Utopia has become a favourite territory of contemporary art, which often acts as a refuge for ideas without places, where hopes for a better future are uttered. Dystopia, for its part, is Utopia’s perfect antithesis, the geo-situated expression of the darkest scenarios – part of a present laid bare, hypertrophied and uncertain, in which traces of the past have disappeared, and where the future is just a hypothesis. ‘Dystopia: An Exhibition Written by Mark von Schlegell’ mined this dystopian potential – along with the related notion of entropy – which has been explored in the literature of the Enlightenment and by 20th-century writers from George Orwell to Cormac McCarthy by way of William Burroughs and J.G. Ballard. The exhibition was based on a script proposed to curator Alexis Vaillant by the American art theorist and science-fiction writer Von Schlegell. Together, they chose works by 46 artists for an exhibition that operated like a fiction or, more precisely, like the décor for a fiction recounted in Von Schlegell’s illustrated novel New Dystopia (2011), which acted as the exhibition’s catalogue. The works functioned like characters or narrative triggers meant to interact with the novelist’s prose, but the show itself remained sufficiently open to allow visitors to make up their own stories.
The design of this auteur-driven exhibition created a cinematographic ambiance: the museum’s windows were covered with a reddish film that suffused the galleries in the glow of an eternally apocalyptic sunset. This chromatic touch was a reference to the colourful gels used by director John Carpenter to underscore the chaos in his 1981 film Escape from New York, in which Snake Plissken, the lead character, represents the archetype of the dystopian hero whose sole concern is to remain alive for as long as possible. ‘Dystopia’ conjured other sci-fi films as well, including Christian de Chalonge’s 1981 adaptation of the 1972 novel Malevil, by Robert Merle, in which a small group tries to build a new society within a post-apocalyptic world, and Andrei Tarkovsky’s unforgettable Stalker (1979), with its mysterious ‘chamber’ in which all wishes can be realized. What these reference points have in common is their existence in a catastrophic present in which Utopia is as an absolute necessity. But if these intentions are usually associated with science fiction, for the two curators of ‘Dystopia’, they represented tools for talking about the current – and very real – state of the world. For them, art might find a tenable position within this chaos in ‘its capacity to dramatize its powerlessness in the face of a complex and monolithic system’. But perhaps we are already caught in Von Schlegell’s narrative web.
For Von Schlegell and Vaillant, the ultimate dystopian city would be New York, as was indicated at the exhibition’s entrance by Jesús Mari Lazkano’s imposing painting of the city, La curva del destino (The Curve of Destiny, 2004). This image lingered in one’s memory as disaster gave way to a gallery of ruined landscapes, such as Sebastian Hammwöhner’s Picknick am Wegesrand (Roadside Picnic, 2011), an installation of ashes and sulphur suggesting the extinction of civilization and the power of nature. Millions of metallic particles of an atomized passenger aircraft engine were dispersed on the ground in Roger Hiorns’s Untitled (2008), a gesture that evoked an alchemical experiment that resulted in both a disappearance and a new form – a silent, melancholic and lunar area. In No Man’s Land (2011), Andreas Dobler anticipated the economic collapse, painting an orphaned cash machine as a relic of the past.
In ‘Dystopia’, anomaly and dysfunction ruled. Oscar Tuazon’s strange cylindrical machine, Double-Bubble (2010), could have generated electricity through centrifugal force, but its prototype – invented by the architect Steve Baer and inspired by ecological utopias – never worked. This iconic dystopian object illustrated the difficulties in finding new and efficient energy sources as well as the inevitable extinction of a society based on oil exploitation. Throughout the show, humanity was evoked mainly in its absence, and the Earth was often depicted as being occupied by animals, like the wild dogs overrunning Los Angeles in Mathieu Tonetti’s iPhone photo, Rancho Mirage (2010). When they did appear, human figures were distorted and disabled, most poignantly in On Kawara’s series of portraits of Hiroshima victims (‘Thanatophanies’, 1955–95). The eerie music of Cyprien Gaillard’s Cities of Gold and Mirrors (2009), taken from a 1982 Spanish cartoon about conquistadors, formed the perfect soundtrack for Von Schlegell and Vaillant’s exciting yet terrifying dystopia, which seemed, finally, to bury the modern Utopias we’ve known.