Justine Kurland, Alfredo Jaar, Rhiannon Adam, Cao Fei and others, reflect on the idea of Utopia amid the current crisis — the first in a series of articles inviting artists to respond to a theme with image and text
In 1516, Sir Thomas More conceived of the word utopia from the Greek expression for “no place” or “nowhere” — ou-topos. The almost identical word eu-topos translates as good place. There exists the essence of the term — a perfect world that can never really be. More’s book of the same name, which outlined his conception of utopia, sparked decades of interpretations of the phenomena in literature, art, theatre, and film – from carnivalesque communities to more puritanical worlds.
Utopia, by its very nature, can never exist. But, amid a worldwide pandemic that has altered, and in many ways suspended the chaotic world we knew, what does the word evoke for you?
Perhaps it is a place where we are free to touch again, be outside among others, travel to somewhere we love. Or can a kind of utopia be found amid this crisis, which is almost dystopian in the illness and death it has wrought? For above desolate city streets, stars have returned, oceans have quietened, and the pollution of our planet has momentarily slowed.
We asked different artists this question — Justine Kurland, Alfredo Jaar, Rhiannon Adam, Jabulani Dhlamini, Cao Fei, Tabita Rezaire, Tereza Zelenkova, and Mikhael Subotzky, responded; their replies can be found below.
Fine art photographer Justine Kurland is well-known for her dreamy images of women — care-free runaway adolescents, schoolgirls, mothers, and soon-to-be mothers, clothed and naked — captured in utopian American landscapes often cast in a gorgeous golden glow. Before the birth of her son, Casper, Kurland spent most of her time travelling across America in search of subjects to photograph, an approach she continues to this day.
“I intended my photographs as a counter-response, an opening through which to imagine a way out. I wanted—and needed—to create a version of motherhood that was bearable”
“My fifteen-year-old chose to quarantine with his father, rather than stay with me. I console myself with a set of justifications: his father has a nicer apartment; his father doesn’t hassle him about screen time, bedtime, or homework; his father is a better cook. But the rejection is real and inevitable, considering the primacy of our bond. Alone in my apartment this month, I am devastated by my premature and accidental barrenness, a childless mother in an unnatural inversion of the Bertha (Underwood) Morgan song ‘Motherless Child’.
“My series of photographs picturing mothers and children, Of Woman Born, takes its title from Adrienne Rich’s seminal book, in which she writes about the impossibility of motherhood and how its explicit subjugation to patriarchy precipitates a descent into domestic hell. I intended my photographs as a counter-response, an opening through which to imagine a way out. I wanted—and needed—to create a version of motherhood that was bearable.
“The mothers in my photographs live in a world without men, in maternal bliss, embracing the pleasures of an animal existence. But when I look at Oneonta Gorge, Log Jammed Crevice, I see Casper instead, balanced on my hip as I manoeuvre my camera on its tripod. He had made up a little chant, something like, ‘We photograph mama babies, we photograph mama babies, we photograph… .’ and sang to me as I made pictures. The original utopian impulse of the work now bends toward the memory of that sound.”
Artist, architect, and filmmaker Alfredo Jaar creates work in response to hardship and injustice, confronting many of the most appalling atrocities of recent history, including the Rwandan genocide and 1993 Sudan famine. His work addresses issues from unfamiliar perspectives and encourages viewers to question their comprehension of the subjects at hand.
“I cannot help but think of Dante’s Inferno as our present condition, suffering deserved punishments for the sins that have defined our lives”
“This photograph was taken in Naples in December of last year. It seems a very long time ago. It shows a 19th-century statue of Dante Alighieri that was sculpted by Tito Angelini. It sits in the middle of Piazza Dante, a beautiful public square to which I return often to pay my homage to the great poet.
“Dante’s magnum opus, The Divine Comedy, is a book I return often to, and now it sits, once again, on my night table. I cannot help but think of Dante’s Inferno as our present condition, suffering deserved punishments for the sins that have defined our lives.
“While Dante’s fictional journey guides us through the nine circles of Hell in Inferno, we find ourselves not in a world of fiction, as some would make us believe, but facing science in its most disruptive capacity. Dante’s Inferno is the perfect dystopia, one mere pause on our journey before we reach Purgatorio and finally Paradiso, our most desired utopia.”
Rhiannon Adam’s work sits at the intersection of art photography and social documentary. In 2015, Adam travelled to the remote island community of Pitcairn in the South Pacific and created the first in-depth photographic series there – Big Fence / Pitcairn Island. Her images employ ambient light, filtered through the hazy abstraction of degrading instant-film materials and colour negative film.
“I’ve visited many places that people dream of, but there is a fine line between a dream and a nightmare – so I try to keep my eyes open”
“Utopia conjures many things for me — it takes me back to writing papers on More at Cambridge when the dead of night would meet the first chink of light in the morning. The pressure cooker. The cycle of it all. The treadmill. I read that book and remembered my father’s idealism and all the chaos that led to. Reading about an impossible dream, a fog, a haze. I knew then, what I know now, that a belief in utopia is a dangerous thing, and I’m a realist.
“It also takes me to Pitcairn — a place shrouded by mystery, perpetuated by distance. Smoke and mirrors. The pot of gold at the end of a rainbow — always out of reach, a bubble due to burst, Icarus flying too close to the sun. The inevitable downfall of expectation. The lie we tell ourselves. utopia, more often than not, rings of dissatisfaction. A relentless quest. An unattainable goal. By definition, utopia cannot be. It’s a lesson – to be careful what you wish for. I’ve visited many places that people dream of, but there is a fine line between a dream and a nightmare – so I try to keep my eyes open.
“Right now, as I am sitting in a flat in London, with the sun streaming through the glass roof, and the relative silence of Hackney penetrating my consciousness, I lust after an adventure, a quest, a search. The stranger danger, the adrenalin rush of a project. Each beginning like a first date, wondering whether you’ll still want to go home with it at the end of a night. My utopia right now is that liminal space between control and chaos, that’s what I wish for. That’s what I crave. The unpredictable nature of a new start. For now, all seems familiar, suffocatingly so.
“This image is of a cliché — a sunset and a horizon. But cliché is cliché for a reason. This was a moment that was beautiful, and still, or rather, where I felt still. My restlessness momentarily quelled. Sometimes I take a picture just for me, and this was one of those. I wanted to remember that feeling, of being where I was meant to be. I sat, on grimy Bombay Beach on the banks of the landlocked Salton Sea in the midst of California’s desert, a place where many dreams had come to die and watched the sun recede.
“And I thought about the possibility, beginnings, endings, little heartbreaks, the thrill of rejection and journey for acceptance. I was starting a new project, and everything was new and fresh and a little dangerous. For now, that’s all on hold, with travel on lockdown, but my utopia would be to be back there, amidst the detritus left by humanity, navigating the dregs, finding my place. Searching for that mysterious ‘something’ that is just out of reach — like this swing set at sea — that grain of bizarre, the ellipsis between logic and feeling.
“That’s when I feel new, reborn. And that’s what I’m missing, as right now I’m just holding my breath.”
Jabulani Dhlamini‘s work reflects his upbringing during apartheid and his views and experiences of contemporary South Africa. His practice draws on the pain and trauma of that past to understand and interrogate the present.
“The image was taken in 2019, in Ladysmith, KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa. It is based on the concept of home as the perfect space in my mind. There was a funeral but, regardless of that, the moment gave me an ideal peace of mind.”
Cao Fei employs photography, video, installation, and other digital media, to interrogate the changing face of contemporary China, perpetually reshaped by economic growth, rapid globalisation, and urban development. A number of major themes run through her oeuvre, notably the tension between the virtual and the real; utopia and dystopia.
“Should utopia be regarded as ‘the beacon’, as in Charles Baudelaire’s Les Phares, igniting to shine through the darkness, or is it just a classic, unreachable and delusional mirage in our cold reality?”
“I took this photograph in 2006, during the filming of my multi-part project Whose Utopia in a lighting factory in the Pearl River Delta region — an industrial hub in southern China that serves as a site of nationwide migration by people seeking expanded work opportunities in the country’s blossoming economy.
“The photograph is an illustration of a melancholy vision of individualism within the constraints of industrialisation, which permeates the lives of an entire populace in contemporary Chinese society. In 2006, China was eager to integrate its economy into the global system, as the power of the global market was equally eager to penetrate China by means of multi-national corporations. As a result, the local economy was forced onto a global stage while young labourers from many inland provinces were entering this new international labour division.
“I was deeply curious about the life of these emigrant factory workers in the Pearl River Delta region: how they achieve a totally new experience, new standard and new meaning in the overwhelming trend of globalisation, hence allowing us to see how they light up their ‘utopia’ in a new reality. These workers’ utopia not only represented an ideal that energises their own lives, but also further exemplified how globalisation is reshaping the Pearl Delta River region, and even China as a whole. In this sense, utopia became a contemporary myth that drives us, as well as a mirror that reflects the very reality we live in.
“It is important to remember that this photograph was taken 14 years ago. If Whose Utopia serves as a melancholy statement echoing Samir Amin’s argument that globalisation is essentially a reactionary utopia, then when the concept of utopia is reexamined in the midst of the Covid-19 pandemic, one would discover that we are now faced with a ‘hollow’ utopia: globalisation, once a widely romanticised idea, is on the edge of its own demise — our modern utopia seems to end up as a broken mirror.
“In four decades, China has learned how to grasp the benefits of globalisation and has become a world economic champion. As the world’s second-largest economy, China is no longer a peripheral player in global affairs, but an economic powerhouse in direct competition with Europe and the US. However, China’s long-term economic prosperity has also produced some of its unavoidable byproducts: the shrinking of demographic dividend and the increase of manufacturing cost — both regarded as the preludes of the so-called ‘Flying Geese Paradigm’. The perpetual Sino-US trade war has also triggered a painful reshuffle of the global production chains, creating a rather vicious cycle along with the prevailing nationalistic sentiment and the increasingly unstable geopolitical dynamics. The recent ‘shift it back’ initiative by the US and Japan is the latest anti-globalisation effort, following the current global economic re-pivot, which moves production chains from China to elsewhere, or back home.
“As the neoliberal engine is losing its momentum, the possible demise of globalisation is forcing us to predict the unpredictable: What sort of crisis will occur upon our modern civilisation? An economic recession? Or wars? Or something that could cause a major setback to our civilisation? The pandemic will eventually disappear, but the global economy simply cannot be on hold forever, as well as the trajectory of every society.
“Does the concept of utopia still make sense in our time? Is utopia even deserved to be properly discussed today? Should utopia be regarded as ‘the beacon’, as in Charles Baudelaire’s Les Phares, igniting to shine through the darkness, or is it just a classic, unreachable and delusional mirage in our cold reality?”
Tabita Rezaire blends spirituality and healing, with an exploration of the online world. Rezaire’s practice centres on unearthing remedies to dilute the injustices, and oppressions, which pervade the digital realm, and the real world, beyond it.
“Beyond the frenetic drive for growth motivated by profit and the insatiable thirst of capitalism, are other worlds. Worlds we dream, worlds we draw, worlds we sing. Worlds where visions are real, where flowers speak, and water heals. Worlds in which we value the land, protect each other, honour the science of our ancestors, and align with the rhythm of cosmic geometries.”
Darkness pervades Tereza Zelenkova’s distinctive black-and-white images — surreal stills, which are both alluring and disconcerting. Themes of mysticism, death, and the sacred, run through her work, which is enigmatic, giving viewers the space to unravel each photograph with their imagination.
“A particularly interesting phenomenon is the lack of silence and solitude within the home environment; these have somehow been transferred and imposed onto public space”
“It has been a month-and-a-half since the government here in the Czech Republic announced a state of emergency and dramatically reconfigured our everyday freedoms and habits. Initially, I spent days glued to news updates, with all future plans connected to any regular, preconceived sense of existence put on hold. At first, our lives were lived from hour to hour, later from day to day, until we eventually settled on living one week to the next.
“Any longer-term foreseeable future remains hazy, shape-shifting from one public contradictory announcement to the next. For the first time in my life, the near future has become completely unpredictable and the only thing I can rely on is the present moment. Even the daily counts of how many people were, are, or are going to be infected, are just numbers, which will keep changing until we can fully grasp what has happened — long after the current events have taken place.
“We are told that life will never be the same again and that things cannot return to as they were before: ‘the new normal,’ they call it. Judging from the imminent economic backlash in conjunction with largely conservative populist governments around the world, it seems like the world won’t be a better place for a while. From our current perspective, paradoxically, even the past status quo presents itself as a utopian version of anything that might come in the future.
“If I’m to think of the past as a form of utopia, this photograph springs to mind. I took it during one summer spent with a group of my friends in rural France. It was a period that we gave to ourselves to research, make new work, and to enjoy some time together away from our busy lives in the city. The idea of luxuries, such as undisturbed time to think and work, spending the majority of our time in outdoor, open spaces, or being in close proximity with friends, seems quite remote these days.
“The combination of being a mother of a four-year-old chatterbox, who has been separated from other children her age, and a work-from-home scenario, is not ideal. I am grateful that we have all the comforts of living in a spacious apartment, without a shortage of food and other supplies, but having work obligations while looking after a family can be difficult and the tensions are sometimes high.
“A particularly interesting phenomenon is the lack of silence and solitude within the home environment; these have somehow been transferred and imposed onto public space. The parks and streets were eerily deserted in the first weeks of ‘lockdown’, while homes became loud, un-restful and busy.
“Everything is slowly starting to re-open here in Prague but the future is still uncertain. Similarly, any notion of truth becomes an increasingly rare commodity among the countless available attempts at grasping the situation. As the whole world is experiencing something unprecedented in recent history, there are no words of wisdom that could shine a light on the end of the tunnel. I feel that the only way I can appropriately conclude is using the sentence that we all say way too often these days: ‘This is so crazy!’”
Mikhael Subotzy’swork derives from his attempts to situate himself within the historical, social and political narrative of his home, South Africa, and the places beyond that, which he visits. One of his earliest series Umjiegwana, The Outside, and Beaufort Westinterrogates the relationship between everyday life in post-apartheid South Africa, and the social structures, and complex histories, lingering beneath it.
“Perhaps utopia will only be relevant as a concept once we are gone, and the greens of our golf courses have faded into the coming dryness of winter”
“I took this photograph in the winter of 2008, shortly after a wave of xenophobic violence that swept through South Africa caused the deaths of 62 immigrants and the displacement of over 200, 000 vulnerable people.
“The photograph functions through a very straightforward dichotomy — the hugely ironic juxtaposition of the UNHCR tents with the advertising board declaring ‘Pleasure Personified’ in relation to the golf resort that was intended for this empty land.”
“The issue of xenophobic violence has hardly disappeared since then, but I now see much more in the juxtaposition than the material conditions of the refugees. Our consciousness of the land itself has changed with recent political developments and personally, I now notice the colour of the grass in the juxtaposition far more than the more obvious text.
“I realise that the grass is never really greener on any side in a world that has only become more divided, populist and cruel to immigrants in the 12 years since I took that photo in the tragic winter of 2008.
“I don’t know if this golf course was ever built, but this morning I woke up to pictures of lions and hyenas on the greens of the Skukuza Golf Course in the Kruger National Park, taking advantage of the absence of humans. Perhaps utopia will only be relevant as a concept once we are gone, and the greens of our golf courses have faded into the coming dryness of winter.”
Brand new to 1854 Access, BJP Submissions gives Members a direct channel to submit their work to the BJP editorial team for feature consideration. Learn more and submit your response to the theme ‘Utopia’ here.
Hannah Abel-Hirsch joined British Journal of Photography in 2017, where she is currently Assistant Editor. Previously, she was an Editorial Assistant at Magnum Photos, and a Studio Assistant for Susan Meiselas and Mary Ellen Mark in New York. Before which, she completed a BA in History of Art at University College London. Her words have also appeared on Magnum Photos, 1000 Words, and in the Royal Academy of Arts magazine.