The opening days of the Venice Biennale were so hot that it felt as if everything was about to melt like scoops of ice cream in the sun. Nowhere was this feeling more acute than at 'Utopia Station', curated by Molly Nesbit, Hans Ulrich Obrist and Rirkrit Tiravanija. In contrast to Gabriel Orozco's delicately curated space, 'Utopia Station', also situated at the far end of the Arsenale, is full to the point of bursting. Works by more than 60 individual artists, architects and artists' groups, along with posters by another 100, are wrapped in and around a vast plywood 'platform' designed by Liam Gillick and Tiravanija. This construction incorporates several rooms with video projections, areas for the visitors to lounge and hang out, and a small stage where talks and lectures are planned throughout the duration of the Biennale.
'Utopia Station' presents itself as a functional neighbourhood open to social interaction, complete with a garden with funky communal showers designed by Tobias Rehberger, Padre de la Fontana (Father of the Fountain, 2003), ecological toilets designed by Atelier van Lieshout (Scatopia, 2002), its own web radio station (Zerynthia, in collaboration with Franz West), and a stilted hut where one might take a quick nap should it all become too exhausting (Billboardthailandhouse, 2000, by Alicia Framis). The concept of the station is an offshoot of Tiravanija's nomadic roaming around the world and is more a junction, or a meeting-place, than a stop en route to a predetermined destination. The project here is not finished, but the interim culmination of a series of events and seminars that will see two more stations established at the Haus der Kunst in Munich this autumn and the spring of next year.
Intended as a place where the notion of Utopia can be collectively considered, many of the works and projects included in 'Utopia Station', such as Martha Rosler and the Oleanna group's collaborative investigation of the term, are concerned with generating relationships between people. Nicolas Bourriaud has described this kind of art production, 'whose main feature is to consider interhuman exchange an aesthetic object in and of itself' (Postproduction, 2002) as 'relational aesthetics'.
Alice Framis built a hut in the garden of 'Utopia Station' where you could have a nap if it all got too exhausting.
Although utopian thought both criticizes existing social forms and tries to think of new ones, it has always been attacked for concentrating its concerns in the realm of fantasy. Elmgreen & Dragset's contribution to the show, Spelling U-T-O-P-I-A (2003), gently mocks this problem. During the opening weekend two successive monkeys tried, as the title suggests, to spell out 'utopia' using enlarged dice inscribed with the relevant letters. But as the monkeys' attempts to arrange the letters in the right order failed, so - the artists suggest - real Utopia is always just beyond the grasp of human beings.
'Utopia Station' is a far cry from the extreme order and stability that characterize Thomas More's ideal society, famously described in the book that introduced the word into popular usage, Utopia (1516). The show is probably closer in spirit to the temporary utopias of rock festivals or carnivals, and in this sense Venice, with its strong libertarian traditions, is the perfect setting. The section's most striking feature, however, is its sense of chaos. Though not as radical as Carsten Höller would have liked - his contribution, No Names (2003), proposed to not reveal any of the participating curators' and artists' names in order to encourage a discussion based on the actual works on display - individual works lose out in the organic mix of the whole. Making literal the motif of entropy, Carl Michael van Hausswolff and Leif Elggren could be seen shredding and then pulping copies of More's book, producing new sheets of handmade paper as part of their project The Annexation of Utopia by the Kingdoms of Elgaland/Vargaland (2003).
The sheer volume of artworks and information is both the weakness of 'Utopia Station' and its strength. There is a danger that the overload becomes just too much, causing a communication breakdown and thus jeopardizing the social relations that it is trying to facilitate. But then again, this simultaneous construction and wrecking might be the point. The moment when attempts at establishing real utopias go wrong is usually the point at which they become permanent.
First published in Issue 77