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'How to Fulfill a Wish' by Jenine Marsh at COOPER COLE, Toronto

Utopia is the critical horizon of a world that “works,” and a contentious terrain for radical imagination. 

As a fanciful concept of something that has never truly existed, utopianism is particularly opportune for a literary genre, where it has primarily played out. Its “ontology coincides with its representation.”1 It is a tempting, completely elusive paradox in a global society of untold abundance, but whose foremost output seems to be misery. Utopia occupies an ineffable form of a problem where no solution is historically available. 

Machiavelli wrote The Prince around the same time Thomas More wrote Utopia. These two diametrically opposing texts—the former fantasizing about power, force, and acquisition; the latter about communal living and relinquishment—have both endured throughout the past 500 years in literary teaching. Each ultimately formulates emblems that differentiate utopian ideals on the left and on the right. On the whole it would seem as though Machiavelli’s vision has triumphed, so far. 

Like Plato, More ruminated on the abolition of private property in a perfect world. 

But even More’s Utopia is a closed society with a trench dug between the mainland and the island, which is what would seemingly allow it to maintain Utopia in the first place. Such an antinomy is less antagonistic than it seems, instead probing a deeper impulse to think through the problem than run-of-the-mill cynicism would allow. 

As the foremost contemporary thinker on the concept of utopia, Fredric Jameson insists that it has always been a political issue. It also emphasizes the power of fantasy as a measure of the human capacity to process reality and desire, and to actualize a vision beyond the two. As such, utopia is one part wish-fulfillment and one part construction; a project that can only flourish simultaneously in theory and practice. 

Jameson has also always emphasized the didactic function of art for renewing insight. 

In How to Fulfill a Wish, Jenine Marsh gives us an exercise in these powers of wish-fulfillment and construction, continuing her thinking through themes of exchange, social engineering, public space and sculptural intervention, centre here around the fountain. As a historically public gathering place, the fountain is a device that converges on a society’s penchant for intertwined beauty and function. With its roots in basic social nourishment, and considering the immense changes to public space over centuries, it is a particularly generative symbol for a utopian poetic. 

In previous projects, Jenine has mixed and poured her own concrete, as in the dismantled/ dysfunctional/under-construction fountain, Utopia (2023). This time, she reached out to professional prop makers to create three identical forms. Jenine tells me the workers who made them halted work on May 1st alongside the ongoing script writers strike. As such, they were constructed differently than if they’d had more time, bearing evidence of time restraints and improvised construction. Now, contained within their structure is a two-fold rupture of historically determined capitalism: the cut-corners of prefabrication, but in service of exercising the worker’s right to strike, on a socialist holiday no less. 

“May Day” culminates in a long history, from celebrations of Flora in the Roman Republic, the Gaelic Beltane festival, Germanic celebrations of St. Walpurga, various pagan festivals for the arrival of spring, and the Catholic feast day of St. Joseph the Worker (specifically chosen in 1955 to counter communist celebrations of International Workers’ Day). The Marxist International Socialist Congress established IWD in 1889 as an international demonstration to support demands for the eight-hour workday. May 1st was selected by the American Federation of Labor to observe the start of the US general strike in 1886. 

The eight-hour workday movement began in 1817 following the Industrial Revolution with the slogan, "Eight hours' labour, Eight hours' recreation, Eight hours' rest.” Workers in Britain only won a 10-hour workday in 1847. As a point of contrast, Philip II of Spain established the eight-hour workday for all through a royal edict in the late 16th century. 

My, how far we’ve come. — 

By and large, Jenine’s career as an artist has taken the form of building upon each previous project with new perspectives, inquiries, material interests, and references, but which integrate what came before. She consistently poses a new set of open-ended questions about the world we live in versus the one we might prefer to inhabit. A long view of her work reveals a cohesive feminist and anti-capitalist vision where value, agency, and mortality are evaluated through a poetic sculptural process that incorporates physical contact, research, and personal persistence with equal consideration to determinations of the past and possibilities for the future. 

Her trademarks of pressed coins, preserved flowers, concrete, moulds of hands and feet are all the more compatible within the social function of collective world-making. Building direct allusions to what is defunct or fruitless, alongside what is worthwhile and prolific, Jenine’s affinity for the dialectic of building and destroying is the only real tell of optimism. 

Recent works began incorporating text by cutting out and collaging words and phrases from issues of the socialist newspaper People’s Voice, piecing together a flawed and incomplete list of things that make up a world by present-day standards. 

busts and boom
trust and sincerity
fuel and rent
relatives and friends 
government and capital 
loans and salaries 
thoughts and feelings 

I have always had an affection for Jenine’s proclivity to refer to “the shared experience of end-stage capitalism,” as it consolidates and reproduces itself in our collective consciousness. Through her continued appetite for zones of exclusion, symbols of value, solidarity, and material transformations, her work is a necessary programmatic for the era of end-stage capitalism. Jenine, like Jameson, consistently renews the wellspring of hope and possibility even within certain motifs of disappointment, because that is what leftist utopians do. 

1 Fredric Jameson, “The Politics of Utopia,” New Left Review 25 (Jan/Feb 2004), p. 35. 

— Angell Callander

27.5.23 — 1.7.23


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