The Spirit of Utopia at Whitechapel Gallery

Here’s something I wrote after going to see ‘The Spirit of Utopia’ exhibition at the Whitechapel Gallery in the summer of 2013. Some thoughts on utopian art in dark times.

The Spirit of Utopia

“This is a disaster for you.

Realise what it means to you.

You have no money.

You will lose your house, your pension, and your credit cards.

You have lost everything.”

In a dark room in the Whitechapel Gallery, we are being taken into the blackened heart of the financial crisis. On a screen in front of us a softly spoken, sad-eyed hypnotist in a neat shirt and wire-framed glasses is instructing us to close our eyes and imagine. Imagine the banks have collapsed; the system has broken; all that was solid has melted into air. Of course, we don’t really need to imagine this scenario – it’s already happened.

The Financial Crisis – described above – is a series of four short films by Danish art group Superflex, which aims to “reveal the crisis without as the psychosis within”. This might sound like a strange sort of artwork to find in an exhibition called ‘The Spirit of Utopia’ – instead of conjuring up an ideal future we can escape into, it compels us to confront the bleak present we’re in. In the past five years, global economic events have shaken the late capitalist status quo to its core. There have been riots, occupations, and even revolutions. But all of this leaves us with the question: what comes next? What comes after the banks have been bailed; the streets swept; the campsites cleared; the public squares emptied? What alternative is there, to the way we live now? It’s this question that the artists and art collectives featured in ‘The Spirit of Utopia’ attempt, yet ultimately fail, to answer.

In the first room of the exhibition, an atmosphere of pseudo-scientific experiment pervades. On the left, rows of small green plants are arranged beneath buzzing blue lights. On the right, people in white laboratory coats are filling in forms at a desk. The description next to the plants details the work that East London collective Wayward Plants have been doing beyond the gallery space: planting by the lunar cycle and getting Hackney school children to design gardens on the moon. The white-coated people belong to Sanatorium, the brainchild of Mexican artist Pedro Reyes: a sort of pop-up psychology centre, where visitors can partake in a range of “therapies” (in full view, thanks to the glass windows, of everyone else). Meanwhile, at the back of the room, an apprentice potter is being taught how to make a pot, as part of Chicago-based Theaster Gates’ Soul Manufacturing Corporation pottery training studio.

Elsewhere similarly worthy-seeming work is to be found. The environmental concerns touched upon by Wayward Plants are echoed in US artist Claire Pentecost’s unassuming installation – an apothecary full of soil samples, which remind the viewer of the vital importance of the undervalued earth. While with Time/Bank, Berlin/New York duo Julieta Aranda and Anton Vidokie address the subject of The Financial Crisis in proposing that people exchange time, rather than money, showcasing the micro-economies they’ve already trialled. British artist Peter Liversidge, on the other hand, strikes a much more wilfully whimsical note with a stack of “free” signs and a series of typewritten “proposals” addressed to art institutions – most of which are destined to never be realised.

It’s notable that a lot of the ‘The Spirit of Utopia’ is participatory, bringing to mind an assertion Claire Bishop makes in her recent book Artificial Hells (2012) – that the “inclusive” trend has lead much contemporary art into “a realm of useful, ameliorative and ultimately modest gestures”. On this occasion, I’m inclined to agree. Artists in this exhibition have attempted to engage with the public in order to find practical remedies for real life problems. However, the artistic solutions they offer are neither truly useful, nor outrageously, radically imaginative. They seem bounded, on both fronts, by a sense of ironic distance from the very idea of “utopia” itself; an atmosphere of amusement, rather than urgency, prevails. The art in this show, though intriguing, is still stuck somewhere between earnestness and ennui. This is understandable, as so many utopian dreams of the past have turned into nightmares. But when the waking world becomes just dark enough, it might be time to start dreaming – more deeply – once again.

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