Birgit Mersmann

Art History/Visual Studies, Basel
Fellowship: 01.01.–31.07.2018



Birgit Mersmann is associated Research Professor at the NCCR »Iconic Criticism« at the University of Basel, Switzerland. From 2015-2017 she was Visiting Professor of Modern and Contemporary Art/Aesthetic Theories at the University of Cologne. From 2008 to 2015, she held a professorship of Non-Western and European Art at the international Jacobs University in Bremen. She is the co-founder of a research network on »Art Production and Art Theory in the Age of Global Migration« established in 2013. In 2014 she was Visiting Fellow at the Neubauer Collegium of Culture and Society at the University of Chicago, and in 2013 Visiting Fellow at the Humanities Research Centre of the Australian National University (ANU), where she analysed the architectonic and curatorial formation of new urban museumscapes in Asian global cities.


Fields of Research

  • Image and media theory
  • Visual cultures
  • Modern and contemporary Western and East Asian art
  • Global art history
  • The history of Asian biennials
  • Visual translation
  • Interrelations between script and image
  • Documentary photography
  • Migratory aesthetics


Project outline

Contemporary Portraits of Migration. Life-Imaging in Documentary Photobooks


The research project »Migration Portraits« explores the photographic portrait as a documentary visual practice of life imaging. The analytical category of the »migration portrait« was set up to include two meanings: It is referred to the photographic portrait image of migrants and to the portrait of migration as a depiction of the societal phenomenon in concrete geopolitical and historical contexts. Until now, research on biography and life writing has predominantly operated at the interface between literary and sociological studies. Visual cultures, as for instance photography, have only rarely been taken into account by the Life-Writing debate. Documentary photography, in particular, has only marginally been dealt with as an autonomous image practice of biographical visualization and portraying. For investigating migration portraits as photographic images of life documentation and developing a life-imaging model for their theorization, portrait-relevant photo books by three renowned documentary photographers (Sebastião Salgado, Fazal Sheikh und Jim Goldberg) will be analyzed.

Storytelling is defined as an anchor point for the analysis of photo-documentary migration portraits: How is the portrait photograph narrativized – as a single image and series-image of the photo essay/book? How do authentic migration experiences inscribe themselves as life (and survival) stories into the portraits of migrants? How is the documentary of the photographic image transposed into the fictional of the photo-narration? The investigation of photo-narrative methods and strategies in the field of migration photography shall provide new impulses for photographic portrait theory and life-imaging research.  


Publications (Selection)

  • »(An-)Ästhetisierte Authentizität. Migrationsästhetische Übersetzungspraktiken in der dokumentarischen Fotografie von Sebastião Salgado und Jim Goldberg«, in: Claudia Benthien, Gabriele Klein (Hg.), Übersetzen und Rahmen. Praktiken medialer Transformation. Paderborn: Fink 2017.
  • »(Dis-)Embedding Museums. On the Creation of New Urban Museumscapes in Hong Kong and Seoul.« In: Museum Worlds. Advances in Research, 2016.
  • Birgit Mersmann, Hans G. Kippenberg (Hg.), The Humanities between Global Integration and Cultural Diversity, Berlin, Boston: DeGruyter 2016.
  • Birgit Mersmann, Schriftikonik. Bildphänomene der Schrift in kultur- und medienkomparativer Perspektive, Eikones Reihe, München: Fink 2015.
  • Birgit Mersmann et al. (Hg.), Kunsttopographien globaler Migration, Themenheft der kritischen berichte, Marburg 2015.
  • »D/Rifts between Visual Culture and Image Culture. Relocations of the Transnational Study of the Visual,« in: Doris Bachmann-Medick, Ansgar Nünning, Martin Zierold (Eds.), The Trans/National Study of Culture: A Translational Approach (Concepts for the Study of Culture), Berlin: DeGruyter 2014.
  • Birgit Mersmann, Antonio Loprieno, Carsten Knigge-Salis (Hg.), Schrift Macht Bild. Schriftkulturen in bildkritischer Perspektive, Weilerswist: Velbrück 2011.
  • Birgit Mersmann, Alexandra Schneider (Hg.), Transmission Image. Visual Translation and Cultural Agency, Newcastle: Cambridge Scholars Publishing 2009.
  • Birgit Mersmann, Gottfried Boehm, Christian Spies (Hg.), Movens Bild. Zwischen Affekt und Evidenz, München: Fink 2008.
  • Birgit Mersmann, Bilderstreit und Büchersturm. Medienkritische Überlegungen zu Übermalung und Überschreibung im 20. Jahrhundert, Würzburg: Königshausen & Neumann 1998.