Review: “Political Populism”

Kunsthalle Wien, Vienna.

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 with a satirical edge. The comparable visual techniques used by ISIS’s unnerving recruitment videos, which went viral after the exhibition opened, makes the icy bit of Steyerl’s critique feel exponentially sharper.

Marcel Odenbach, Deutsches Symbol (VW), 1994. Courtesy the artist, Galerie Gisela Capitain, Cologne and Galerie Crone, Berlin
Marcel Odenbach, Deutsches Symbol (VW), 1994. Courtesy the artist, Galerie Gisela Capitain, Cologne and Galerie Crone, Berlin


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 from a bright yellow Ikea carrying bag filled with azure blue sand. Ahmet Öğüt evokes the student debt crisis with his coin-collecting Anti-Debt Monolith (2014) and shares sympathies with Chinese landowners resisting modernizing construction projects with scale models of their ‘hold out’ houses (Pleasure Places of All Kinds Yichang and Qingdao, both 2015).

Certain combinations feel forced, like Jumana Manna’s video Blessed, Blessed Oblivion (2010), which shares the struggles of the Palestinian working class, installed in the stairwell 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 Trevor Paglen’s dual-channel installation documenting the infrastructures of government surveillance (89 Landscapes, 2015).

Other installations and sculptures addressing images and representation encompass 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 our historical amnesia, where clicking ‘delete’ and ‘refresh’ is exponentially faster than our progress in human rights and political justice. Frustratingly, the conflation of these topics, each riddled with their own complex histories, prevents concerted engagement and makes it difficult to distil their relative importance. The glut of information deflates the urgency and uniqueness of any individual artistic position.

‘Political Populism’, installation view Kunsthalle Wien 2015, Erik van Lieshout, Dog, 2015. Courtesy the artist and Galerie Guido W. Baudach, Berlin; Goshka Macuga, Notice Board, 2011, Courtesy the artist and Andrew Kreps Gallery, New York; photograph Jorist Aust
Goshka Macuga, Model for a Sculpture (Family), 2011, Courtesy the artist and Andrew Kreps Gallery, New York; Of what is, that it is; Of what is not, that it is not 1, 2012, Courtesy the artist and Prada Collection, Mailand, Photo: Stephan Wyckoff.

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. Failure to recognize that the populace is a collection of individuals prevents a nuanced understanding of how the use of media and communication devices affect group think and individual empathy. Have so called ‘populist tendencies’ brought society to a point where war, violence, social unrest and corruption can be interchanged like playing cards? Saâdane Afif’s poster work and flyers Play Opposite or Ubu Roi Disseminated (2015) visualizes this condition, taking lines from Symbolist writer Alfred Jarry’s play Ubu Roi (1896), about a violent political struggle and exploitation of power, and printing them on flyers spread in fragments across the city.

At best, ‘Political Populism’ foregrounds problematic contemporary global crises by ‘sharing’ issues that are en vogue. But is that enough? The question remains, what can we learn? The language of the media is a visual idiom produced for mass consumption, the tools of which are readily available. 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 as active listeners where redress should begin?

First published on, January 2nd, 2016.

arielle bier