The Spirit of Utopia is just that, an exhibition of works by ten arts practitioners that harness the spirit of an idealized future rather than presenting concrete interpretations of what it could actually look like. Visitors are instantly submersed within a laboratorial setting—everything is white and organic. Large greenhouses inhabit the left side of the living, breathing space, while clinic rooms manned by ‘therapists’ line the right. Wayward Plants’ accompanying text explains that what you are seeing are future plants resulting from human collaboration with moon farmers, biodynamic farming, and improbable botany. Three women sat life-drawing the piece, and a glance at their sketchpads showed detailed illustrations of the fictional narrative that exists between these plants on earth and their conceptual roots in outer space. Nearby, a pair sat throwing clay on a wheel encircled by curious school kids
Can I go next?
Where do these bowls go when they’re finished?
This led to a lively discussion about participation and consumption in the collaborative labour economy inspired by polymath Theaster Gates. Another intriguing aspect to this piece is the large sketch hung on the adjacent wall, which shows the work as process and includes questions about the wastage and future use of the materials. Spelling mistakes within the diagrams hint at the importance of free-thinking in imagining utopia.
In Pedro Reyes’ Sanatorium —a transient clinic claiming to heal through alternative psychotherapies—self-reflection is invited via guided sessions that target and release negativity. One space houses a vaccine against violence, where you enter a dark room, scribble aggression on a balloon, then pop it. The Goodoo room claims to achieve the opposite of Voodoo —pins pierce dolls with constructive intentions. In City Leaks, visitors read out the secrets of strangers to neutralize collective fears. What is confusing here is the disconnect between the participatory intentions of the piece and its conflicting atmosphere and accompanying literature; DO NOT DISTURB signs hang outside each of the therapy rooms and visitors must book appointments for distant timeslots, making engagement both stressful and reliant on dictation. The piece is further conflicted by obsessing on the negative albeit through positive objectives.
The exhibition excels in the upstairs galleries, with accessible works that don’t sacrifice conceptual weight. Claire Pentecost’s soil apothecary unites soil contributions from local farmers, earthworms, and discussions with DIY biologists, chefs and worm curators to survey a widened definition of health and the future. Works by Yto Barrada are firmly rooted in historical narratives rather than hypothetical ones, imbuing her work with a viability and sustainability that other artists in the exhibition lack. Her didactic works—which map cultural progression and regression—chime with the moral slant of the exhibition and affirm that an integral part to imagining the future is acknowledging the past. Peter Liversridge presents typewritten framed project proposals as art, handing the responsibility for driving change back to the institution, acknowledging the limits to imagination and the power structures at play. The Spirit of Utopia makes some thought provoking if not proven claims and possesses a vitality that is rare in an exhibition of this scale.
Published in Distorted, July 2013 Issue
Exhibition on view at Whitechapel Gallery, 4 July - 5 September 2013