Keynote Speech | On Artists and Other Tourists


MAK – Austrian Museum of Applied Arts / Contemporary Art, Vienna
November 17–19, 2013

Marcus Verhagen

What theoretical and practical affiliations might an artist choose to have when working far from his or her home, as an artist-in-residence for instance? This is a topical question: after all, many artists today travel constantly, not just to take up residencies but also to study and teach, to carry out research, to participate in shows and biennials. These artists, certainly those who take part in residency programmes and biennials, are often under pressure to make site-specific work. Many are chosen precisely because they have in the past made works to site-specific briefs. But their responses to particular sites are bound to be inflected by their own travels and in responding to new places while also reflecting on their own movements, artist-nomads today are both evolving new forms of site specificity and commenting on the wider implications of travel today.

In travelling, artists are implicitly or explicitly drawing parallels between their movements and those of other travellers. Pierre Huyghe has taken on the role of the explorer, Barthélémy Toguo has performed the part of the illegal migrant, Emily Jacir has played the visitor and the go-between, other artists have aligned themselves with globe-trotting businessmen, ethnographers, refugees, tour guides and translators. And some have identified their displacements with the travels of the tourist. On the face of it, this is an obvious manoeuvre: most of us are tourists at one point or another. And in using taxis, cafés, hotels, wifi connections and other such amenities, travelling artists are in any case shadowing the tourist. So it comes as little surprise that artists have alluded to the cultural underpinnings, infrastructures and paraphernalia of tourism while elaborating on their own movements. One such is Adrian Esparza, whose installation for the 2011 Istanbul Biennial, Far and Wide, incorporated two souvenirs, an old panorama of Istanbul, produced for visitors in 1920, and a serape, a Mexican blanket; he unravelled the serape and used the thread to recreate the panorama in a mural-sized, geometric design. This is an example of a work in which site-specificity is reconsidered in connection with the artist’s mobility. Esparza refers not just to Istanbul as a tourist destination but also to his origins as a Mexican American, suggesting in the process that the stable cultural configurations that souvenirs are taken to represent are illusory at a time of increased travel and inter-cultural communications.

To underline the affinity of the travelling artist with the tourist, as Esparza does, is a natural ploy. Yet given the prevailing view of tourism, it is also contentious, even faintly perverse.

“Tourism is the march of stupidity.” So wrote Don DeLillo in 1982, starkly expressing a view that has been put forward many times, before and since. The bumbling tourist has long been a staple of comic fiction, doing duty for instance in Mark Twain’s The Innocents Abroad (1869), in Jerome K. Jerome’s Three Men in a Boat (1889) and more recently in the travelogues of Redmond O’Hanlon. The crowd of tourists proceeding mindlessly from sight to sight is another common literary image, one that is rehearsed in Raymond Queneau’s Zazie dans le métro when, at the foot of the Eiffel Tower, Zazie’s uncle is adopted by a group of tourists who mistake him for a guide and then follow him, open-mouthed and uncomprehending, across Paris. The same view of tourism is occasionally expressed in an openly discriminatory key, American tourists coming in for particularly harsh treatment, as they do for instance in Nicolas Bouvier’s Chronique Japonaise when the author describes “three mature American women, solidly kitted out in hats and corsets and equipped with cameras — of the kind that can digest a dozen temples and one or two imperial residencies in a day without even feeling bloated.” Tourists are routinely compared to sheep, geese, pigeons and flies—they don’t walk or gather, they “flock” and they “swarm” — and their appearance in a given location is regularly described as an irruption or an invasion.They are also often andunfavourably compared with other travellers, as they are for instance in John Buchan’s thriller The Three Hostages, in which a hunting companion to the hero speaks of tourists as “blatant and foolish and abundantly discourteous,” unlike mountaineers, who get on with their climbing quietly, without frightening the deer away. This literary critique of tourism has received academic sanction in the work of the conservative historian Daniel Boorstin, who stresses the superficiality and inauthenticity of the tourist’s experiences, contrasting him or her unfavourably with the adventurous traveller of earlier times. And this critique has a certain currency in the art world. The Gervasuti Foundation in Venice is planning to install a plaque which will read, in English and with a full complement of exclamation marks, “Tourists Not Allowed!!! Real Travellers and Native Venetians Only.” The text has already appeared in advertisements.

Contemporary artists have also disparaged the tourist. The photographer Martin Parr has made a career of it, picturing tourists, many of them sunburnt and inappropriately dressed, as they follow guides, buy souvenirs and take pictures of one another in various locations around the world, often looking lost and harassed. Olaf Breuning adopts a more corrosive comedic tone in his videos Home I (2004) and Home II (2007), which follow the travels of an inanely enthusiastic young American, played by Brian Kerstetter, who takes part in a tribal dance in Papua New Guinea, distributes bananas in a market in Ghana and wears a Pokemon mask in Tokyo. Wherever he goes, Breuning’s tourist is keen to immerse himself in local society but his understanding of it is largely conditioned by Hollywood films and travel guides and his encounters are, as a result, painfully one-sided. “Look at this,” he intones as he surveys a Papuan village in Home II, “… it looks just like a remake of a Disney film — it’s that real, I feel I want to go up and touch it.” The tourist makes a handy buffoon and plainly appeals to artists who are given to satire, like Parr, Breuning and, before them, Martin Kippenberger, who travelled extensively and liked to picture himself as a tourist.

Other artists have worked to reinfuse travel with glamour, occasionally drawing parallels between their own trips and the eighteenth-century Grand Tour or the travels of the Romantics. For his Fullmoon series (1998- ), for instance, Darren Almond has taken photographs in remote locations such as the island of Rügen in the Baltic Sea and the Huangshan Mountains in Eastern China, working in the middle of the night with extremely long exposures to create images that would look like daytime photographs, were it not for the chalky quality of the light. They recall the Alpine scenes and seascapes of J.M.W. Turner in their grandeur and occasionally vertiginous perspectives and the landscapes of Caspar David Friedrich, who also worked at Rügen, in their pregnant, otherworldly air. But in affiliating himself with the Romantic artist, Almond is operating an elision, turning popular tourist destinations into virgin territories in photographs that are carefully framed to exclude all signs of tourism; no paths or cable cars, beach huts, viewing platforms or roads are visible (in this the images resemble upmarket postcards). Aligning the sublime landscape with the sublime reach of the camera, Almond casts himself as a traveller-seer who is, in his encounters with the natural world, recovering something of the wonder that motivated the Romantic, a wonder that can plainly be secured only through the effacement of the tourist. Indeed the Romantic, as he is implicitly understood here, is the antithesis of the tourist: he is solitary where the tourist is commonly seen, by Parr for instance, as a pack animal and his gaze is lingering and awed where the tourist’s is, if you believe Boorstin, glancing and distracted. The Fullmoon series is completely unlike Breuning’s work in temper — it could hardly be more different — but underlying it is a similar assessment of tourism.

The Romantic is seen by Almond as an anti-tourist but he can also be seen as a proto-tourist. That is the view of the German essayist Hans Magnus Enzensberger, who, in his penetrating text “A Theory of Tourism,” argues that the tourist, travelling for pleasure and not for gain, emerged under the twin impulsions of the French Revolution, which brought a longing for new freedoms, and Romanticism, which harnessed that longing in images of faraway places. For Enzensberger, tourism then advanced in step with industrial capitalism. So for instance the British rail network, which underwent massive development in the 1830s and 1840s, apparently offered a means of escaping the landscape of industrialism, but it also extended the reach of industrial society and so undermined the very possibilities it seemed to open up. The connection between tourism and the workplace became tighter still with the rise of the package tour as companies like Thomas Cook achieved economies of scale by rationalising travel and subjecting tourists to schedules and routines. In Enzensberger’s view, tourism, which is “always outrun by its refutation,” necessarily leaves the hopes of the tourist unfulfilled. So the tourist is bound to reject tourism and that rejection becomes the principal motor that drives the tourist industry as it colonises new regions and activities. What Breuning and Almond fail to appreciate is that the critiques of tourism that are articulated in their works are themselves a fundamental part of tourism. Indeed, they are also implicit in the many travel brochures and guide books that advise the tourist to “get off the beaten track” and “avoid the tourist traps.”

Enzensberger teaches that we would do well, before dismissing the tourist, to consider his or her motives. The writer admires the “blind and inarticulate rebellion” that pushes the modern tourist to travel, seeing in it a distant echo of the revolutionary quest that lies, in his analysis, at the historical root of tourism. You could say, paraphrasing him, that tourism springs from a utopian impulse which is directed along a spatial axis rather than a temporal one and that, as a pattern of consumption, it unavoidably defeats that impulse.

With the rise in global trade following the crises of the 1970s and the development of budget travel in the 1980s and 90s, Enzensberger’s account has become, if anything, more relevant. Today tourism is the world’s largest service sector industry and, with some 982 million tourist arrivals in 2011, it continues to grow, despite the current economic slowdown. It is a potent instance of the expansion in global trade and a catalyst for other forms of trade and exchange. Tourism is also, for many, a particularly tangible and familiar mode of insertion into global economic circuits; and as such it carries a powerful symbolic charge. So Enzensberger’s analysis may turn out to shed light not just on the structural dynamics of tourism but also, indirectly, on the workings of global exchange and on the efforts of artists to examine them.

Among the more compelling works on travel today are those of Peter Fischli and David Weiss, who treat tourism with a scepticism that is tinged with sympathy and so recall Enzensberger’s similarly equivocal analysis. They have for years commented on their movements in works such as their airport photographs, but their most sustained meditation on tourism is Visible World (1987-2000), which consists of 3000 photographs, displayed as transparencies on 15 lightbox-tables. Here we see shots of canyons and glaciers, Japanese gardens and palm-fringed swimming pools, desert oases and metropolitan skylines. The photographs are organised in clusters, with sunsets here and pyramids there, like snapshots in a holiday album. And many are highly seductive; the enthusiasm of the traveller is readable in the sharpness of the details and in the bright, saturated colours. If you compare these photographs with their images of a Zurich suburb (Siedlungen, Agglomeration, 1993), which quietly highlight the area’s neatness and drabness, the allure of travel is palpable.

But Visible World also testifies to its disappointments. The work uses the format of the snapshot to convey a spontaneous interest but that sense of spontaneity is largely undone by the lightbox-tables, which resemble museum display cases and so ironically counter the wonder and freedom of the tourist with the rigour of the conservator. And on closer examination many of the photographs look more like postcards than snapshots; the compositions are too lucid, their organisation of points of interest is too knowing. The implication is that the photographs are both snapshots and postcards; or rather, that they are snapshots modelled on postcards. As Mark Godfrey has put it, the artists “quote what is already a quotation and so demonstrate the banality of tourist photography.” In engineering this slippage between the traditions of the postcard and snapshot, the artists are hinting that the experience of the tourist is shaped by conflicting impulsions: by the appeal of discovery, of course, but also by the pull of familiarity and repetition. Indeed they are suggesting — and in this their assessment echoes Enzensberger’s — that these needs are bound together, that the contradiction between them is the source both of the tourist’s disappointment and of his or her continuing yen to travel. The sheer number of images here suggests that the tourist’s work is never done; as the title has it, he or she is driven to explore and capture the whole of the “visible world,” a never-ending and absurd task. But the extent of the piece also has a flattening effect. As the viewer examines image after image, the curiosity and pleasure that the first few provoke are quickly dispelled. Enzensberger points out that the life-affirming purposelessness of modern travel is undone by the sight which has to be visited (as the classic phrase goes, it “can’t be missed”) and hypothesises that this need to fulfil a duty is a sign of the tourist’s guilt at having temporarily escaped the constraints of his or her society. This process is captured in Visible World, which, by presenting a surfeit of images, turns a pleasure into a duty.       

A similarly nuanced perspective is put forward by Francis Alÿs, who regularly behaves like a tourist in his walk-based pieces, using the element of chance in the walks as a means of reasserting the connection between displacement and freedom, as he does in Railings (2005). In this video piece, we see him beating a rhythm with a stick on railings in London, paradoxically turning a safeguard and symbol of property into a prop in a liberating exercise in aimless exploration. Alÿs addressed tourism more squarely and jarringly in an earlier work, Turista (1994), an action in which he stood in the Zócalo, the large square in the centre of Mexico City, offering his services as a tourist alongside plumbers, carpenters and other artisans seeking work. Just as they used signs to advertise their professions, so he had a sign with the inscription “Turista,” which also obliquely referred to his primary role as an artist inasmuch as it resembled a painting. In this work, he acted as a frivolous, voyeuristic interloper, turning the senseless old saw about the industrious North and indolent South on its head. The work was, in other words, founded on what Dean MacCannell, in his influential study The Tourist (1976), called “touristic shame”; that is to say, it apparently derived from, and prompted in the viewer, a pained awareness of the tourist’s tendency to misapprehend his or her surroundings and misread local ways.

In Turista as in other pieces, Alÿs uses his gangling frame for comic effect but it also serves to drive home the anomalous character of his intervention and the ambivalence that stands at the core of the work. On the one hand, his incongruous appearance works as a metaphor for the asymmetries of global development. In this work as in later pieces, including Railings, Alÿs takes pleasure in the idleness of the tourist, which he seems to associate with the life-affirming impracticality — the non-utilitarian vocation — of the artwork. But in establishing a highly dubious connection between the leisure of the tourist and the unwanted idleness of the jobbing artisan, he is reminding us that the first is a privilege, that travel visas are easily obtained by the holders of some passports and not by the holders of others. Crucially, he is also reminding us that travel is economically feasible to some in part because they have benefitted more than others from the processes of globalisation. Those processes rest on vast geographical disparities in the cost of labour and in access to capital and technology; and these disparities are clearly underscored in the work by the professions of the artisans, some of which have all but disappeared in the West. In Alÿs’s action, the touristic shame of the visitor illuminates his privilege and, by extension, the structural economic imbalances that underlie it. On the other hand, the artist’s presence in the Zócalo can clearly also be read as an indication of his wish to enter into dialogue with the workers around him. The visitor’s longing for contact is of course easily mocked; Breuning, for instance, pictures the tourist as realising grotesquely condescending fantasies by introducing the men and women he meets on his travels to the camera and then speaking for them. Alÿs seems less inclined to view the tourist’s motives as irredeemably exploitative and his chances of engagement as foreclosed, his painted sign alluding to the artisanal basis of the painter’s work and so hinting at the solidarity that might exist between himself and the men around him. Viewed in this light, his touristic shame is the price he has to pay for the chance to forge new connections and so a sign of the value he attaches to them.

With the help of the tourist, Alÿs presents global exchange not as the seamless, prosperity-bringing traffic of neo-liberal myth but as a set of processes that are complex, fraught and uneven. The tourist is useful to Alÿs and comical to Breuning for precisely the same reasons: it is because he is apparently naive and prone to misunderstanding that he serves as such a potent tool in Alÿs’s efforts to examine the differential effects of globalisation. But for Alÿs as for Fischli and Weiss, this naivety is only part of the story. Like Enzensberger, these artists also see in the tourist’s Wanderlust a “blind and inarticulate rebellion.” Tourists do not deserve the contempt in which they are held by writers like Boorstin and artists like Breuning. Not only is tourism driven by a longing for freedom from the present order of society; it is also the expression of a wish for contact that can be understood as the germ of an alter-globalisation, a pattern of exchange that would be grounded in social and cultural connections rather than in open markets. It is because the tourist travels back and forth along an axis that connects the inequities and imaginable benefits of globalisation that tourism has become a resonant issue in contemporary art.

Clearly, this exploratory connection with the tourist also has repercussions for the conceptualisation of site-specificity. The travelling artist who adopts the part of the tourist is in a position to refashion site-specificity in the light of his or her own movements and so to view the site not as a self-contained given (a location, an institution, a stable set of concerns) but as a nexus that is continually criss-crossed and reconfigured by various flows, including streams of visitors. Today such an understanding of site is particularly helpful. The alternative, after all, is for the artist to present him or herself, as Darren Almond does for instance, as the “real traveller” of the Gervasuti sign, that is to say, as a tourist who refuses to identify with other tourists and is therefore blind to all but the most private implications of his or her movements. Of course, taking on the part of the tourist exposes the artist to ridicule and disappointment, as Alÿs and Fischli and Weiss appreciate. But that is surely a fair price to pay for a privileged and potently ambiguous perspective on globalisation and on the place of place in the cultural landscape of today.


MARCUS VERHAGEN (PhD in Art History, University of California, Berkeley; BA, Cambridge University) writes on a regular basis for Art Monthly and has published in several periodicals, including Representations, New Left Review, Third Text and Afterall.

[1]This is an extended version of an article that was originally published as “(Art) Tourism” in the July/August 2012 issue of Art Monthly.
[2] Don DeLillo, The Names, Knopf, New York, 1982, p. 43
[3] Raymond Queneau, Zazie dans le metro, Gallimard, Paris, 2008 (1959), pp. 116-213
[4] Nicolas Bouvier, Chronique japonaise, Payot, Paris, 2001, p. 41 (my translation)
[5] John Buchan, The Complete Richard Hannay, Penguin, London, 1993, p. 905
[6]Daniel Boorstin, The Image: A Guide to Pseudo-Events in America, Athenaeum, New York, 1962
[7] It can be found in the Summer 2013 issue of ArtReview.
[8]Hans Magnus Enzensberger, “A Theory of Tourism”, New German Critique, Spring/Summer 1996, pp. 117-135. The article was originally published in German in 1958.
[9] Ibid, p. 126
[10]Ibid, p. 135
[11] “International Tourism Receipts Surpass $1 Trillion in 2011”, World Tourism Organisation (UNWTO) press release, [accessed 14.3.14
[12] Mark Godfrey, “Visible World”, Fischli Weiss; Flowers and Questions—A Retrospective, Tate Modern, 2006, p. 280
[13]Dean MacCannell, The Tourist, University of California Press, Berkeley, Los Angeles and London, 1999, p. 10 et passim