Utopias and the Futility of Human Desire

This is the creative project that I submitted for my art history class in the Spring semester. Inspired by architectural images of utopias that were shown in class, I decided to explore the concept of utopias through this project.

In addition, this served as a trial for an artwork that will be in an exhibition organised by my junior college art class, which will take place in July. However, after speaking with a number of people, I think that my work (at least for that exhibition) will progress in a vastly different direction. I will probably be abandoning the utopian imagery for now, but I would like to explore it further in the coming years as an art student.

I’ll be doing another blog post charting my progress on that artwork later. For now, this is the paper that I submitted with a few additional pictures of the project.

I.

Human desire, regardless of the object, is an outgrowth of a basic instinct for survival. We need to survive, and therefore we search for ways to improve our conditions. Once we have satisfied that need to survive (food, water, air, and shelter), we seek to satisfy the want to live. Thus, it is inherent in human nature to want; but when what we want is perfection, what is inherent is failure. Nevertheless, something inside us – perhaps a foolish, unconscious denial of the inevitability of human suffering – drives us towards achieving some form of ultimate happiness, though the routes leading toward that happiness differ from human to human. It seems as if the intensity of this is proportionate to the extent of human knowledge and experience. The more we know, the more we are able to envision something better than ourselves.

This desire has served as the undercurrent for the written works of great minds since the era of the ancient civilizations. Plato’s Republic is possibly the earliest and most well known elucidation of an ideal human society, with perfectly functioning political, economic and legal systems. He was also responsible for describing the legendary Atlantis in his dialogues Timaeus and Critias, from which Francis Bacon drew inspiration for his own description of an ideal society in 1624 entitled New Atlantis.[1] However, the term ‘utopia’ was coined as recently as 1516 by Sir Thomas More for his novel of the same title, and has since been applied retrospectively to ancient texts. What initially began as a satirical name for the island described in the novel (utopia means ‘no place’) has developed into a term that refers to not only ideal social structures, but also the general human impulse to dream of a “better place, a place in which the problems that beset our current condition are transcended or resolved.”[2]

The obstacles in achieving a utopia are many. There are, of course, the dangers of totalitarianism and oppression presented to us by the plethora of dystopian (literally “bad place”) novels such as George Orwell’s 1984 and Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World. Second, even disregarding human selfishness, people simply have divisive opinions on the definition of a perfect or ideal society. Next, one of the defining characteristics of utopian societies is peace. Yet, after thousands of years of human development, the modern world is nowhere nearer to establishing peace between all peoples. Lastly, perhaps what underlies the futility of it all is best expressed in Theodor Adorno’s words: “There is something profoundly contradictory in every utopia, namely, that it cannot be conceived at all without the elimination of death; this is inherent in the very thought. What I mean is [not death itself, but] the heaviness of death and everything that is connected to it.”[3] That is, hopelessness and the fear of death are innate to the human existence. Even as we are more able to envision the better, we are also more able to realize the impossibility of the better.

And so, we continue to possess within ourselves the hope for our own utopia, and yet bear the burden of the hopelessness of that illusion. We pursue the fulfillment of desire, but are simultaneously conscious of the fragility of the human dream.


II.

Before I go further into describing the creative project, I must first mention that it is a trial piece for an exhibition in the summer of 2011 that I will be participating in. The theme of this exhibition is ‘Place.’ While I had already decided on my direction in terms of medium and technique, I had struggled with what would be the perfect imagery. I knew that I wanted to explore my obsession with urban architecture and its formal qualities in some way; to me, that is the best visual representation of ‘place’, and I found that when I recalled places important to me in my life, I mentally define them in terms of their urban structures. At the same time, I felt the need to introduce images with deeper emotional significance in my work, in an attempt to bridge the gap between the mechanical methodology that had emerged in my art and the intense feelings that I seemed to only be able to express in writing.

The solution presented itself when the image of French architect Claude-Nicolas Ledoux’s ideal city of Chaux (Figure 1) was introduced in class, along with the subsequent images of Futurist and Constructivist architecture. I could not shake the tension that I felt between the ardent belief of each architect in the supremacy of their own individual utopias, and the utter hopelessness that we can now see in their visions. This was the beginning of my exploration of the concept of utopia as a metaphor for the failure of human desire.

Figure 1. Claude-Nicolas Ledoux, The Ideal City of Chaux (1775).

While utopias have been traditionally represented in textual forms, I feel that it is the visualization of utopias that most accentuates their futility. Utopian architectural drawings are the ultimate representation of the construction of the human dream; they are the visual manifestations of the what-could-be and the what-can-never-be. There is something about each drawing that promises its existence, even if the drawing were to forever remain lines on paper.  When writing about a utopia, it remains in the realm of the dream. Planning its architecture is an attempt to close the gap between the dream and reality – to become something practical, applicable. Antonio Sant’Elia states in the Manifesto of Futurist Architecture: “Our cities should be the immediate and faithful projection of ourselves.”[4] Utopias may be fueled by concepts, but the urban infrastructure is what supports human existence and human indulgence.

For the creative project, I chose to juxtapose one of the drawings from Sant’Elia’s La Citta Nuova (“the new city”, Figure 2) and a photograph of peeling paint on a wall near the exhibition space in Singapore (Figure 3):

        
Left: Figure 2. Antonio Sant’Elia, La Citta Nuova (1914).
Right: Figure 3. Peeling paint, Singapore.  

This basic juxtaposition emphasizes the “profoundly contradictory” nature of utopias that Adorno had expressed. Sant’Elia’s drawing represents the human act of creation that is elevated in pursuit of a dream, while the photograph depicts the textures of decay and destruction – the process of “death” – that is an inevitable result of that creation. This tense duality, as well as the recognition that one cannot exist without the other, is echoed throughout the work.

After selecting these images, I replicated them for the project by aligning tracing paper over the printouts, then puncturing a needle through the paper along each line in order to create negative images with the holes created. This painstaking process personally represents a concurrent act of creation (of the image) and destruction (of the paper). Then, I made a skeleton of a 10-inch cube using balsa wood sticks, securing the corners with tape and twine. The two images were then “suspended” on opposing sides of the cube using thin white thread attached to the corners. The construction of the cube parallels the architectural conception of Sant’Elia’s utopia, while also recalling more traditional methods of construction such as the use of wood and rope in shipbuilding, and the wooden grid of Japanese sliding shoji screen doors:

Figure 4. Final structure.

The final artwork will be my first real attempt at installation art. I feel that is important in exploring the idea of ‘place’ to acknowledge the concept of ‘space’ and physical spatial relations. Furthermore, creating a three-dimensional work seems to be a logical development of the use of architecture as the imagery for this work.

The chosen materials, techniques, and the overall appearance of the structure are a deliberate attempt at conveying fragility – that is, the fundamentally insubstantial nature of utopias. All the materials are very light in both color and weight, and they are easily destroyed, which makes handling them a lot more difficult. The process of piercing holes in the paper requires much precision, and the care with which the paper needs to be handled is paralleled in the delicate translucence of tracing paper. In addition, the nature of the process makes the resultant images seem elusive and ghostly. Finally, since the structure is merely a skeleton and the tracing paper is barely held in place, it suggests a tentative balance between all the materials. As such, the danger – and almost a temptation – of destruction of something that had been built up with so much effort is tangible, and represents the void that is contained within all utopian dreams.
III.

The process of making this trial piece has presented many logistical issues as well as their possible solutions, all of which I will need to pursue in creating the larger final work. For example, a concern that I had and which was raised by the class during the presentation of the work was the lighting situation. The tiny holes in the thin paper would need good light in order to be best scrutinized by the audience. Some options that can be considered include: installing some kind of bulb (e.g. halogen) inside each individual cube structure, strong and directed light from sources external to the actual installation, or even the safe use of candles. It was also suggested that I could install a fan directed at the installation that would cause the tracing paper to move slightly. This would sharpen the sense of fragility of the paper.

Nevertheless, what I view as the primary issue is that of the final installation layout. The structure that I have made will only serve as one of the literal building blocks of the eventual work; the installation should ideally retain its architectural qualities on both a micro and a macro scale. I have determined three possible setups, as seen in Figure 5 on the next page.


Figure 5. Possible installation setups.

Each setup obviously has its respective pros and cons that I will have to debate over the course of making this work:

  1. Requires me to make only a few blocks at the same scale, but may need additional elements to achieve emotional impact because it is more static and does not engage the viewer physically.
  2.  Requires many more blocks at a smaller scale, which would be much more tedious and time-consuming. However, I have more freedom to play with the placement of the individual blocks to create a precariously balanced structure with more tension.
  3. Logistically the most difficult to make (would probably require me to commission a life-sized frame). Its sheer size would certainly be a good juxtaposition with the delicate paper, but the audience may be more impressed than emotionally engaged.

Complexities of the building process aside, what has emerged as a determining factor of the installation layout is how each setup best conveys the emotional aspects of the work to the audience, not simply in terms of the success of this endeavor but the nuances of the sensations that I would like to convey. This is a concern that is related to my initial conceptual struggle with infusing this work with more emotional depth. I view installations as having an inherent advantage in engaging the audience, because the artist is able to manipulate the viewer’s spatial interaction. In relation to the overall fragility of the work, I would like to create an experience that suggests the possibility that any move that the viewer makes could potentially destroy the work. This would evoke discomfort, or even fear, that would affect any sense of admiration for the detailed workmanship, and thus lead to an overall sense of ambivalence that would mirror the uneasy relationship between the concepts of creation and destruction. Another possible sensation that I would like to create is the feeling of entrapment, which can be overt (as in the cubicle form of the third installation layout) or may be seen as an undercurrent of the feeling of discomfort.

Ultimately, I still have doubts as to how I would be able to control the extent of the negative emotion and balance it with a work that is superficially decorative. That is, while the subject of my piece may be pessimistic, I do not want the work itself to be primarily depressing, or indeed purely decorative or intellectual. This artistic issue is currently more urgent than the logistical obstacles. It is my hope that I will be able to achieve that ambivalent tension that I am seeking to express in the mental, physical and emotional manifestations of this artwork.


[1] “Atlantis,” Encyclopaedia Britannica, 22 Apr. 2011 <http://www.britannica.com/EBchecked/topic/41264/Atlantis&gt;.

[2] Richard Noble, ed. Utopias: Documents of Contemporary Art (London: Whitechapel Gallery, 2009) 12.

[3] Richard Noble, ed. Utopias: Documents of Contemporary Art (London: Whitechapel Gallery, 2009) 53.

[4] Antonio Sant’Elia, “Manifesto of Futurist Architecture,” 22 Apr. 2011 <http://www.unknown.nu/futurism/architecture.html&gt;.

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