In 2012, I moved to New York. I had left behind a European country blighted by depression and austerity and was on an archetypal journey to the land of opportunity. Curiously, I was confronted with the unexpected. A short while after arriving, I was concerned that a feeling of dystopia had flown from the obscure novels of 1970s science fiction to solid ground, landing on the daily pages of The New York Times. Little did anyone know that Donald Trump was already flexing his muscles to bully his way from reality TV to the presidency of the United States. My experience from an ocean away eventually triggered a curatorial project that – little did I know – would end up with the inauguration of a new museum in my hometown, now appropriately called Lisbon 2.0. Talk about utopian twists.

Utopia/Dystopia, which is currently on view at Lisbon’s new MAAT museum, is an unusual exhibition: a manifesto about an uncomfortable duality. Drawing on art and architecture from the 1970s onwards, but mainly on artworks from the last decade, it presents the outcome of research into a disturbing paradigm shift. A curatorial process being a bit like a scientific enquiry, the expo asks if we are indeed moving from the literary realm of utopia into the uncharted territory of day-to-day dystopia. Or if these two concepts, typically seen as opposites, are today no other than two sides of the same coin.

Fordlandia, 2014 Melanie Smith. Image courtesy of the artist
For five centuries, ever since Thomas More published his classic Utopia, Western society fed on utopian impulses to keep itself moving forward. In close succession came the Renaissance, the Enlightenment, the Industrial Revolution, and Modernity itself. Then, we started to feel guilty. Surely, so much progress had to mean trouble. With the Postmodern turn, we decided we had had enough; that it was about time to expiate our colonialism, our imperialism, even our values. We decided that utopia was to be thrown away with the bath water, along with the baby and everything else. When we trashed utopia, however, we also slated the willingness to change for the better as well as the ability to criticise the status quo – which had always been the main drive of utopian literature.

With utopia out of the way, in came dystopia. Not because everything was so much darker than it was in the Dark Ages, but because we somehow must let off steam. So everywhere, from Hollywood’s teen blockbusters to Renaud Jerez’s zombie sculptures, popular and high culture alike are now thriving on dystopian ploys. This is the paradigm shift: with utopian thinking discredited, the exceptional, negative narrative became the norm – and dystopia turned into the ‘new normal’. As author Tom Moylan says, we are no longer enjoying a “tour of eu-topia”. And while we are now immersed in dystopia, “our only emancipatory alternative is to get going on this new trajectory”. Dystopia has replaced utopia as the apparatus that offers us a critical perspective on the world.

Bubble House, 1999, Tacita Dean, Collection of Fundação de Serralves – Museu de Arte Contemporânea, Porto, 2006
With works by 52 artists and architects arranged in five different sections, Utopia/ Dystopia describes a journey across the different understandings of each scenario in the 20th and 21st centuries. It underlines the blurring of boundaries between the two. From Jonas Staal and Clara Ianni’s takes on Brasília to Melanie Smith’s Fordlandia and Olivo Barbieri’s La Città Perfetta, the pieces in the first part of the show offer reflections on the ‘ideal cities’ that have often emerged as blueprints of utopia’s wish to reform society. Nearby, Ruins of Modernity echoes the debates of postmodernity and gathers artworks that have focused on the ambiguous impacts of modernisation, from Arata Isosaki’s radical take on Hiroshima to Cyprien Gaillard’s Pruitt Igoe Falls, and from Kader Attia’s collages of urban peripheries in France to Tacita Dean’s Bubble House.

Other parts of Utopia/Dystopia address how technological dreams often become nightmarish, with pieces by Cao Fei, Inci Eviner, Timo Arnall, and Michael McGarry. Or how personal utopias remain essential as a form of resistance vis-à-vis the pressures of contemporary life, with works ranging from Didier Faustino’s early piece on the illegal migrant crisis, Body in Transit, to the queer hedonism of Wolfgang Tillman’s Lights (Body). The show closes with a selection of recent works that more overtly relate to The Current Situation, including new pieces by Portuguese artist Diogo Evangelista and New York-based DIS. Amid the insidious presence of dystopia, we also find pieces that present a more positive political statement. Works by Jordi Colomer and Berlin-based architecture collective raumlabor finally reiterate that if we want to resist the banalisation of dystopia, we must still retain some sort of utopian impulse in our everyday actions.

Following the Modern Genealogy, 2012, Kader Attia, ARTER Collection, Instanbul. Image courtesy of the artist and Galerie Krinzinger, Vienna
Urbs et Orbis, 2016. åyr. Home Economics exhibition - British Pavilion. La Biennale di Venezia 2016, Courtesy of the artist and Project Native. Informant Image courtesy of the British Council, © Cristiano Corte
If dystopia, both as an art form and as an everyday condition, is indeed becoming prevalent, then the paradigm shift entailed in Utopia/Dystopia certainly requires ex- amination. As in any big transformation, it changes the ways in which we address society and its self-representations; it makes us question the role of artists, architects, writers, and other cultural producers in the face of a broader, inescapable political situation. At a moment in which critical optimism is greatly needed, Utopia/Dystopia hints at the ways in which we can navigate a transition from centuries of utopian-driven growth to a period that economists are now calling The Great Stagnation. Are grand narratives dead? Is the economy slow? Are tourist-fueled urban makeovers illusory? Is the climate changing? Does politics suck? As Jordi Colomer proposes, perhaps this is indeed the right time to re-enact Yona Friedman’s Utopies Réalisables.

Utopia/Dystopia is at MAAT (Museum of Art, Architecture and Technology) in Lisbon, Portugal, until 21 August 2017

Pedro Gadanho is the artistic director at MAAT in Lisbon, which opened in October 2016

This article appeared in DAM62. Order your personal copy.
Ville spatiale, 1959-1960. Yona Friedman. Image © François Lauginie, Courtesy of Collection Frac Centre-Val de Loire
La Città Perfecta, 2015. Olivo Barbieri. Courtesy of MAXXI Architectura - Photography Collection, Rome
X-Ville, 2015. Jordi Colomer. Image courtesy of the artist
Body in Transit, 2000. Didier Fiuza Faustino. Collection of Fundação EDP/Arte. Image courtesy of the artist and Galeria Filomena Soares, Lisbon
Pruitt Igoe Falls, 2009. © Cyprien Gaillard. Courtesy of Sprüth Magers, Berlin; Bugada & Cargnel, Paris; Laura Bartlett Gallery, London
Pruitt Igoe Falls, 2009. © Cyprien Gaillard. Courtesy of Sprüth Magers, Berlin; Bugada & Cargnel, Paris; Laura Bartlett Gallery, London