On October 6, 2016, “Elsewhere Is a Negative Mirror” opened as part of a yearlong program organized by The Photography Diaries. I organized the show, along with my co-curator, Daniel Pateman. Originally inspired by the shock of Brexit and corresponding xenophobic, nativist currents in U.S. and European politics, Elsewhere Is a Negative Mirror features the work of eight international artists who responded to the set theme of Borders. Each photographer explores boundaries in the midst of a reconfiguration, provoking a reconciliation with the limits at which one defines identity, homeland, and ontological frameworks.
The exhibition title comes from a dialogue between the Venetian merchant Marco Polo and Mongol Emperor Kublai Khan in Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities (1972), and speaks to the way communities define themselves in opposition to other people. Polo, an exile—albeit a voluntary one—tells Kublai of a peculiar sensation: the recognition of oneself in the otherness of those who live beyond the border. Coming upon daily life within an unfamiliar city, Polo recounts that “the traveler finds again a past of his that he did not know he had: the foreignness of what you no longer are or no longer possess lies in wait for you in foreign, unpossessed places.”
To this, Kublai responds that travel brings one into contact with one’s past, one’s possible futures, and all the presents that could have been. “Elsewhere is a negative mirror,” Polo says. “The traveler recognizes the little that is his, discovering much he has not had and will never have.”
These photographs, like negative mirrors, show what is familiar in unfamiliar places. In them, one finds home in a world that has been divided into parts—conquered, nationalized, and quantified—its distinctions marked by thresholds that have only the illusion of inviolability.