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Without Reality There is No Utopia at Yerba Buena Center for the Arts

Originally organized by the Seville based Centro Anduluz de Arte Contemporáneo, “Without Reality There is No Utopia” balances a wide range of perspectives on the failures and spirit of radical change through historic and more personal approaches. Currently on view at Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, the exhibition affirms their expansive and complex curatorial vision with several strong works, but also suffers from some rather didactic pieces, illustrating some of the potential pitfalls in tackling such charged and daunting historical and social material.

Taking a large historic view,  Chto Delat?’s[1] Perestroika Timeline (2009) chronicles the Soviet Union’s loosening of political, social, and economic restrictions from 1982 to 1991. With vinyl lettering and painted black, white, and gray graphics, the mural’s format, while aestheticized, echoes the exhibition’s introductory wall text. While most of the piece consists of facts, the concluding bullet points editorialize about what could have happened (like, workers taking full control of the factories) and what actually happened (like, severe declines in public services). In light of Chto Delat?’s criticism, Perestroika Timeline refrains from suggesting a future vision for Russia, remaining in the safety of historical analysis.

In contrast, Katya Sander pursues a more personal perspective in her video installation What is Capitalism? (2003). While smartly installed, the rather didactic video features her standing in an open field asking passersby “What is Capitalism?” Many of the subjects, visibly taken back by the question, uncomfortably stumble in attempting to articulate an answer, one even asks if she is a Socialist. Considering the complex historical, social, and philosophical aspects of capitalism, Sander’s question lacks the specificity that would trim it to a manageable size, almost predetermining her respondents to be rather dumbfounded. However, in her installation, Sander smartly compliments the intimacy of her video, which only shows one or two people at a time, with her very small screening room. Contrastingly, the two mirrors flanking the sides of the screening room reflect the viewers and video projection in a seemingly infinite series. With the repeated reflection of viewers and the subjects in the video, the installation nicely juxtaposes the scale of individuals while suggesting the expansiveness of society.

Judi Werthein’s captivating video Secure Paradise (2008) tests the threshold of believability by merging fiction and documentary approaches. Adding to an already complicated trail of authorship, Werthein adapts an entry by Willy Schürholz, one of Roberto Bolaño’s fictional authors featured his satyrical encyclopedia Nazi Literature in the Americas (1996). Through still images and captions, Werthein’s video slowly reveals the details of Colonia Renacers, a secluded Chilean settlement established in 1961 by exiled World War II Germans who maintained their traditional provincial customs. Like found snapshots, the slightly yellowed still images depict women in peasant dresses and hats, men on tractors, barn raisings, and hospital workers. Slowly the captions reveal the imagery’s time and place in a succinct, almost documentary approach. Werthein complicates the reserved narrative voice with occasional “I”s or “we”s, indicative of a distinct first person narrative. The video’s ambiguity and discord reveals just enough information to pique interest, while offering many questions for viewers to contemplate further. Like the Mexican settlement of Flemish Mennonites portrayed in the fictional film Silent Light (2007), Secure Paradise has a dislocating sense of time and place.

With mixed results, “Without Reality. . .” fuses critique based on historic and current events with works that explore the boundaries of fiction and reality. At times the exhibition features overwhelming amounts of information, such that it borders on privileging its pedagogical role over the art. While the curators are deeply invested in the theoretical, historical, and social context of utopic politics and Jean Baudrillard’s simulacra [2], the exhibition’s real strength lies in works that facilitate surprising and sometimes very personal experiences.

[1] A Russian artist collective consists of Nickoloy Oleynikov, Thomas Campbell, Dmitry Vilensky. The groups name translates into What is to be done?

[2] http://www.ybca.org/without-reality-there-no-utopia#curator_statement

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