From the imPERFECT desk of the DCCA’s Gretchen Hupfel Curator of Contemporary Art, Maiza Hixson, here is her insight on the nature of imPERFECT CITY, and how some of the proposals embody utopia– both within and outside the gallery walls.
Imagine the art gallery as an ideal space, in which art is more than a beautiful object but a radically new way of life. Is this the art of living or living as art form? imPERFECT CITY asks viewers to decide for themselves. In 1917, the inventor of Conceptual Art, Marcel Duchamp placed an upside down urinal on a pedestal in the gallery and signed it R. Mutt, suggesting that art could be found in mundane objects. He elevated a toilet to the status of Sculpture in the gallery. Now the converse might be necessary. As performance artist Tania Bruguera recently quipped, “It’s time to put the (Duchampian) urinal back in the bathroom.” One interpretation of Bruguera’s statement is that art is no longer confined to anointed spaces but exists all around us. The DCCA’s imPERFECT CITY is an exhibition that invites viewers to consider everyday experience—from athletic training to gardening—as potential aesthetic form, and art-making itself as a social rather than solitary experience. imPERFECT CITY contextualizes social engagement as more than a wine and cheese party for well-heeled guests but as an earnest means of artistic survival in a world mediated by the necessity to compete in a consumer oriented, individualistic society. Here, the viewer is presented with a combination of living forms—conversation, participation, activism, and conviviality in the galleries. To be sure, there are two and three-dimensional objects that one could call paintings and sculpture, but they are not commodities solely designed for sale and display; rather, they are catalysts for spontaneous engagement.
Utopia translates from the Greek “ou-topos” to mean No Place. In Thomas More’s 1516 Utopia, the narrator, whose name translates to Nonsense, recounts a tale of his visit to a city where there is no money, no private property, no lawyers, and where the citizens use the bathroom in gold chamber pots. The philosophical question engaged by More’s book is whether utopia as a destination can ever be reached or whether the imaginative process of obtaining perfection is utopian enough. imPERFECT CITY rhetorically engages ideas of what constitutes an ideal exhibition and imagines a future in which traditional display-oriented exhibitions are obsolete, for they are no longer adequate to encompass discursive contemporary art practices that move beyond fine art objects into a broad, messy range of experiences. Regardless, one might ask what the limits of the museum are in relation to utopian thought and whether a utopian city within the DCCA’s walls reflects a sense of what is lacking in the real city of Wilmington. Entertaining all of these questions, one could then imagine that the ideal city might include tangible solutions to real world problems or impossible solutions to unreal problems as a way of producing non-sense for the framework of utopia as a non-space as More’s Utopia might suggest. All absurdity aside, what are the real-world implications of the latter?
If, as utopian scholars Annette Giesecke and Donald Dunham have observed, museums are historically and by definition utopian spaces, is it then redundant for a utopian exhibition to announce its own utopian status? Giesecke and Dunham point out that utopias are always already imperfect (because they are impossible), in which case calling an exhibition imPERFECT CITY potentially calls attention to the idea that exhibitions themselves are redundant failures. Or, perhaps this titular acknowledgement opens up an alternative awareness of utopia as a modest, self-deprecating, and yet imaginative place where one can contemplate what could have been. Nostalgia is inherent in utopian thought—indeed, the biblical Garden of Eden is predicated upon a fall, which creates a profound longing to get back to what was—before corruption and evil entered the world. Beyond nonsense, nostalgia, past, future, perfect, or imperfect, what are the bounds of utopia—the specific galleries in which the “exhibition” is held or the entire museum? If the museum is utopian, what can it allow within the realm of human imagination that the presumably dystopian world around it cannot? Perhaps the museum is responsible for containing such an expression of ideas that cannot take hold in the dystopian world. Throughout the Bieber Ham and DuPont II Galleries, visitors will find descriptions of the utopian projects that local citizens, artists, scholars, DCCA members, guides, activists, and volunteers have proposed for this utopian community. What ideas are presented here and what might they signify in terms of individual desires for improving the community surrounding imPERFECT CITY?
UTOPIA ABOVE THE LAW is one imPERFECT CITY project that specifically addresses the limits of utopia and designates the perimeter of the galleries as utopia’s boundary wall. The project aspires to create a dialogue with visitors regarding the limits of what is possible within the utopian space. A provocation, the sign announces that utopia is beyond legal limits. Created in chalkboard paint, the wall itself becomes a blank canvas for visitors to test the bounds of utopia. Like pre-historic peoples “tested” the walls of Lascaux caves, making marks to reflect the conditions of their time, visitors may confront the walls of imPERFECT CITY in their own right. “Welcome to dystopia,” reads the signage as one exits the gallery space, with a box asking for a suggested donation of $5. The prompt to pay for dystopia signifies the distinction between the non-monetized space of imPERFECT CITY and the capitalist economy beyond its borders. Crossing the threshold into other galleries and into the lobby, the reality of confronting the limits of utopia resonates, forcing us to re-examine the barriers we unconditionally accept in our daily lives. In retrospect, upon leaving imPERFECT CITY, we are reminded that walls are always talking to us—they are not simply the substrate for artistic display but the limits of life itself. Just as we are always pushing against limitations in life, Giesecke and Dunham’s utopian boundary wall rhetorically suggests that utopia is the space we decide rather than the dystopian space we are given. Yet, this does not mean that our individual perceptions of utopia are compatible with institutional boundaries or municipal regulations.
Testing the legal limits of space for individual desire motivates the project INSIDE/OUTSIDE by Jeanne Finley and John Muse. Interested in the roadside memorials people erect to mark the site of a loved one’s death, Finely and Muse utilize imPERFECT CITY as a vehicle to call attention to the use of undesignated spaces for creative vernacular expression. Their project initiates important questions surrounding civic sites and roadside markers—what are commonly considered inappropriate zones of reflection and mourning but that nevertheless endure and have become rather ubiquitous elements in America’s visual culture. Using the theme of utopia to reflexively signify the museum as a possible site or extension of the roadside memorial, Finley and Muse seemingly suggest the limits of imPERFECT CITY to imagine life without the flipside, or, the reality of death. For what is an intentional community without the recognition of the existential limits of individuals operating within it? Thus, their project signifies a utopian desire for museums themselves to look beyond their own utopian bounds into the world—and most immediately at the city of Wilmington and the state of Delaware for an enlarged perspective on the potential spaces of creative display, where art is an ultimately ephemeral gesture and one subject to the elements.