In 1515 the English statesman and humanist Thomas More visited the cities of Mechelen and Antwerp—now in present-day Flanders—where he wrote his best-known work, Utopia, a fictional account detailing the social, religious, and political structures of a made-up island in the New World.
Five hundred years later, can a Renaissance philosopher’s musings on the political and social foundations of a hypothetical society resonate? Nicola Setari, curator of Contour 7, Mechelen’s Moving Image Biennial, thinks so.
With the intertwined themes of “Monsters, Martyrs & Media” and “Fooling Utopia” (a play on Desiderius Erasmus’ 1511 work In Praise of Folly, dedicated to More), Contour 7 taps into the intellectual triumphs and darkest horrors of Mechelen’s past. By extension, it touches on some of the most pertinent political and social topics across Europe and the world today. Indeed, amidst Europe’s growing refugee crisis, an interrogation of these themes feels painfully urgent, to an extent that Setari likely could not have predicted at the outset of the project.
Sander Breure & Witte van Hulzen, The Shores Of An Island I Only Skirted, 2012. All images courtesy Contour Mechelen. Photos: Kristof Vrancken
The Shores of an Island I Only Skirted (2012), by Sander Breure and Witte van Hulzen, is a two-channel video with images projected back to back on either side of a single screen. One side features a montage of footage on migration—from birds in flight to humans in transit. In an emotional scene, beachside vacationers rush from the shore to help a boatful of refugees safely disembark. The other projection shows images of different shore, that of a serene, uninhabited island. There’s no clue that this peaceful island is, in fact, Utøya, site of the 2011 massacre where right-wing terrorist Anders Breivik killed 69 summer camp participants.
Sites and significance change. Contour 7 artworks are exhibited across five venues, each carefully selected and meaningful—from the Renaissance building where More stayed during his time in Mechelen, to the Vlietenkelder, a former bomb shelter hidden just below the surface of the city center. Kazerne Dossin, where Breure and van Hulzen’s work is screened, is a former army barracks, today a museum and memorial to the 25,000 Jewish and Roma people who were rounded up there before being shipped to Auschwitz. Context is everything: what is utopia for one, might be a horror for another.
Installation in the Vlietenkelder, a bomb shelter in the city center. Michael Fliri, I Pray I'm A False Prophet, 2015
Is it possible to build a utopia, to carefully craft a society that works for everyone? What, or who, would it include—or exclude? Looking to our own societies, what are the underlying structures that shape our lives, that encourage harmony or facilitate inequality? These questions are at the crux of Contour 7. As Europe faces its greatest humanitarian crisis since World War II, not to mention the cyclical threats of Grexits and Brexits, its most idealistic constructs—its union—are strained. Common currencies and open Schengen borders—a cornerstone of the European project, which allows passport-free travel of people and goods between 26 countries—are threatened as politicians grapple with logistics and divisive public opinion. Union-maintenance and consensus-building are ongoing challenges; “Utopia,” it seems, is a shifting, slippery ideal that depends on one’s underlying belief system.
Gilberto Zorio, È Utopia, La Realtà, È Rivelazione , 1971. Photo: Kristof Vrancken
Contributing to the show’s thematic urgency, 16 of 21 artists created new work, but earlier works are equally relevant. The oldest on display, Gilberto Zorio’s sculpture È Utopia, la Realtà, È Rivelazione (1971) uses a black light to transform the words “Utopia,” “Reality,” and Revelation” into the phrase “It’s Utopia, Reality is a Revelation”—suggesting we look to the world we live in for answers. Installed in the next room, as if in terse response to our “reality,” An van. Dienderen’s Lili (2015) investigates the implications of China Girls, the pale models whose white skin is used to calibrate film colors. What does it say about societal norms and inclusion when a preference for whiteness is built into our tools and technologies?
Javier Téllez, Bourbaki Panorama, 2014
In the same venue, Javier Téllez’s outsized, silent, 35mm projection is a stand out. The actors, who are refugees residing in Switzerland, parade in the endless circle of the Bourbaki Panorama, an enveloping painting and diorama in Lucerne. The historical tableau pictures soldiers and refugees at the end of the 1871 Franco-Prussian War. The artist asks viewers to confront the present day realities of exile, war, and the humanitarian tradition.
Lektor (Speculum Linguarum), an immersive sound installation by Slavs and Tatars, considers language in governance and society. Based on advice texts for medieval rulers, six speakers spout directions in six languages for how to use the tongue and speech to achieve luck or fulfillment.
Nedko Solakov, Encyclopaedia Utopia, 1990
In a new commission Nedko Solakov revisits his own Encyclopaedia Utopia, filming himself reading a three-volume work he made in 1990. In text and drawings, Solakov entangled More’s Utopia with the idealized communism “experiment” in his native Bulgaria. In another new work, Every Day Words Disappear, Johan Grimonprez interviews political philosopher Michael Hardt, who speaks to subjects like the Occupy movement, self-interest, and the idea of “the commons,” as he upturns the meanings of words like “love,” “fear,” and “democracy.” Interview footage is spliced with surreal scenes from Jean-Luc Godard’s dystopian sci-fi Alphaville. In Grimonprez’s didactic installation allegory meets the questions and challenges of real-life social planning and political agency.
More’s Utopia is a bit of a mystery: the island’s religious tolerance, for example, directly contrasts the Lord Chancellor’s persecution of Protestants later in his life. Nevertheless, the work is typically understood as a scarcely veiled criticism of Europe in the 1500s. In Utopia, there is no private property; wealth is frowned upon. Jewels are something children grow tired of and gold is used for distasteful objects like chamber pots, conditioning inhabitants to distrust material pleasures.
Angel Vergara, De Nekker Tree, 2015
In Contour 7, words are unreliable: a monster could be a martyr, a utopia a dystopia—it all depends on who’s doing the judging. More was, for some, a martyr—indeed, a saint—but for many he was a monster. We need only look to today’s media to see asylum seekers demonized or lionized depending on the outlet or political persuasion.
In More’s utopian island, slave ownership was systematic, built into the domestic fabric of society. These slaves—precisely two per household and shackled in undesirable gold—were either criminals or foreigners. Contour 7 feels pessimistic, but maybe there is hope. “Can we fool utopia?” it asks. Beginning with the world we have, can we lay structures bare so we can dismantle them?
Or would only a fool believe in utopia? The slaves sustaining More’s conjectural society would probably have something to say about that.
(Image at top: Thomas More, Utopia, 1515. All images: Courtesy Contour Mechelen. Photos: Kristof Vrancken)
Tags: Contour 7 moving image biennial utopia Thomas More mechelen, video-art
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