‘Public Folklore’ brought together more than 20 works by mainly European artists that reflected or commented on the recent resurgence of the folkloristic in relation to nationalistic tendencies in politics and culture throughout Europe and beyond. A point of departure was the term Volksgeist (‘soul of the people’) as it first appeared in the German language in the writings of the 18th-century philosopher Johann Gottfried von Herder. His idea of this Volksgeist established a bond between the folkloristic and nationalistic, which has re-emerged throughout the centuries in the context of right-wing politics.
At the entrance of the exhibition, curator Søren Grammel presented a selection of recent moving-image material drawn from news and other media, reinforcing the anthropological aspect the exhibition takes as its starting point. The imagery ranged from the political campaign of the Austrian People’s Party, with its slogan ‘Lederhosen & Laptops’, to Vladimir Putin and George W. Bush’s appearance at the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation meeting in Hanoi in 2006 in what looked like traditional regional garb.
According to the exhibition’s text: ‘The point of departure for the project is that current manifestations of folklorism are not only to be understood as an instrument of nationalist politics, but also as their actual production as well.’ This Foucauldian way of thinking about the recent relationship between nationalism and folklore came through most clearly in Joanna Rajkowska’s two-channel video Airways (2008), which juxtaposed images of a heterogeneous group of individuals, whom the artist invited to join her on a flight over Budapest, with those of a large political gathering by the now legally dissolved far-right Hungarian organization Magyar Gárda. With their uniforms and coat-of-arms sporting centuries-old symbols of Hungarian nationality and traditions, the members of this paramilitary organization built their politics on the construction of their own version of national history. The way in which the different groups negotiate the claustrophobic space of an old Soviet aeroplane interior on the one hand and a crowded open arena on the other, results in almost antagonistic portrayals of the way individuals construct social spaces in the public sphere.
Reappearing throughout the exhibition was the notion of folklore’s performative nature in relation to the construction of a personal, communal or national identity, particularly in works that employed traditional clothing, dance, music or crafts as a point of reference. In Christian Philipp Müller’s Not Off the Rack (2010–11), a maker of traditional Austrian clothing talks about adapting the style of his products to the contemporary preferences of his buyers. Mari Laanemets and Killu Sukmit’s video, The Cure (1999), shows the artists learning an Estonian folk dance wearing traditional, embroidered blouses paired with workers’ dungarees. Through the imperfection of the dance moves and the casual engagement with folkloric items of clothing, cultural expressions appear as non-static, personal and historically contingent.
A documentary approach to narratives of national and collective histories were present in a number of works in the exhibition. Jaro Varga’s video FU JA RA (2011) looks at the re-enactment of history for touristic purposes, portraying a young man impersonating an 18th-century Slovakian folk hero in the city of Bratislava. The construction of national history through forms of re-enactment also clearly emerged in Helene Sommer’s narrative video, A Tale of Stone and Wood (2009), about a deserted Bulgarian mountain village which has been used as a film set since the 1970s, especially for films aiming to construct a historical past favoured by the ruling regime.
Explaining his choice of subject matter for ‘Public Folklore’, Grammel cited an encounter a few years ago with an annual, regional folklore festival, during the course of which Austrian right-wing parties publicly and consciously emphasized their affiliation with traditional Volkskultur. Considering the support right-wing parties continue to receive in Austria, Grammel’s investigation of the link between folklore and politics no doubt happened at the right time and place. However, the timeframe ‘Public Folklore’ focused on seemed rather undefined. While the majority of works dated from the last two years, some of them went back to the early 2000s and late 1990s. It remained somewhat vague as to when Grammel considered the folkloristic to have re-emerged in the political and cultural sphere, or whether he sees it as part of a historical continuum.
The term ‘folklore’ itself, being of English origin – ‘the lore of the folk’ – implies not only a form of narrative tradition but also addresses a relationship between the present and the past. Certain works in the show, such as Jens Haaning’s instructional piece, Italia (2011), on how to place the country’s name on an exhibition wall, or Sean Snyder’s Schema (Television) (2007), about the similarities of television formats across the globe, more generally focused on questions of national identity or globalization but did not necessarily elicit a connection with folklore per se. Nevertheless, from the gendered nature of traditional clothing addressed in Eva Labotkin’s video Belt (2010) to the language of nation branding strategies investigated by Eva Arnquist in Poland is Normal (2011), the exhibition provided clear insights into the multifarious ways that the notion of folklore appears within the triangular relationship between history, culture and (national) identity.