Exhibiti view: Urban Creatures 2006, Pori Art Museum, Pori, Finland (catalogue)

Semiotics of a Migrant Man Located in Germany

Doris Berger

Prologue: We see the image of a man, standing in front of the wall of a house. To the left of him it is possible to make out part of a barred basement window. The man wears a dark suit and a light shirt, and he is carefully shaven. But the trouser-legs of the suit are a little too short for the wearer’s body. The man is holding a light blue suitcase in his left hand, and he extends his right - holding a blossoming red rose - towards the viewers. His expression is serious and reserved.

On the one hand, in Shahram Entekhabi’s video work “Flower” (2004) this image is a painting measuring 210 x 300 cm, but it is also a projection surface in various senses of the expression. In formal terms, a street scene with passers-by walking past is projected onto the background of the painted picture; onto the wall of the house. The video projection sets the painting alight. This is accompanied by a valuation of content, for the painted figure cannot be seen on the video image and thus attains a different materiality within the overall impression. It neither fits into the radiant effect of the painting, nor is it integrated into the stream of passing people. The ultimate impression is that the figure of the man is simultaneously present and absent. Particular attention is drawn to the figure as a consequence of this state of intermediacy with respect to media. My cultural background means that I interpret the painted figure as the image of a guest-worker, since the man’s clothing awakens this association in Germany. As a result of the visual attributes of rose and suitcase, as well as his isolation within the pictorial context, it is possible to see a polite, but uprooted guest-worker in this image. Even though this terminology has been replaced by another today, the discourse of the guest-worker seems important to me, since it links the man and his role to a specific historical period in Germany. Between 1955 and 1973, millions of workers in countries including Italy, Turkey, Greece or Portugal were hired for factory work in Germany. Industrialisation and the ‘German economic miracle’ would have been unthinkable without guest-workers. But at that time, their migration was understood as temporary – only for the purpose of work. Initially, the men came to Germany to earn money without their families, visiting their home countries as often as they could. Today, when rationalisation means that there is less and less industrialised factory work in Germany – either due to technological developments or to the emigration of production locations and a steady decrease in commissions – and a negative trend may be observed on the labour market, there are fewer and fewer guest workers, but still many migrants. The term “guest-worker” is also disappearing in our everyday, politically correct use of language. The correct, pithy reference today – in face of socio-political processes such as the uniting of families and naturalisation – is to Germans of Turkish or Italian origin.

This social development can also be detected in the work of the Iranian artist Shahram Entekhabi, who has been living in Germany since 1983. In 2004, with the video work “i?”, he began a series about the conceptual and visual figure of the migrant. Structurally, “i?” followed the pattern of an older film, which Entekhabi had associated with his perspective as a migrant. In his video work “3 seconds” (2004), he then established the visual tool – the figure of the man described at the beginning – that was to develop into his alter ego in subsequent works, albeit manifest through different media. The video projection works “Kelvin Smith library” and “Walkout” (both 2005) follow the media vocabulary of painting and a projected background, as in “Flower”, although the ultimate relation between background and figure is differently formulated in each work. In the videos “Rockefeller Boulevard”, “Road Movie” and “Gold” (all 2005), the artist accepts his alter ego as a cinematic figure. In each case, he strides rapidly through the film set, which may be the grounds of a factory, a road or even a desert. In the performance-videos “Attenzione” and “Caution / Celevland” (both 2005), the guest-worker alter ego becomes active and takes steps to create or delimit space using the red and white tape that is familiar to us from cordoned-off construction sites. His actions develop a melancholy note in “Alcazar”, dating from 2005.

In all these works, the figure retains his suitcase as an “accessory”, whereby the rose disappears. The suitcase is a symbol of travel, of the transfer between cultures, but it should also be seen as a container for personal objects; in it, these are able to move across times, spaces and cultures. In a similar way to Charlie Chaplin’s cane, or to the umbrella in Jacques Tati’s films, the suitcase in Entekhabi’s works is an object which – as a result of its design – may be attributed to a bygone era. In this sense, I interpret the suitcase as a characterising symbol of the figure of the migrant. Entekhabi’s alter ego adopts the role of a social outsider, whose appearance and actions mean that he does not fit into the context of pragmatic, everyday events. In this respect, too, Entekhabi’s figure may be compared with the alter egos of Chaplin and Tati, who stand out visually as a consequence of their old-fashioned clothing and accessories, emphasising their difference to the dominant social environment. The Duden defines the expression alter ego as “the other, the second ego” but also as a “very close friend”. In film and literature, the concept is often used for a second personality adopted by an individual; one that usually displays different character traits to the actual, the “real ego”. The alter ego of the guest-worker offers Entekhabi the possibility to relate changes in the world of work to his own experiences as a migrant in Germany.

But it is no longer possible to restrict the development of migration to a few ethnic groups, and the social picture in Germany has become more complex and varied, together with the accompanying prejudices and clichéd notions concerning individual cultures. Shahram Entekhabi reflects on this by differentiating his figure of the migrant far more, abandoning his alter ego. In the most recent video works “Miguel”, “Mehmet” and “Mladen”, or also in “Islamic Star” (all 2005), the artist slips into a range of different male roles and ethnic backgrounds; usually within an urban environment. The first names in the titles already point to different origins, which Entekhabi expounds with his now constantly changing outfit and behaviour.

Through the embodiment of diverse figures in his works, Shahram Entekhabi adopts manifold attributes of an actual or presumed state of “being different”, making these visible by means of role play in public space. He employs clichéd imaginary notions of migrants, which are charged with additional content through images in the media. These can be deciphered on the basis of clothing, accessories and codes of behaviour. With regard to the staging of different identities that follow role models in the media, the structure of Entekhabi’s work may be compared with Cindy Sherman’s photo series “Untitled Filmstills” (1977-80), photographs in which the artist restages role images of women as influenced by films of the 50s and 60s. However, Shahram Entekhabi’s and Cindy Sherman’s works differ, not only in the media employed, but also in their reference to gender, historical context, and ethnic and cultural location. The images that Entekhabi uses for the figure of the migrant have a symbolic effect, and they are firmly rooted in the German cultural sphere. If the artist had lived in England or France, say, for as long as he has in Germany and had then realised his work on the figure of the migrant, this figure would probably display a different ethnic encoding. By these means, the artist simultaneously visualises his position as an insider and outsider in society; a position that he often experiences in his real life _ as a migrant from the Middle East who has lived in Germany for more than 20 years. He thus mixes the perspectives of an identity that is encoded on the basis of several cultures; a form of identity that is becoming more and more relevant in our globalised world.

Text: Doris Berger
Senior Director of Curatorial Affairs of the Academy Museum of Motion Pictures Dolores Denaro, Los Angeles, California, USA
Translation: Lucinda Rennison

Inspired by Martha Rosler’s video “Semiotics of the Kitchen” (1975, b/w video, 7 min), in which the artist demonstrates the function of kitchen equipment wearing a gloomy, almost aggressive facial expression and using interpretative hand motions, some of which reveal quite other contexts of meaning.

For basic information, compare DOMiT, Documentation Centre and Museum on Migration in Germany e.V.,

“Film”, direction: Alan Schneider, USA 1965, screenplay: Samuel Beckett. The protagonist is played by Buster Keaton, who attempts to evade observation. This proves particularly difficult, inasmuch as “to be is to be seen”. The 20-minute, black and white film requires very little in the way of a soundtrack.