popular interest in the States.

Even though Walter Horne dedicated the last two decades of his life to postcard photography, Vanderwood and Samponaro claim that he was uninterested in the medium itself or even the Revolution. As stated by the authors, there “is no suggestion that he had the slightest interest in the Mexican Revolution or its international political ramifications, except as they related to his business”.[7] This indifference could account for Horne’s tendency to represent Mexican types in morbid scenarios (namely hangings, executions and battlefields). The authors of Border Fury, in fact, explain that his predilection for shocking footage owes to the fact that “customers preferred images of combat and death” and they were among his best-selling photographs.[8] Unfortunately, postcards in the early 20th century held the veracity of news, and photographs such as those captured by Horne, were taken as a reflection, rather than a production, of reality.

Today, these nameless postcard creatures stand as specters of American greed. Conjured by nefarious entrepreneurs who were indifferent to the political dimension of their subject matter, these hideous things followed the Western Gaze like a script. Where they found the commands that brought forth their physiognomy, costume and body language. The result is a silent horror film populated by bad actors who appear to be terrorized by the camera lens. Even though the grim is convincing, like The Gulf War, The Mexican Revolution did not take place. Mexico does not exist either, it is just another imperial delusion validated by the neurotic production of patronizing imagery. A phantasmagoria that travelled as far as the outer rim of the Western world. Indeed, picture a ‘Mexican’ Australia, and I bet you will see something dreadful and loathsomely close to an American postcard.

[1] Fisher, Jean. “The Syncretic Turn: Cross-Cultural Practices in the Age of Multiculturalism”, Theory in Contemporary Art Since 1985, edited by Zoya Kocur and Simon Leung, Wiley-Blackwell, 2012, pp. 332.

[2] pp. 333.

[3] Baudrillard, Jean. Simulacra and Simulations. University of Michigan Press, 1994, pp. 167.

[4] Butler, Rex. Jean Baudrillard: The Defence of the Real. Sage Publications, 1999, pp.23.

[5] Carr, Karen. The Banalization of Nihilism: Twentieth-century Responses to Meaninglessness. State University of New York Press, 1992, pp. 25-29.

[6] Woodward, Ashley. Nihilism in Postmodernity: Lyotard, Baudrillard, Vattimo. Davies Group Publishers, 2009, pp. 97.

[7] Vanderwood, Paul and Frank Samponaro. Border Fury: A Picture Postcard Record of Mexico’s Revolution and U.S. War Preparedness, 1910-1917. University of New Mexico Press, 1988, pp. 74.

[8] pp. 82.