What kind of utopia can come out of these margins, negations, and obscurities? Who will even recognize it as a utopia? It won’t look the way it ought to. — Ursula K. Le Guin
This quote immediately confronts and grounds visitors at the entrance of "Beside the Edge of the World," a multimedia, interdisciplinary art exhibition at The Huntington Library, Art Museum, and Botanical Gardens. In honor of their centennial, The Huntington partnered with L.A. arts organization, Clockshop, to explore and unearth ideas of “utopia” that are hidden within their extensive archives, which houses eleven million objects. The cohort of three artists and two writers used Thomas More’s satirical book “Utopia” (1516) and its map depicting the fictional "Isle of Utopia," both part of The Huntington's collection, as a catalyst to shape their pieces. After a year of research on-site, design and construction, the artists Nina Katchadourian, Beatriz Santiago Muñoz, and Rosten Woo, and writers Dana Johnson and Robin Coste Lewis birthed artworks for exhibit including a documentary film, an audio walking tour, historical fiction, poetry publications and garden installations. "Beside the Edge of the World" also includes a selection of the objects used by the artists in their research alongside their new works.
“I think about the idea of utopia as digging back to ideas that were found and lost,” explained Julia Meltzer, founder and director of Clockshop and co-curator of the exhibition. “People who were on the edges and think about better possible societies often don’t stay in the mainstream of history or culture, and those ideas are forgotten. This was the perfect place to re-find those ideas.”
We tend to think of utopia as a physical place illustrated through the various maps used in the exhibition. Jenny A. Watts, curator of photography and visual culture at The Huntington, shared how that concept was challenged once the cohort met the Huntington’s curator of British history. "He talked about utopia in the context of what it meant to British history and culture, and how radical and satirical it was, and pointed [out that] it was about the current political state. We think of it being ‘utopia/dystopia’ but in fact Thomas More’s 'Utopia' really means nowhere. That sparked people’s ideas.” This introduced the idea that utopia may be a state of mind or being rather than a physical location we can travel to or build.
Artist Rosten Woo connected with the story of Robert Hine who documented life in California communes, where groups of people attempted to bring utopia to life. Hine became blind in mid-age and thus shifted to recording oral histories during the mid-70s “back to the land” resurgence. These archival tapes of Hine and his wife deeply influenced Woo, who is interested in political history and California. After listening to hours of Hine's tapes that included lots of ambient noise and somewhat rambling interviews, he wanted to take visitors on a nine-part audio storytelling tour through the exhibition and different gardens throughout the Huntington. Woo noted that the archives and museum are relatively unknown parts of the grounds, so he wanted to connect them to the more popular gardens. "It felt like a missed opportunity to not put some breadcrumbs out along the site so people who aren't necessarily trying to have an art experience can still encounter the work," he explained. His contribution also features artifacts from Robert Hine's commune exploration including a "Weekly Synergy Chart," essentially an analog spreadsheet measuring how often a person engages in activities such as "spontaneous singing and dancing, or petty bickering and moodiness."
Each work in “Beside the Edge of the World” asks the viewer to consider perspective when it comes to envisioning utopia. Since the records span the last 100 years when the voices of women and/or people of color were limited, the artists challenge viewers to consider whose interpretations of “utopia” were captured in posterity and what voices were valued. This idea is central in Dana Johnson’s work honoring Delilah Beasley, the premier Black woman documentarian of African American pioneers in the West. Originally from Ohio, Beasley traveled west to California, which became a place of wonder to her. She saw utopia in its vastness and how Black people were living lives that were remarkable to her. As a journalist, she traveled around the state for eight years and spent her own money to produce and self-publish "The Negro Trail-Blazers of California” (1919), which one hundred years later is still the most thorough history of California's Black pioneers. (A copy is currently on view as part of The Huntington's centennial exhibit.) Beasley's dying wish was to have her book in every library across the state, yet today her name is still relatively unknown outside of scholarly circles.
In response, Johnson penned a historical fiction short story, “Our Endless Ongoing,” imagining Beasley’s life as an African American woman and independent journalist in California at the turn of the century. This book is one of the tangible products that came out of the exhibit, featuring powerful photos of Beasley and some of her subjects taken directly from The Huntington’s archives. Johnson shared that she thought deeply about how to make Beasley human and tell her story evocatively. “How do I make this person that not a lot of people know of someone that we should urgently know?” she asked.
Beasley represents just one of the countless stories housed in The Huntington's archives that are waiting to be unearthed. Co-curator Watts recalled a quote from Robin Coste Lewis, poet laureate of Los Angeles and exhibit contributor, at the exhibition’s opening: “The archives long for us. They need us to tell those stories that have not been told.” Watts reflected, “We have a lot of scholars here that are doing that, but to bring in artists and writers who have a different audience and different vision of those stories has been very powerful.”
The overt use of various audio and visual media as well as sculpture offers new life to the accompanying archival documents and photos. It keeps these stories alive and connects the present to the past. “Art is a useful gym for the mind, where it allows you to think and flex in ways you aren’t usually doing,” asserted artist Nina Katchadourian. Her work, “Strange Creatures,” is a “half-human, half-fish” installation in the Chinese Garden’s Lake of Reflected Fragrance that subtly rises and falls in and out of the water surprising viewers and ideally piquing their curiosity. She was inspired by Ulisse Aldrovandi’s “Monstrorum Historia” (1642); considered to be the first true atlas of the known world; and the ancient Chinese text “Guideways through Mountains and Seas,” compiled between the fourth and first centuries B.C. which describes mythical beasts “within the cosmos of heaven and earth.” She reflected on how the 16th-century explorers tried to make sense of the new lands and wildlife they encountered and simulated the same sort of wonder through her rendition of an obscure and undefined creature. It sits in the middle of the lake so that passersby can only see it from afar. They are asked to interrogate its presence and make their own conclusions.
Katchadourian disputed the notion that we as humans have “seen it all” at this point in history and noted how that sentiment can limit our curiosity. “It’s wonderful to have not seen everything, it opens up space for new possibilities,” she reflected. “It’s part of a bigger rumination about the world around me and what I can do as an artist to create opportunities to practice this kind of thinking.”
This is the kind of exhibit that requests time and an open mind from its viewers. You’ll want to fully engage with the archival objects, Beatriz Santiago Muñoz’s 12-minute documentary film connecting her homeland of Puerto Rico to The Huntington’s Botanical Gardens, Woo’s guided garden tour, the published poetry book by Caste remixing a chapter of Henry David Thoreau’s “Walden” that focuses on free Blacks and Delilah Beasley’s story via Dana Johnson’s imagination calls for our attention and respect. “Beside the Edge of the World” is an invitation to question, define and re-draw our own maps to an elusive and complex utopia.
“Beside the Edge of the World” is on view until Feb. 24, 2020 in the Virginia Steele Scott Galleries of American Art’s Susan and Stephen Chandler Wing. Artist Rosten Woo will be leading a walkthrough of the gardens as he shares his project "Another World Lies Beyond." More information here.
Top Image: Sir Thomas More (1478-1535), Utopia, 1516 | The Huntington Library, Art Museum, and Botanical Gardens