Measured by the Sun | 2011-15 | In-progress

Although at times we try to convince ourselves that our social constructs are inherited from nature, in practice the world can be arbitrarily divided in an almost infinite number of ways, and many of the categories we assume to have been dictated by the eternal laws of nature are actually rather recent products of human culture. This project looks at some of the ways in which humans arbitrarily categorize the world, imposing structure and order on phenomena that are essentially chaotic, fluid and multifaceted. It does so by examining issues of identity, representation and national stereotypes.

While nationalism and perceived shared identity can undoubtedly have a positive aspect (e.g. in anti-colonial struggles, or in the promotion of social cohesion), and the nation-state quite possibly is the most practical way of politically organizing the world, national images can often be of a more oppressive and socially exclusionary nature – as, through stereotyping, all people from one country are often assumed to be more or less the same, regardless of each individual citizen’s personal traits and background. Particularly dangerous are group-images which have been externally imposed as a means of political manipulation (such as when governments wish to portray a foreign nation as “evil” or “undemocratic” in order to rally support for wars, embargoes and other international disputes) or those established internally by a nation’s own political elite as a way of securing continued hegemony, excluding minority groups, or coercing voters in some other way.

Stereotypes can loosely be defined as beliefs (true or false, positive or negative) that we hold about groups of things or people. They largely pertain to what (is perceived to) differentiate that group from other groups, regardless as to whether these qualities are actually dominant, common, rare or even non existent among the stereotyped group.

We group things into categories in order to make our complex world easier to comprehend, and whilst stereotypes do frequently have a negative effect, both stereotypes and prejudice are actually essential to our survival and without them we would probably meet a much earlier death. The ability to associate categories (such as “snakes” or “angry men with big sticks”) with potential outcomes (such as “poisonous bites” or “violent beatings”) give us sufficient information to make judgements and carry out actions which help us avoid incident and injury. Snakes don’t always bite, and aren’t always poisonous, but for those of us who do not know the difference between an innocuous worm and a venomous viper it nonetheless seems fairly rational to exercise caution upon meeting anything which falls under the category of “snake”.

In producing Measured by the Sun I have traveled to a number of countries with which are associated very strong national stereotypes (Japan, Colombia, Spain, Italy…) and produced collaborative portraits with local people, asking them to consider some of the above issues and to decide themselves how they wish to be viewed by the outside world. While personally I am very much coming to the project from a cultural-cosmopolitan standpoint, I encourage participants to think about their own place in the world, and to consider their own identity: do they most identify with their country, region, city, social group, religion, subculture etc., or perhaps prefer to be seen as individuals? I hope that the body of work will reflect just how complex, flexible and shifting human identities can be in today’s world.

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This project is ongoing.