|FOCUS: UTOPIA REMEMBERED|
Anthony Downey makes a personal response to
one of the principal themes of this year’s Biennale
‘Our business here is to be Utopian, to make vivid and credible if we can, first this facet and then that, of an imaginary whole and happy world. Our deliberate intention is to be not, indeed, impossible, but most distinctly impracticable, by every scale that reaches between today and tomorrow.’ HG Wells, A Modern Utopia (1905)
First envisioned by Thomas More in 1516, the notion of utopia has been a paradox of sorts from the outset. Written in two parts, the first instalment of More’s Utopia recounted what he considered the political and social ills of sixteenth-century England; the second part, on the other hand, offered a corrective in the form of an island called Utopia. More’s proposed ideal island state is not, however, as straightforward as it may first appear and leaves us with the following paradox: does the litany of inequities reported in part one serve as a summons to establish the idealised conditions of the island state of the second part, or, more mischievously, is part two an elaborate parody of the unfeasibility of the very notion of utopia? Playing upon the linguistic ambiguity to be found in the term itself – ou-topia (no-place) and eu-topia (a good place) – More would appear to be taunting us with a possible future that is in practice unobtainable: the deferral of utopia, in fact, would appear to be the predicate that underwrites its very possibility.
Whatever More’s intentions in writing Utopia, and they are of course more complicated than I have suggested here, it is beyond debate that on an ideological and conceptual level, the ideal was taken up by many who saw in it the expression of a possible, more preferable future; an exemplary model that would act as an antidote to the degeneration, decadence and decline around them.
Utopia, of course, has always been closely linked to, if not intrinsically dependent upon, a nominal dystopia. To this end, the ideological motives that governed and ordered the twentieth century became closely associated not only with a progressivist notion of history but with the fatal rise of Fascism in Europe and Stalinism in Russia, resulting in the horrors of the last world war, the Holocaust and the Gulags. The mis-placed idealism associated with utopia, it would seem, has an inherent tendency towards totalitarianism, hubristic recklessness and intolerance – not forgetting, of course, that Utopia was an island established as much upon the notion of exclusion as inclusion and a distinctly delineated social order. Freedoms, offered generously at the outset, are often translated into a series of restrictions and prohibitions on More’s ideal island state; one of the text’s many, perhaps intentional, inconsistencies.
However, we are now not only living in a ‘post-modern’ world where the grand narratives of the last century are no longer tenable, but, we are assured, in a ‘post-utopian’ moment. Notwithstanding the contemporary disdain for the idealism that once underwrote utopian models of the future – and in some ways because of it – over the last decade or so a trend has emerged in contemporary art practice that is preoccupied with models of utopia and the ideals that underwrite them.
This has been a decade, it should be noted, which has not been without its political and economic problems. It is no coincidence that the tendency towards utopian idealism was, and continues to be, more aggressively pursued in times of oncoming or actual social, political and economic instability. Le Corbusier in the aftermath of World War I and the Bauhaus in the run-up to the rise of National Socialism could both be seen as examples of this inclination in architectural and design terms. It is also no coincidence that at the very moment World War II was unravelling the historical continuum which endorsed the progressivist notion of history associated with utopianism, artists in New York were establishing a movement that for many exemplified a form of individualism closely associated with spiritual redemption and enlightenment. Furthermore, this same movement was aggressively promoted throughout the early years of the Cold War. Add to this the fact that the avant-garde search for ‘something new’ has always displayed much of the progressivist idealism associated with utopianism, and it is not difficult to argue that idealist abstractions, the mainstay of utopian extrapolations per se, have long been a latent feature of modern art practice.
This trend, of course, has much to do with the crossover between art, architecture and design. In Russia, the Constructivists proposed buildings and living environments that explicitly referenced utopian ideals of a rationalised environment. Later, Constant Nieuwenhuys set out on a project – New Babylon – that was not only to occupy him from the fifties until the mid-seventies, but which outlined a nomadic approach that has subsequently come to define contemporary architectural practice. It was, naturally, apposite that Constant should have occupied the floor directly above Isa Genzken and Bodys Isek Kingelez in last year’s Documenta 11. In the work of the latter we are treated to the artist’s singular, not to mention eccentric, visions of futuristic, ultra-modernist African cities – a prescriptive response, perhaps, to Frantz Fanon’s cautionary invocation of the historical ‘belatedness’ and methodical underdevelopment wrought by colonisation in Africa and elsewhere. These futuristic simulacra, moreover, outline a critique of the very idealism that supports – both metaphorically and literally – such edifices. Can the cities of the future really resemble places such as Kinshasa in the 3rd Millennium (1997) or Bodystate (1999), where, in this second work at least, Kingelez has inscribed his own being into the very fabric of the city. Like Thomas More before him, Kingelez would seem to be holding out the prospect of a utopian state only to critique its impractical and ultimately unobtainable nature.
Throughout Isa Genzken’s diverse output, she deliberately returns us to the concerns of movements such as Constructivism. Made of glass, tape, mirror and foil, Genzken’s New Buildings for Berlin (2001-02) explicitly refer to Mies van der Rohe’s Friedrichstrasse Skyscraper (1921) and his Glass Skyscraper (1922); both of which, tellingly, remained unbuilt. While Genzken’s work addresses a number of interrelated issues, New Buildings for Berlin – resembling as they do actual architectural models – recall a possible future that was ultimately deferred, and it is difficult not to be reminded of the way in which the radical energy of van der Rohe was to be dissipated a few short decades later, losing out ultimately to the conservatism, not to mention megalomaniacal hubris, that saw Adolf Hitler give free rein to Albert Speer’s monumental (and largely unbuilt or subsequently destroyed) visions for the same city.
In the work of Cuban artist Carlos Garaicoa there is a similar highlighting of the projects of the past that were left unrealised or unfinished for one reason or another. In Continuity of a Detached Architecture (2002), Garaicoa digitally transformed unfinished ruins into ‘finished’, computer-generated buildings. Again, there is an aspiration here to address both the hubristic and yet necessary energy that produced a vision of an unrealised, and perhaps unrealisable, future.
For Yona Friedman, born in 1923, the very notion of unfeasibility, not least in the impracticality of his own projects, would seem to be the very spur that drove them on. Concerned with the concept of motion and transformation – mainstays in any discussion of Modernism – these projects include Moveable Boxes (1949) and Manuals for the Self-Planner (1973). Established in the early 1980s, Friedman’s Communication Centre of Scientific Knowledge for Self Reliance would seem a direct precursor to more recent projects such Atelier van Lieshout’s sprawling studio outlet in Rotterdam, where a collective of technicians, engineers and artists produce products such as Modular Multi Women Bed (1997), mobile homes for those of us who actually appreciate the instructions that come with IKEA flat-packs, and Compost Toilet (2001). In 2001, AVL remodelled shipping containers into an operating theatre, an alcohol distillery, and – somewhat quaintly in retrospect – a bomb and firearm production line. Although professing that AVL is not a utopian project, in a recent interview Joep van Lieshout suggested that the starting point for AVL was predicated upon it being sealed off from the rest of the city; a ‘free state’ in all but legal designation. There are comparisons here to be had not only with More’s island state, and, more recently, with William Morris’s News from Nowhere (1890), which advocated not only egalitarianism but a quasi-anarchistic image of the future where self-sufficiency would be the order of the day.
What becomes increasingly provocative in discussions of the relationship between current art practices and utopianism is the distinction here between those artists and collectives that actively set out to re-envision utopian projections of the future and those who harbour a (post)millennial nostalgia of sorts for the promises that utopian concepts once held out as practicable; both tendencies being, of course, complementary. In Paul Winstanley’s paintings, for example, we see evidence of both. In Walter Gropius’ Balcony (2002) the artist has taken a 1930s concrete house, hidden away in leafy Hampstead, and depicted its state of ongoing dilapidation. Designed by Walter Gropius – an architect who played no small part in influencing the trajectory of the utopian idealism associated both with modernist architecture and the ensuing rash of high-rise buildings spawned by such idealism – the symbolism of this edifice’s current decrepitude could not be more apposite. In other images, the modernist rationalisation of space is laid bare by the appearance of what may be a slightly frayed curtain, or the penumbra of dust coagulating in a once well-kept corner. While the depopulated, sterile interiors of Winstanley’s paintings indicate a concern with the compromised project of Modernism, they also exude a sense of wistfulness for a time when these interiors were seen as the apex of refinement and progress – a nostalgic sense of utopia remembered.
A similar nostalgia can be found in David Thorpe’s collages, where we are vigorously presented with an unmistakeable utopian longing for a project left unfinished. In Forever (1998), skyscrapers dominate not only the skyline, but the nature that lies prone before it. Unapologetically utopian in outlook, Thorpe envisions the ‘world as a wondrous place filled with spectacular lives and spectacular views’, a world, moreover, where everything is possible and ‘we can transcend all limitations’.
To the extent that Thorpe is aware of the path that such hubris has recently taken us down – and I am in no doubt that he is – these images engage us in the questions implicit at the outset of this article. Where, if anywhere, has the energy that was once spent on utopian idealism been redirected? What happens to art as a practice when the trajectory of history is no longer defined in the teleological terms of utopian idealism? What exactly has come to replace the ideals that underwrote our last century? And finally, are we to accept a form of dystopia as the guiding principle of our possible futures, or, perhaps less negatively, develop a form of utopianism that maintains some of the dynamic energy of the concept, albeit contradictory, of utopic ambitiousness and visionary excess? While much of the twentieth century would seem to confirm the usurpation of utopianism, this has not necessarily led to a rejection of the speculative idealism associated with it. That this critical engagement is far from finished – and what could be more utopian than to say we have the final word on any matter – is further evidenced in the development of Utopia Station (conceived by Molly Nesbit, Hans Ulrich Obrist and Rirkrit Tiravanija) for this year’s Venice Biennale, and the simultaneous inclusion of micro-UTOPÍAS: Art & Architecture in the Valencia Biennial in Spain. Although professing Utopia Station to be a ‘no-place’, the organisers see this particular platform as a catalyst for extensive discussions around the need for ‘hope for [a] better future’ – confirmation, if any was needed, that utopia is not as ‘post’ as some would have us believe, nor will it be as long as conflict, fear, repression and prejudice are features of the world in which we live.
Utopia Station at the Venice Biennale is one element of an evolving project which began in February, and will include an additional two-part showing at the Haus der Kunst, Munich, 21 September – 7 December 2003, with the second part scheduled for autumn 2004.
Micro-UTOPÍAS: Art & Architecture, curated by Francisco Jarauta and Jean Louis Maubant, will form part of the Valencia Biennial, Spain, 6 June – 30 September 2003.
Anthony Downey is currently completing his PhD at Goldsmiths College, London, and is the Programme Director on the part-time MA (Contemporary Art) at Sotheby’s Institute, London