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DESERT OF THE REAL: THE ART OF MAI-THU PERRET

THAT THE ART WORLD has something of a schoolgirl’s crush on utopia is yesterday’s news—but the infatuation shows no sign of waning. Aesthetics, we keep being told, are either complicit or relational, never somewhere in-between, a formulation that makes reconciling contemporary art and its oft-presumed preoccupation with social change very hard work. For Mai-Thu Perret, a Swiss-born artist (she now divides her time between New York and Geneva) who wants to distance herself from ideological absolutes without falling prey to empty relativism, this “gap between what art can do and what we wish it would do” is what “makes it interesting.” Utopia, for her, is best imagined when it intersects with the real, which is to say, when it fails.

What art can offer us, in Perret’s conception, is a shot at interpretive freedom, the kind of freedom more traditionally afforded the written word. In a move

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