A Specter of Populism

– There is a specter of populism haunting the political field today, says director of Kunsthalle Wien, Nicolaus Schafhausen, prior to the opening of the exhibition Political Populism.

Christian Falsnæs, Influence (Videostill), 2012.
Christian Falsnæs, Influence (videostill), 2012.

“Not only is political populism on the rise, but it is also making much stronger use of pop culture and artistic methods and aesthetics than in earlier years.” Right now, you can find these words on the website of Kunsthalle Wien in connection with the exhibition Political Populism, which opens tomorrow.

These days, it certainly seems highly relevant to direct attention to populism as a phenomenon. For today it seems that all is fair in the ongoing battle to win favour with audiences and – very importantly – politicians.

Just in case you’re unsure about where to find populist traits in today’s political climate, the exhibition has set up a blog for which the writer Rosemary Heather has drawn up a list of political movements across the world. This list includes Dansk Folkeparti, Donald Trump and Front National alongside the likes of Bernie Sanders, Podemos and Syriza.

The exhibition Political Populism presents an appetizing range of international artists, including young and hip players such as Lawrence Abu Hamdan, Calla Henkel & Max Pitegoff and Christian Falsnaes alongside more experienced stars such as Erik van Lieshout, Hito Steyerl, Simon Denny and Saâdane Afif.

Johanna Kandl, O.T. (It´s the economy, stupid), 2002. Kandl is among the exhibitors at Political Populism
Johanna Kandl, O.T. (It´s the economy, stupid), 2002. Kandl exhibits at Political Populism.

A three-day symposium will mark the end of the exhibition in late January; here, participants will take an in-depth look at the role played by contemporary art and art institutions in relation to the concept of populism. In the summer of 2016 the Political Populism exhibition will also be followed up by a reader edited by Vanessa Joan Müller, Head of Dramaturgy at Kunsthalle Wien. The book will include contributions by curator and critic Matteo Lucchetti, philosopher and critic Dieter Lesage and editor-in-chief of Kunstkritikk Jonas Ekeberg.

With Political Populism, Kunsthalle Wien promises to explore the relationship between the ever-accelerating digital communication evident these days and the simplified, populist political rhetoric which, according to Nicolaus Schafhausen, exhibition curator and director of Kunsthalle Wien, enjoys particularly favourable conditions today.

On the occasion of the official opening of this exhibition, Kunstkritikk asked Nicolaus Schafhausen a few questions about the concepts and motivations behind the exhibition:

Your exhibition and publication-project Political Populism begins with the opening of the exhibition in Kunsthalle Wien on Friday. Is there a particular urgency or a specific string of events that have motivated the timing of the project? Why now?

– There is undoubtedly an urgency when considering what feels like a specter of populism haunting the political field today. Since the 1960s, in democratic societies, this political phenomenon has most commonly been associated with the far right, both by scholars and in the coverage by the media. For a long time it seemed differentiated and much smaller in scope, not grasping the whole of society in the same way until the late 1990s and beginning of the 2000s when populist rhetorics in my view, could be perceived to affect the whole of the political system. Populist rhetorical strategies seem to go beyond discourse in parliamentary societies. Why now? Because I believe that this is a timely moment to challenge or address these issues. Politics shape our daily lives and thus artistic production. Even though the project was not meant as a direct comment on current affairs, there is no doubt that it is now a comment on our contemporary situation, and not only in Europe.

Lawrence Abu Hamdan, Contra Diction (Speech Against Itself) (detail), 2015, Courtesy the artist and Mor Charpentier, Paris, Photo: Kunst Halle Sankt Gallen, Stefan Jäggi
Lawrence Abu Hamdan, Contra Diction (Speech Against Itself) (detail), 2015. Photo: Kunst Halle Sankt Gallen, Stefan Jäggi.

When I was reading about the exhibition, I started to wonder if I could remember a moment in local and international politics on the higher governmental level from the last 5 years that was not somewhat populistic. Do you see that anywhere, politics that is not obsessed with winning the vote and that is not simplifying and popularising in that process?

– This interests me greatly and I am glad that the concept of the exhibition led you to consider the political environment with this specific phenomenon in mind. I know what you mean, the majority of politics today can be characterized in some way to feature populist tendencies, but I don’t think that I can agree entirely that it is so to speak “everywhere” as for me this would be too simple an answer. The shape of European societies is changing as much as the political discourse. Where we are heading, how we think about our future in relation to the present day and our historical heritage are considerations, which occupy me as a curator. It seems that the whole of the political sphere is driven by two parameters: the economy and faith. I strongly hold that there is a need for a reshaping of the idea of the nation state.

In the exhibition’s trailer on Youtube a young woman is reading from what could be considered a manifest for the exhibition. She states, that Political Populism does not instrumentalise the artworks but that the works serve as illustrations of the relationship between art and politics. How do you walk that line, where the art is not held in a tight instrumentalising grip?

Simon Denny, Secret Power Highlighted, 2015, Installation view, Political Populism, Kunsthalle Wien 2015. Photo: Stephan Wicket.
Simon Denny, Secret Power Highlighted, 2015, Installation view, Political Populism, Kunsthalle Wien 2015. Photo: Stephan Wyckoff.

– There is always a contradiction between the institution and the artist. Personally, I am interested in the ideas of artists. Thematic group exhibitions are always already on a fine line of operating. The trailer was developed in conjunction with the press and marketing department of the institution and is but one component of a larger marketing strategy that aims to incorporate and play upon populist styles, graphics and modes of communication.

The media theorist Franco “Bifo” Berardi mentions somewhere that the rhythm of the amplified or recorded voice, radio broadcastings etc. were an integral part of the rise of fascism and Nazism. Can you explain a bit about the heightened relationship you have detected between contemporary popular cultural media forms and politics today, and how they might be different from other moments in history?

– I am of course not the only figure to have detected a heightened relationship between popular cultural media forms and contemporary politics, however in my view the attention economy has become increasingly fragmented. Societies are much more divided than past welfare states and the reception of art is similarly becoming more and more divided. Hito Steyerl and Lawrence Abu Hamdan both directly deal with these problematics: what is said, and what is not said, the way that things are articulated, and how channels of communication have taken on different calibrations.

I was wondering about the title Political Populism, and that the word populism is used in its singular form. Do you consider political populism to be one and the same thing, no matter where it appears in the political spectrum from far left to far right? 

– The title of the exhibition makes decided use of the power of words, a fittingly populist title for an exhibition which gathers together a wide range of artistic responses to the phenomenon, whether it be an ideology, a regime, a movement or simply a style. In any case what one can be assured of is that populism is illiberal. To use populisms would be to address different illiberalism’s and I think that the aim of the exhibition and larger project is not to aspire to define what populism or indeed populisms are, but to explore the wider effect on the citizen and the people.


Exhibition poster for Political Populism, Kunsthalle Wien, 2015. Free entrance to the exhibition is part of the «populist» exhibition concept.
Exhibition poster for Political Populism, Kunsthalle Wien, 2015. Free entrance to the exhibition is part of the “populist” exhibition concept.