London

Michael Smith and Joshua White

Hales Gallery | London

The story so far: Having purchased land in the Catskills on which to build a conference center for his Wellness Solutions Group, dot-com entrepreneur Mike Smith has made an exciting discovery. The site used to be home to QuinQuag, a Utopian artists’ colony founded in the late ’40s and bankrolled by a certain Isabelle Nash, patroness of the arts and the wife of a rich dental-supplies manufacturer. QuinQuag’s reputation, we learn, rests largely on its output of folksy handpainted tiles and clunky wooden rocking chairs. Both enterprises were resounding financial failures, though one of the rockers was supposedly given to JFK by Jackie. Halston allegedly contributed a design for another, but “for some reason, it didn't catch on.” Despite this, it’s all a thrilling revelation for Mike, who, seeing a perfect fit between QuinQuag values and Wellness Solutions’ goals, has adopted the colony's name for his company. “When people think about ‘wellness’ in the. future, they’ll think ‘QuinQuag’!” he declares in a promotional video, his expression suffused with a nicely judged blend of awed humility and visionary zeal.

Smith and White’s installation, a hyperactive clutter of gimcrack notice-board displays, monitors screening promotional video footage disguised as documentary, jolly tiles and painted rockers, plastic plants, split logs, garden benches, and other hokey props, purports to be a touring exhibition charting QuinQuag past and present. The ludicrousness of various exhibits (for example, a rocking chair rotating solemnly on a motorized stand, or a model of Smith's projected Wellness Center built from toy bricks and graced by a rough-shaped wire ball in tragic approximation of one of Buckminster Fuller’s geodesic domes) combines with the rehearsed quality of the video interviewees’ performances to mark the exercise very clearly as a sham—the latest in a long line of Mike Smith spoofs. (Clarification for non-US readers: “Wellness” is a marketing ploy based on persuading people that they are not as “well” as they think they are, the better to sell them anything from vitamin pills to “spiritual counseling.”) Nevertheless, a handful of visitors took QuinQuag at face value, the Hales team reports—even going so far as to inquire about the prices of the tiles. Maybe these trusting souls aren’t quite as dumb as they seem. After all, they arc following, if unwittingly, a time-honored tradition: Thomas More’s fictional land was assumed by a number of his contemporaries to be a real place.

Some commentators have characterized Smith and White’s QuinQuag project as a classic satire—a straightforwardly comical parody targeting both hippie-communitarian aspirations (QuinQuag phase one) and the entrepreneurial hot air of the dot-com debacle (QuinQuag phase two). However, the piece is lifted above the level of slick, knowing skit by an underlying tone that’s very hard to diagnose: Let’s call it an anxious blankness. The duo certainly broach the themes of incompetence and failure, but they do so with neither a cloying, patronizing “affectionate humor” nor a rebarbative satirical cruelty. The loving care, effort, and attention with which they establish their fictional scenario elicits serious attention from the viewer. The face of JFK (on a giant ink-jet print on canvas, supposedly mimicking batik) presides over the show—surely the perfect symbol of the fundamentally flawed product that everyone passionately wished to believe was wonderful. Ultimately, Smith and White’s numb irony testifies to an anomie born of irretrievably dashed hopes. Oscar Wilde observed that a world map that omits Utopia is not even worth glancing at, and QuinQuag seems to point, with a subtly desperate gesture, to the scuffed area on the contemporary map where the fabled realm has been rubbed out.

Rachel Withers