thu 30/05/2024

The Spirit of Utopia, Whitechapel Gallery | reviews, news & interviews

The Spirit of Utopia, Whitechapel Gallery

The Spirit of Utopia, Whitechapel Gallery

Utopian visions morph into muddle-headed dreaming

'Free Signs' (2010/11) by Peter LiversidgeCourtesy Sean Kelly, New York/Ingleby Gallery, Edinburgh

Some artists seem to need a reality check. The Spirit of Utopia is billed as a show of artists “who speculate on alternative futures for society, the economy and the environment”; but anyone anticipating cogent analysis or visionary ideas will be disappointed. The exhibition consists of a bunch of dreamers who imagine that an art context gives social significance to weak or wacky ideas. It doesn’t.

Theaster Gates believes a gallery “should be an open space that questions modes of production, systems of power, and access to the imagination for everyone” – a laudable goal that should inspire hard-hitting and provocative work. What we get, though, is a pottery demonstration and a display of new bricks and bowls (pictured below right). Gate’s practice is, we are told, “a call for action” yet we are not even invited to join in. The Chicago-based artist is obviously unaware of the many ceramics classes in Londoners where you learn to actually throw and fire a pot – an infinitely more empowering experience than merely watching.

The Spirit of Utopia, Whitechapel GalleryGuerilla gardeners are in action all over Britain transforming patches of urban wasteland into productive plots, or using hydroponics to grow plants indoors. Design group Wayward Plants are at the forefront of such initiatives; their first London garden was a derelict site in Old Street. Evidence is emerging that planting at the right time in the lunar cycle improves plant growth and, in this show, Wayward Plants experiment with the idea. It's exciting stuff that encourages radical shifts in farming; what we see, though, is an uninspiring display of seedlings under artificial light and messages from primary school children to imaginary gardeners on the moon. In grimy Whitechapel, which cries out for some radical solutions, such whimsy feels like a lost opportunity.

“Today, especially in cities”, writes Mexican artist Pedro Reyes, “there is a vast population of unattended victims of depression, loneliness, neurosis, family violence, suicide, and other pathologies.” To address this serious problem he wants to set up a chain of clinics “almost as a roadside attraction” or “family entertainment” (pictured below left). Rather than therapists, these would be manned by white-coated volunteers trained by the artist.

The Spirit of Utopia, Whitechapel GalleryVisitors to the exhibition can sign up for a variety of “therapies” ranging from beating up a balloon, employing symbolic gestures to address a problem and telling your life story through objects that you arrange in a model gallery. Visitors have to sign a declaration acknowledging “that this is an art project and not psychotherapy” and they participate at their own risk. At best this is harmless quackery, but at worst it is a dangerously naive game that could spark an emotional crisis and tip someone over the edge.

The Danish collective, Superflex has an answer to the financial crisis afflicting most of the capitalist world. Forget mass unemployment, forget cuts in social services, simply close your eyes and allow yourself to be taken on a journey by a hypnotist on film. This will enable you to wake up “feeling comfortable, fresh and happy” despite the fact that you’ve just envisaged losing your job, house and everything else – by turning your back on financier George Soros and the free market which he has manipulated so cleverly. Such irresponsibility would be funny, if the problems addressed weren’t so pressing and so serious.

Thank goodness for British artist Peter Liversidge. Free Signs (main picture) is a display of yard signs scrawled on bits of paper, wood, and card which he picked up in America by swapping genuine signs offering free stuff for replicas made by himself. Collected together, the signs demonstrate the existence of a healthy underground economy of free exchange – a real alternative, in other words, to the market.

The Spirit of Utopia, Whitechapel GalleryAnd finally, we get an intelligent and creative contribution from Time/Bank (Julieta Aranda & Anton Vidokle) in the form of a film (pictured right) that considers concepts of time and its relationship to money. Time, they point out, is “the most valuable natural resource on the planet”; it “keeps everything from happening at once” and is “the measure of change”. They ask cogent questions such as, “What do we want to make equivalent to what?” and point out that “As the world eats away at its resources, the lines between having no choice and desiring something different begin to blur.”

New Harmony, a utopian community set up in Indiana in 1825 by Welshman Robert Owen, is cited as an alternative economic model. Libraries and schooling were free and money took the form of promisary notes offering time spent, such as an hour’s labour. Time/Bank have previously set up platforms for trading skills and one wall is plastered with offers in various languages to bake cakes, teach horse-riding, move pianos or cook Taiwanese food. The BBC got there first of course – the system operated several years ago in Ambridge! – and real towns such as Totnes, Lewes and Stroud have their own local currencies. Unfortunately, Time/Bank have no plans to implement the scheme here, which is a shame because I could do with someone to tile my bathroom and I could teach you to dance or sing and thereby forget all your economic woes.

Such irresponsibility would be funny, if the problems addressed weren’t so pressing and so serious

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What a shame that this was your experience and understanding of such an incredible show.

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