Although the exhibition title catches a term topical in contemporary politics, it neither criticises nor celebrates populist politics, at least not directly. Instead, the point of departure is claimed to be the idea ‘that the effects and desires that characterise populist politics are not necessarily separate from the ones that find expression in the sphere of art’. Referring not only to artists’ consciousness of style and aesthetics, but also to utopian dreams of direct democracy and collaborative effort, this exhibition of more than 40 contributors multiplies into a myriad of artistic approaches and issues, and in doing so plays with the notion that traditional dichotomies like realism vs popular entertainment, avantgarde vs triviality and honesty vs irony, have collapsed and so provide a critique of the media and its populist campaigns.
The link between popular and populist is addressed at once, in the entrance hall of the art centre. ‘Number of Visitors’ by Jens Haaning and Superflex, a large digital counter, displays the current visit count, and so directly points to the quantitative criteria of success and failure, which is increasingly applied to art institutions. The piece asks, ‘Is this urge for large visitor numbers affecting art institutions negatively?’
Inside, some works focus on popular festival culture—Otto Snoek’s photographs snap crowds at various festivals, parades and beach clubs. Others examine the culture industry. Mattheu Laurette’s iconic ‘Déjà vu’ series makes up lookalike conventions organised by the artist. A more sinister side to contemporary media culture is also explored. Susanne Jerkuff’s ‘Shortly before the riots started’ draws on photo shoots from international newspapers and journals, juxtaposing them with quotes from urban theory and American advertising. These images promote a sense of insecurity and illustrate an unmanageable conflict between race and class, leading eventually to a desire for gated communities.
Sean Snyder looks at representation from another angle. In ‘Two Oblique Representations of a Given Space (Pyongyang)’, a double-sided video projection places a North Korean propaganda film (reworked by the artist) against amateur footage taken by an American tourist. Hanging suspended in space, this ‘oversized postcard’ projection offers two sides to the story, but keeps them separate, leaving their differences unresolved.
Adopting a populist strategy itself, this ambitious exhibition has a guide which mimics a tabloid newspaper. However,adopting a streetwise stance does not necessarily guarantee challenging art.
Judith Schwarzbart is a researcher at Edinburgh College of Art