The Spirit of Utopia – Whitechapel Gallery

Whitechapel Gallery - Spirit of Utopia

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.

Whitechapel Gallery - Spirit of Utopia

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.

Whitechapel Gallery - Spirit of Utopia

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.

Whitechapel Gallery - Spirit of Utopia

Works by Yto Barrada are firmly rooted in historical narratives rather than hypothetical ones, imbuing her work with a viability and sustainability that other artist’s 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 powers 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.

Spirit of Utopia - Whitechapel GallerySpirit of Utopia - Whitechapel Gallery

Time/ Bank, 
Time currency designed by Lawrence Weiner, Photo: Julieta Aranda
Yto Barrada
, Tectonic Plate, 2010 Painted wood 122x200cm
Photo: Alain Kantarjian, Courtesy the artist
Pedro Reyes, 
Sanatorium, Museum of Hypothetical Lifetimes, 2012, Photo: courtesy of the artist
Peter Liversidge, 
Free Signs, 2010-11
, Found signage, mixed media, 
© Peter Liversidge
, Courtesy: Sean Kelly, New York and Ingleby Gallery, Edinburgh
Theaster Gates
, ‘Soul Manufacturing Corporation’, Locust Projects, Miami, 10 November – 21 December 2012, 
© Theaster Gates, 
Photo: Peter Hoffman
, Courtesy Locust Projects, Miami and White Cube
Wayward Plants, Urban Physic Garden, 2011, Photo copyright Mike Massaro

-Nico Wheadon

 The Spirit of Utopia is on display at Whitechapel Gallery from 4 July – 5 September 2013