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.
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.
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.
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