Art & Photography

The Spirit of Utopia: The Whitechapel Gallery

William Kherbek reviews the group-exhibition of artists, designers and architects looking to positively impact the world around them

Pedro Reyes  Sanatorium, Museum of Hypothetical Lifetimes, 2012  Photo: courtesy of the artist
Pedro Reyes. Sanatorium, Museum of Hypothetical Lifetimes, 2012. Courtesy of the artist

So, this is the part of the review where the critic writes the inevitable section about the intellectual heritage of the concept of “utopia” from the original work by Thomas More to the failed utopias of the Nazis and Khmer Rouge. Okay, now that that’s taken care of, and with a nod to the British heavy metal icons, Napalm Death’s fourth album, it’s safe to say that these days “utopia” has more or less been banished from the discourse of contemporary political life. Now, the political classes seem more interested in testing how much dystopia their populations can take. Don’t like going to war? Well, here’s drone warfare for you. Don’t like austerity? Well, we’ll see what the militarised police think of that… Don’t like militarised police? Well, we’ll see what the secret spy masters think of that.

And so to see a show which considers the “Spirit of Utopia” as the current exhibition at the Whitechapel Gallery does is to see just how far from the glory days of the concept we’ve come.It should be noted at the outset that More’s book was only ever a thought exercise of sorts, more satire on the sorry state of European politics at the time than prescription for a New Order. In that, I’d say the spirit of the Whitechapel’s utopia is a much more practical affair than the originator of the term had in mind. There’s a strong element of the clinical about the Whitechapel show, nowhere is this more prevalent than in the work ‘Sanatorium’ by Pedro Reyes which is composed of a number of “transient clinics” which exist in the gallery and provide psycho(semi)logical assistance to eager gallery-goers. Reyes’ clinics practice a number of unconventional solutions, a “museum of hypothetical lifetimes” in which alternative histories and futures are presented to the subject for consideration as – what – solutions? There’s a variation on the confessional and something called the ‘Philosophical Casino’ in which you spin something like a spirit-dreidel to help you resolve a difficult decision. The work probably isn’t going to sort things out for you once and for all, but it’s not unfun, and it offers a useful critique of the logic of “science of mind”, there’s process in all these systems but ultimately the mind is the arbiter of what does and doesn’t seem reasonable.

“The spirit of the Whitechapel’s utopia is a much more practical affair than the originator of the term had in mind”

Time/ Bank  Time currency designed by Lawrence Weiner . Courtesy of Julieta Aranda
Time/ Bank. Time currency designed by Lawrence Weiner. Courtesy of Julieta Aranda

It’s not all conceptual, well, yes it is, but some concepts have more striking visual realisations than others, particularly Wayward Plants’ hydroponic farm in which strawberry, chard and tomato plants are being grown in retro-futuristic constructions. It’s like Space 1999 in 2013, which is about as utopian as you could get, come to think of it. Ydo Barrada’s works nicely tread the balance between physicality and conceptual heft, presenting nice “outsider-y” theatrical dioramas and a powerful video work projected on the gallery wall. The ‘Time/Bank’, the brainchild of Anton Vidokle and Julieta Aranda, nicely sublimes the old adage that “time is money”. If time is money, which it is, why isn’t money time? Well, true to More’s original notion, I doubt they think the ‘Time/Bank’ model will catch on, but it has the virtue of being no less self-consciously esoteric than most contemporary economics, and at least offers a vague connection to the deepest realities of the physical world. More than you can say for most utopias.

The Spirit of Utopia runs until 14 September at The Whitechapel Gallery, 77-82 Whitechapel High Street, London E1 7QX