Eleanor King: Dark Utopian
by Henry Adam Svec
“A map of the world that does not include Utopia is not worth even glancing at,” as Oscar Wilde put it, “for it leaves out the one country at which Humanity is always landing.”1 Eleanor King’s recent exhibition, Dark Utopian, scours maps and diagrams of various scales for a better place that does not exist. Whether or not this interdisciplinary assemblage denotes a route to utopia, however, is a provocatively open question. Rather than offering legible instructions to paradise, King sets the viewer adrift across the smooth spaces of modernity, forcing us to reckon not only with an “impossible” destination, but also with the murky desires that might drive us there.
The main room of the exhibition is dominated by a massive wall painting, Deepwater Horizon (BP), whose vibrant hues and stunning stripes reach from floor to ceiling and around the gallery’s winding walls. King has taken a standard cartographic view of the coastline, from Halifax to New York City, and exploded it with cool colours and angular contours – a bird’s eye representation washing out into abstract, mechanical patterning. It is an exhilarating image. The dazzle painting style to which she alludes was used by the British to disguise ships during the First World War (it also found its way into paintings by NSCAD president and Group of Seven member Arthur Lismer); but King’s gesture highlights contemporary reverberations of this colonial heritage, too, for both sea and land – and art – have become prime real estate. Indeed, from the point of view of corporations like British Petroleum, the whole world is a site of value extraction, what Martin Heidegger has called a “standing reserve,” just waiting to be called to productive action.2 Is King’s dazzle camouflage a defensive manoeuvre, then, an attempt to conceal both the map’s territory (and the map) from the hungry gaze of capitalists and speculators?
Extending the nautical and navigational themes is the sculpture Rafts. Two small punts lie in the middle of the gallery floor – the rickety vessels seemingly engaged in a vaguely sexual coupling, soft blue mounted onto faded yellow. As with the wall map, there is a medium-specific attention to materiality in the visually pleasing and playful work, arresting given its gothic minimalism. Yet, these found objects also introduce the question of political-aesthetic translation. Are such beautiful and cleverly positioned things to be desired or consumed? (Not owned, one would presume, since they are listed as materials only “borrowed” from actor John Dunsworth.) Or, are we meant to wonder about their usefulness as actual tools for survival in a post-apocalyptic wasteland? King has us scuttling between the gallery, the coastal province of Nova Scotia and the ideal society.
The other works in the main room focus more on aesthetics than pragmatics. Wormholes VI, VII, VIII are large drawings on paper that have been imposed onto the wall painting like digital pop-up windows. With coloured pencils, King has repeatedly traced the shape of the Compact Disc and the vinyl LP to burrow winding, cascading paths, which bump into one another but do not manage to connect. In a similar vein, the sculpture CD Worm is a stack of old CDs shaped into a bent tower – like a creature reaching up for rain. There is a less obvious connection between these meditations on the materiality of sonic media and the show as a whole, but conceptually they continue to riff on the themes of drive, utility and despair. It is as though King’s quest for utopia continues, but here in distinct media and forms rather than in geographical locations.
In the title work Dark Utopian, a video and sound piece that plays in a second room, we perhaps get the clearest articulation of the artist’s political vision. Via a recording of a Google Earth tour, we float slowly down the coastline (facing the land, not the sea), from Halifax to New York City and then back again. It is an eerily claustrophobic, lonely ride. We are also treated to a didactic protest song of sorts, though far from the optimistic anthems of the folksingers of the mid-20th century. King herself sings plaintively, her voice echoing, her electric guitar ringing slow arpeggios: “We’re so confused / We have no clue / How to get out of the mess we’re in / Is there no light at the end?” The earnest and melancholy tune is played loud enough to float faintly through the entirety of the space, giving the whole show a frosty, quizzical glaze.
Theorists and artists alike have worked to reimagine utopia over the past decades. Utopia is not necessarily a rigid framework to be imposed onto society; according to Ruth Levitas, it is only “a desire for a better way of being.”3 As is suggested by the exhibit’s title, Dark Utopian is not all sunshine and rainbows and relational aesthetics, and there is a decidedly void affective energy running through it. Yet, it is in King’s ambivalence and high-punk aesthetic that we see her utopianism’s potential. It is in between – along the cold channels of our global systems, like seaways and Google Earth and digital networks and even the institutions of contemporary art – that we find our dwelling places, and that is where we need to do the hard work of desiring to be better together, for now.