Desert of the Real: Hannah Feldman on the Art of Mai-Thu Perret

Article excerpt

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.

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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 reminiscent of Jorge Luis Borges's famous recounting of the intrusion of an imagined world on mid-twentieth-century Argentinean society (in his story "Tlon, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius"), Perret has invented a utopian commune and is inserting its products and commodities into the "real" world of the art institution. For the past seven years and counting, she has been building a constellation of objects and texts around this all-female commune, which she has named The Crystal Frontier and situated somewhere in the already mythologized desert of the American Southwest. While this location remains constant, other aspects of the fiction are subject to change. At any moment, there might be as few as three or as many as twelve women--Perret refers to them as "girls"--in The Crystal Frontier universe, which otherwise consists of sculptural objects, stage sets, paintings, fashion designs, and a collection of texts, placed in a decidedly ambiguous relationship to one another and to the conditions of their production. Some of the girls have names, such as Diotima Schwarz (after Robert Musil and Plato before him) and Beatrix Mendell (on whose imaginary trust fund the commune was founded), while others have only character positions: the "impulsively angry girl," the architect, the builder, and so on. All, however, are united in having rejected the materialist and depersonalized rhythm of life in the city to build a commune in the desert. In the diaristic text piece No More City, 2003-2006 (which exists both as a written document and as a forty-inch screenprint on paper), one girl remembers life in the real world--here made to echo the status quo of the gallery system--as being "closed ... the sediment of meaning upon meaning, story upon story, oppression upon oppression." The city the girls left behind, "a grey-tinged nightmare," is nonspecific: It could be any city, it seems, at any time, since all cities are equal in that they have all been pervaded by the built forms of capital. In one of The Crystal Frontier's texts, Letter Home (After A.R.), 2006, the city takes the name "P.," ostensibly an abbreviation for Paris used in a letter written by Aleksandr Rodchenko to his wife, Varvara Stepanova. Perret has appropriated this text, decontextualizing, despecifying, and ungendering it for the purposes of her project.

In the desert, the girls begin, according to No More City, "building the hacienda. A pyramid of love," a form Perret first diagrammed in rigid geometric lines and later built as the commune's bunny hutch (Pyramid of Love, 2003). The pervasiveness of the language of love and the invocation of crystal bespeak a certain new-age optimism, not to mention a drug-friendly counterculture--indeed, an earlier work consisted of a Wonderland-ish teapot filled with mescaline and called, appropriately enough, Mescaline Tea Service, 2002. The '60s inevitably come to mind, and critics and curators alike have been quick to reel off the associations: Woodstock, Haight Ashbury, etc. …