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December 2021

Vol. 163 / No. 1425

Searching for utopia: from dinosaurs to the metaverse

Although the literal meaning of the word that Thomas More invented as the title for his celebrated book, published in 1516, is ‘no-place’, that has never stopped people searching for utopia. For one thing, ‘utopia’ is not the same as ‘heaven’, since it represents a better way of living on earth – for all that More conceived of his utopia as a place that did not exist he also located it in the newly discovered Americas. The concept of utopia appeals therefore to the idealist seeking to build a better society, or at least offering a blueprint for what it might look like – perhaps the best known example in English is William Morris’s vision of the socialist society of the future in his News from Nowhere, published in 1890. The association that he did so much to create between utopian longings and radial politics is one reason why the theme has been of recurrent interest to avant-garde artists over the past century. It has provided a fruitful theme for the fifth iteration of the journal on our online platform, Burlington Contemporary ( Published last month, it brings together the work of five art historians and one artist under the title ‘Utopias’.

Two contributions locate forms of utopia on the continent that More chose for his own imagined society. In Burlington Contemporary’s first artist commission, Moyra Davey shares textual fragments and images from what the artist describes as her forthcoming feature, Horse Opera, which weaves together present-day and historic references to New York nightlife and the ‘Dionysian frenzy’ of nightclubs, evoking in particular the invitation-only Loft parties organised by the DJ David Mancuso in the 1970s and 1980s. Davey explores the way that such parties provided a temporary exit, or escape from, the world by offering encounters with people at a time of day ‘when we are closest to dreams’, when the differences between people are erased in a shared space and shared desires. A related form of utopia in New York during the 1960s is explored by Chiara Mannarino in an article on the artist Martha Edelheit, whose Flesh Wall paintings depict large groups of naked women and men in scenes of communal relaxation. Examining the way that these monumental works embody the countercultural movement’s encouragement of new forms of collective life, especially in gay and lesbian communities, Mannarino tracks the way Edelheit pursued a queer vision of utopia.

In other countries during the same period the idea of artists creating a utopia of any kind was rendered difficult by political circumstances. Two articles focus on the realisation of utopian ideals under military dictatorships in Latin America. Through the writings of two key art critics working at the time, Mário Pedrosa and Frederico Morais, Marcelo Mari presents an analysis of the state of Modernism, the avant-garde and criticism during the tumultuous years following the military coup in Brazil in 1964. The challenge faced by these critics and the artists they encouraged was to find modes of expression in a country where most aspects of national identity, from carnival to indigenous culture, had been co-opted by the government, while avoiding what they saw as the increasing commodification of art as embodied in international Modernism. A solution that preserved something of the utopianism that had made Modernism important to them was offered by such artists as Hélio Oiticica and Lygia Pape, who took art out of galleries and into the street in ephemeral happenings that often took place among the inhabitants of the favelas.

In Argentina at the same time Luis Fernando Benedit was creating a series of works that included plants, animals and even humans, who were presented as living inhabitants of his constructed environments operated by mechanical means – cybernetics in the form of computer-operated glasshouses. In her article, Vanessa Badagliacca analyses these constructs in the context of a utopian form of thinking , the ‘scientific imaginary’, that seemed to offer a reconciliation of art and science since they functioned as both works of art and scientific experiments – for example, Benedit’s pavilion for Argentina at the 1970 Venice Biennale demonstrated that bees ignored real flowers if they were offered honey on artificial ones. In this utopia there were however dark shadows: Badagliacca argues that these ‘environments’ were unwitting metaphors for colonial narratives in the way that, for example, they subordinated natural specimens to mechanical processes.

The last two forms of utopia are on the one hand ancient and universal and on the other as novel and contemporary as it is possible to be. Suzaan Boettger uncovers a vision of childhood as utopia in the fascination for dinosaurs she has identified in the work of Robert Smithson. They make appearances throughout his work, ranging from the film Spiral Jetty (1970) – which takes us into the American Museum of Natural History – to paintings and drawings. Boettger makes a parallel between Smithson’s interest in extinct animals and other prehistoric motifs and his status as a ‘replacement child’ – he was born two years after the death of his brother Harold, who had leukaemia. Smithson’s depiction of these creatures allowed him to continue a relationship, however ambivalent, with his lost brother.

The new digital realm known as the metaverse has prompted many claims that it offers a route to utopia –it seems not along ago that the internet was to be the solution to all our problems rather than a vessel for old problems to manifest themselves more insistently. The technology of blockchain – a digital ledger that cannot be altered – was implemented only in 2009 with the launch of bitcoin. Promoted as a democratic, noncentralised, objective technology, it has made its impact on the art world through NFTs (non-fungible tokens) – the market thus created saw a significant spike in March this year when Beeple’s Everydays: the First 5000 Days sold for $69 million at Christie’s.

It has been argued that the ‘cryptoverse’ offers a correction to the market’s traditional preference for the work of white men, yet, as Charlotte Kent argues in her article, ‘Blockchain manifestos: fighting for the imagination of a culture’ – an analysis of the work of three artists, Claudia Hart, Cassils and Danielle Brathwaite-Shirley, who have written independent manifestos that address blockchain technology and the utopian ideals it espouses – blockchain is offering a transactional revolution rather than an aesthetic one. Writing that ‘the metaverse does not introduce an alternative, new realm’, Kent concludes that blockchain’s archive ‘houses the potential either to instigate a move away from the marginalisation of centuries of hierarchical capitalism or to reinforce it. Time – and crucially our choices – will tell’. For the moment, however, the idea of a digital artistic democracy remains out of reach – but then elusiveness has always been integral to the definition of utopia.