Five hundred years ago Sir Thomas More wrote “Utopia”, a novel proposing an ideal form of human organisation. The word “utopia” translates as “no place”, existing only as an unreachable state of perfection. “Dystopia” was then birthed as utopia’s negation; a world characterised instead by perpetual disaster. Until recently the word “dystopia” was only used in works of science fiction, but in 2017 as a continuous stream of dystopic realities nonchalantly pervade our everyday culture – the word has become banal.
MAAT, Lisbon’s new museum for Art, Architecture and Technology reopened this spring with it’s first “manifesto exhibition” entitled “Utopia/Dystopia” curated by Susana Ventura, João Laia and Pedro Gadanho. Works by 52 artists from across the globe are on show, ranging from depictions of ideal cities to contemplations of the ruins of modernity. The exhibition is tech-heavy and its atmosphere dissonant with polyphonic sounds reverberating around its spaces. Distinctions between art and architecture are blurry, enabling powerful dialogues to emerge between these post-media/post-genre works. Sleek hones in on a selection of work to reveal what they can bring to the Utopia/Dystopia conversation.
Wolfgang Tillman’s first ever video work “Lights (Body)” reveals utopia can be found in the mundane. Without any elaboration, the video details the mesmerising effect of flashing lights and rhythms within the nightclub. The light beams expose particles of dust in motion that have been activated by the movement of people dancing in the space. Tillmans presents the UK club scene as a space of liberation where social norms are suspended and the transcendental power of music takes over. In this work, utopia is something that can be happened upon within subculture; places where potential community can form and freedom can be momentarily glimpsed at.
Utopia as Phantom Landscape
Tacita Dean’s piece “Bubble House” draws on the medium of 16mm film to document the state of abandonment of a building once considered futuristic at the time of its construction. The surrounding tropical landscape has overgrown the building drawing attention to a present condition of generalised indifference and the failure of utopian ambition within the architecture of the past. However, there is something dreamlike about the illusive glow of the projection combined with Dean’s carefully composed shots. The whir of the film projector becomes a ghostly hum and the film’s slowness creates a sense of passing time. Dean evokes the feeling that perhaps there might be something still left to discover waiting around the corner.
Utopia as Process
In the words of Oscar Wilde when humanity lands on utopia “it looks out, and, seeing a better country, sets sail.” Héctor Zamora’s “Order and Progress” performance-cum-installation in the central oval space explores the inevitability of these cycles; presenting Utopia as a process rather than destination. The piece includes the demolition of seven traditional Portuguese fishing boats by migrant workers. A symbolic act to the collapsing fishing industry of Lisbon and a comment on the idea of promise contained in the illegal vessels that carry thousands of refugees across the Mediterranean Sea. In order for society to move forward, something must be left behind and the journey may be violent. The performance creates a spectacle out of destruction, reflecting the complex Utopia/Dystopia duality within how violence is also enjoyed as an entertainment culture.
Utopia as Image
Dis Collective’s work “Sleep Mode” interrogates the notion of utopia as a constructed image. The work takes the form of a plush double bed with a flat screen monitor attached to the footboard. The video piece is slick with an aesthetic similar to the not-so-distant future of Charlie Brooker’s “Black Mirror.” One scene portrays a woman tucking her iPhone into a miniature bed with soft and tender gestures. Familiar objects and aesthetic rituals are placed in absurd circumstances not too far flung from the realities of the present, such as screen addiction or robophilia. Later on, the woman goes for a run but falls to the ground. When she gets up her body has transformed into an image, she continues on as this flattened 2D figure running off into the sunset. Another scene depicts the Bina48 robot speaking, her brown silicon mouth slightly out of sink with her mechanic voice. Desire and the image are closely intertwined, but the gap remains. The search for utopia here finds nothing but plastic appliances and Instagram posts with the hashtag #goals; don’t look at them too much lest you might turn into an image yourself.
Utopia/Dystopia as Poetry
Pedro Barateiro’s video essay “The Current Situation” weaves a poetic narrative around the disturbing circumstances of the current state of affairs. Desire and expectation are given a certain presence through a mythicised world of strange objects and images. This world has lost its hope in the existence of a system able to accommodate all of its inhabitants along with their clash of powers, values and forms of knowledge. Utopia resides on the borderline; a place of tension. The work attempts to reconcile the complex relationship between Utopia and Dystopia through poetics. In one part the voice articulates that “we must create empathy with the image of the world.”
Resistance as Form / Art Museum as Battlefield
Our current situation is one of stark inequality, political breakdown, economic crisis and ecological emergency. The Art Museum itself is a battleground where the anxiety and optimism of the present collide. By offering up utopian thought as a critical lens, this exhibition at MAAT reinforces the necessity of utopia as imaginative gesture among the “there is no alternative” discourse driven by the neoliberal narrative. The works in the show are not Art for Art’s sake or simply concerned with their own aesthetic problems. In these works resistance through imagination is the form. Whether it’s through ironic or poetic reflections on the “now” or by re-imagining alternative futures, the show emphasises the importance of criticality, looking outwards and looking closely. Art cannot solve the problems of the present, but perhaps through the visionary thinking that resonates in much of these works it can start to solve the problems of future decades to come.
“Utopia/Dystopia” is on display at Lisbon’s MAAT until 21 August 2017