Location, Location, Location: Utopia/Dystopia at UICA

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On December 21, the Urban Institute for Contemporary Art hosted “The End of the World Party”, to coincide with the opening of the featured exhibition, Utopia/Dystopia.  According to the complex Mayan calendar, the date of December 21, 2012 marks a shift to a new long calendar, kind of like turning the page at the end of the month. The date is supposed to mark a transition into another more enlightened period.   One could choose to interpret the date as the apocalypse, or as the beginning of a spiritual renaissance.  As with most everything, it depends on interpretation.

At first I resolved to not write anything about this show because I was so disappointed with the small number of works. There are only thirteen pieces included in the entire space. Given the broad theme, it’s curious that more art was not was not included.  In the subsequent days, I had to remind myself of the optimism I felt upon seeing the 2012 ArtPrize exhibition.  While the latter only included seventeen submissions, they were more substantial in scale, and effectively filled the facility. Admittedly, the building itself presents challenges.  Not only is it much larger than the former venue, but it’s compartmentalized into many spaces, some of which have very particular limits of scale or weight.

There are some excellent pieces included in the current exhibition.  Ryan Park’s video Dark is the Night (Voyager) is mesmerizing.  Shown in a continuous loop, it takes a while to discern that what you are seeing is a hand-cranked flashlight.  There is a subtle movement to the light, and with each interruption or fluctuation of pace, the light source diminishes, the whir of the crank changes tempo, and the soundtrack temporarily stops. Greenhouse II: Stalagmites by Christopher McGinnis is a structure that is constructed from repurposed window panes, inside of which are incongruously tall piles of discarded 35mm. slides, documenting furnishings produced in west Michigan.  Whitney Sage’s Interior of a Detroit Home, (detail below) is an interpretation of ruin porn.  Sage re-creates the corner of grimy room featuring Rococo-inspired wallpaper that incorporates visual references to the auto industry.

Whitney Sage Int of a Detroit Home

Looking like a giant crystalline structure (or the pod in which the infant Superman escaped Krypton), Glimmerby artists Scott Andrew and Jonathan Armistead, is both dazzling and menacing.  The sculpture is fabricated from mirror shards, which continuously refract light as it spins in the center of the gallery. Utopia, by Peter Everett, references proponents of visionary architecture like Étienne-Louis Boullée, Antonio Sant’Elia, and Le Corbusier.

A cursory inventory indicates that not one local artist is included, and Whitney Sage is the only Michigan resident. Perhaps there were no local artists who submitted work for consideration, but I would be surprised.  Nearly every artist I know in the region has attempted to exhibit work at UICA.  The responses I’ve heard from everyone are similar; they submitted work at least once, sometimes their slides were returned, sometimes they were not (this goes as far back as was when analog slides were still the means to submit examples), sometimes they heard back from UICA, sometimes they did not.

Almost everyone can appreciate that UICA shows independent films, offers classes for adults and youth, and has a swanky gift shop, but if the prevailing sense that there’s predilection to feature artists who are neither local, nor of the caliber featured at MOCAD, it risks becoming irrelevant to the community of living artists within the region.

The organization has experienced many growing pains in the past few years; ArtPrize was launched, relocation was deferred, and there have been considerable changes in staff. There is certainly empathy in light of these challenges, as well as optimism regarding this new phase of the organization, but it’s tempered with a modicum of impatience.

Utopia/Dystopia is on view at UICA through February 17.
Admission for members is free, $5 for adults.

-Tamara Fox

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Comments
One Response to “Location, Location, Location: Utopia/Dystopia at UICA”
  1. It’s also worth checking out the short video trailer they produced for the show, which features (very) short interviews with the curators.

    The video sets the tone very nicely. The music and editing and really good. But the more I think about it, the curator interviews bug me a little. They seem to just explain how the broad concepts of utopia and dystopia were used to filter work from a lot of submissions. The show doesn’t feel like it has much to say about these concepts. I know what the words mean, I don’t really need them to be illustrated. I’d like to see an attempt by the curators to discover, along with the audience, what utopia and dystopia mean now, in both a local and international sense. These are subjects that have been explored in art and pop culture a whole lot in the last few decades. What’s new? What are these artists showing us that that glut of culture does not?

    I think looking at a show like this can often become a game where we compare each piece to the theme. “Does that one fit?” “Is that one talking about utopia or dystopia?” and on and on. I think UICA can do a lot better. The curators need to stake out a relevant position and articulate it locally and nationally. Shows like this should be a bold statement. The should grab you by the collar and say, “This is your world now, it’s fascinating and a little freaky, and you can’t stop looking at it and talking about it.”

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