New York

Saks Afridi, Sighting #3, 2019, Vibrachrome print on aluminum, 48 × 36".

Saks Afridi, Sighting #3, 2019, Vibrachrome print on aluminum, 48 × 36".

“Utopian Imagination”

Ford Foundation Gallery

Imagining utopia requires a certain leap of faith—and a conscious suspension of our present reality, with all its glaring limitations. That we must cross a literal threshold in order to enter this group exhibition seems appropriate, then. Viewers pass through a curtain of silver drapes into a small, mirrored room, wherein a pair of luscious panels by Firelei Báez—known for creating immersive, painterly environments that overlie evanescent portraits and Baroque Tropicália—are infinitely reflected. Collectively titled Adjusting the Moon (The right to non-imperative clarities), 2019, these works depict life-size ciguapas—mischievous, female creatures of Dominican folklore—who serve as the gatekeepers to “Utopian Imagination.” Dissolving into radiant pools of magenta, amber, and indigo paint, these beings transgress the trompe l’oeil frames that surround and contain them. Like us, they can move between worlds.

Throughout the show, thirteen artists offer nuanced perspectives on the notion of utopia, proposing new mythologies of survival, time travel, or spiritual awakening that center on the liberation of diasporic, queer, and indigenous subjects. Curated by Jaishri Abichandani, this presentation is the final installment of an inaugural trilogy of exhibitions at the Ford Foundation Gallery. The first two—“Perilous Bodies” and “Radical Love”—respectively addressed environmental and social injustice and our ability to overcome oppressive systems through love and collective nurturing. “Utopian Imagination” closes the series by offering “a vision of a future that includes all of us,” with works that envision the potential for intersectional coexistence and ecological repair.

Many pieces—including those by Juliana Huxtable, Farxiyo Jaamac, Zak Ové, Mikael Owunna, and Yinka Shonibare MBE—utilize a cosmic aesthetic aligned with Afrofuturism and science fiction, asserting space travel as a metaphor for liberation. Shonibare’s sculpture Cloud 9, 1999–2000, takes the form of an astronaut clad in a Dutch-wax-print-fabric space suit. While presenting an aspirational narrative in which black subjects are pioneers of aeronautics, the work also acknowledges historic linkages between exploration, colonialization, and exploitation.

Saks Afridi’s “SpaceMosque” series, 2017–, imagines a parafictional historic narrative in which humanity was once visited by a space-faring minaret that could answer every individual’s innermost prayers. Afridi asks whether such a scenario would engender individual or collective fulfillment. Employing glossy photographs and enigmatic sculptures—all of which are renderings of the impossibly weightless, sleekly abstracted mosque—Afridi leaves one wondering if we would truly be capable of creating an equitable society were we handed the opportunity.

Some works look to modernist utopias, as in Lee Bul’s transfixing, hanging sculpture Sternbau No. 5, 2007. Inspired by the German architect Bruno Taut’s post–World War I vision for an alpine city wherein world communities could coexist in spiritual and technological harmony, its spiraling form comprises an intricate maze of crystal, glass, and acrylic beads. The piece is dazzling, yet disquieting in its invocation of post-conflict ruins. Nearby, Mariko Mori’s 1996 video, Miko no Inori (Prayer of the Priestess), similarly combines techno-futurist dreamscapes with elusive spiritual iconography. The meditative soundtrack can be heard throughout the galleries, with Mori’s voice chanting in Japanese: “The words are melting and becoming one.”

While several artists indulge fantasies of escape, others envision modes of “staying with the trouble,” to borrow Donna J. Haraway’s phrase. These artists mine indigenous and non-Western folklore for new archetypes of survival. In She Who Sees the Unknown: Huma, 2016, Morehshin Allahyari invokes a little-known Middle Eastern demon, Huma, who is associated with the common fever and other excesses of heat. Allahyari’s video and the hanging talismans nearby, crafted from clear resin, imagine the jinni’s role in the fight against climate change, characterizing her as “the site of the warm globe and the slowly burning human.”

The exhibition is situated within a utopian project of a different nature. The redesign of the Ford Foundation’s interior and edifice by the architectural firm Gensler asserts the ethics of the institution itself: increased accessibility, a lush atrium garden, a collaborative open floor plan. While claims to social engagement are ubiquitous in today’s art world, this show reminds us that art is, ultimately, a vehicle of the imagination, to give vision to the future we want.