What happens when the entire landscape from which an exhibition is built undergoes a seismic shift during its run? The group exhibition ‘Political Populism’, curated by Nicolaus Schafhausen at Kunsthalle Wien, fell into this chasm. Taking the rising trend of artists responding to populist tendencies in contemporary politics as its raison d’etre, the show identifies the normalization of tech-savvy campaigns based on catchy visual communication and social networks – techniques used by contemporary artists and political campaigns alike – in creating a media feedback loop. Works by 25 international artists either prove or challenge this supposition, overtaking the building’s cavernous concrete spaces with gravity and immediacy.
Hito Steyerl’s Factory of the Sun (2015), the cornerstone of ‘Political Populism’,references everything from blockbuster film trailers to televised newscasts, all witha satirical edge. The comparable visual techniques used by Daesh’s unnerving recruitment videos, which went viral after the exhibition opened, makes the icy bit of Steyerl’s critique feel exponentially sharper.
Overall, the works assembled here address pressing global issues with the jarring vertigo of newsfeed headlines, shifting between a timely and seemingly arbitrary range of topics. The refugee and migrant crisis in Europe is represented in Flaka Haliti’s field of life-size, wrought-iron, stick-figure sculptures – each given names like Grace, Ojas, Philip or Ernest (all 2015). The characters evoke refugees, whom Haliti isolates on individual islands, each made froma bright yellow Ikea carrier bag filled with azure sand. Ahmet Ögüt evokes the student debt crisis with his coin-collecting Anti-Debt Monolith (2014) and sympathizes with Chinese landowners resisting modernizing construction projects in his scale models of their ‘hold out’ houses (Pleasure Places of All Kinds; Yichang and Qingdao, both 2015).
Certain combinations feel forced, such as the installation of Jumana Manna’s video Blessed, Blessed Oblivion (2010), which documents the struggles of the Palestinian working class, alongside Marcel Odenbach’s Deutsches Symbol (VW) and Deutsches Symbol (Deutsche Bank) (both 1994), juxtaposing German corporate logos with symbols of National Socialism. Other works are sequestered in their own rooms, including Anna Jermolaewa’s video of paid protestors (Political Extras, 2015) and 89 Landscapes (2015), Trevor Paglen’s dual-channel work documenting the infrastructures of government surveillance.
Other installations and sculptures address everything from information in the Snowden archives (Simon Denny’s Secret Power Highlighted, 2015), Kim Kardashian’s ‘selfies’ (Rosemary Heather’s Kim (Us), 2015), and the Gwangju Uprising massacres in South Korea (Minouk Lim’s Navigation ID and from x to a, both 2014). As one harrowing topic supersedes the next, in seemingly random order, the experience of the exhibition parallels the amnesiac process of clicking ‘close’ and ‘refresh’ by which many of us consume news items. Frustratingly, the conflation of these topics, each riddled with its own complex history, prevents concerted engagement and makes it difficult to distil the relative importance of each subject. The glut of information deflates the urgency and uniqueness of any individual artistic position.
The exhibition also fails to address the difference between the narcissism of social media and the collective consciousness of populism in the public sphere, and how that may parallel or feed into contemporary artistic production. A lack of understanding of the populace as a collection of individuals prevents a nuanced reading of how the use of media and communication devices affect group thinking and individual empathy. Have so called ‘populist tendencies’ brought society to a point where war, violence, social unrest and corruption are interchangeable? Saâdane Afif’s poster work and flyers Play Opposite or Ubu Roi Disseminated (2015) visualizes this condition by taking lines fromthe symbolist writer Alfred Jarry’s play Ubu Roi (1896), which is about a violent political struggle and the exploitation of power, and printing them on flyers spread in fragments across the city.
‘Political Populism’ highlights contemporary global crises by ‘sharing’ topical issues. But is that enough? The question remains: what can we learn? The languageof the media is a visual idiom produced for mass consumption; the problem with populism is that the voice of the masses may drown out the voices of individuals. It’s not enough to react to and regurgitate cultural mores. How can we, as cultural producers, distil this information and figure out where redress should begin?
First published in Issue 178