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Utopia/Dystopia: Construction and Destruction in Photography and Collage on View at the MFAH

Falling by Okanoue Toshiko, 1956

Falling by Okanoue Toshiko, 1956

Utopia/Dystopia: Construction and Destruction in Photography and Collage
Museum of Fine Arts, Houston
March 11 through June 10, 2012

Nearly ever since photography’s invention early in the 19th century, artists have utilized the medium to experiment with social, political and urban construction and imagination, which later led to the creation of collages and montages, and most recently moving images. Utopia/Dystopia: Construction and Destruction in Photography and Collage, which opens March 11 at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, explores this rich and complex tradition of avant-garde practices with 100 works that have been created since the 1860s in Asia, Africa, the Americas and Europe.

The works include photographs, photo collages, photomontages and moving images, along with sculptures that incorporate photography. The exhibition has been drawn from the collections of the MFAH as well as from the Menil Collection, the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Museum of Modern Art and private holdings. Among the many artists featured are Herbert Bayer, Matthew Buckingham, Rachel Harrison, Richard Hawkins, Hannah Höch, El Lissitzky and Tom Thayer.

Utopia/Dystopia is organized by MFAH associate photography curator Yasufumi Nakamori and will be on view through June 10, 2012 as part of the FotoFest 2012 Biennial: the largest and longest-running international photography festival in the United States. An illustrated catalogue with essays by Nakamori and Graham Bader, the Mellon Assistant Professor of art history at Rice University, will accompany the exhibition.

“In breaking and reassembling found images to create a new vision, artists have found collage and montage ideal for expressing utopian dreams and dystopian anxieties,” said Nakamori. “The early-20th-century avant-garde movements of Cubism, Dada, Surrealism and Constructivism all embraced these methods, and the approach remains compelling today, when there have been a number of wars and revolutions occurring around the globe. Some contemporary artists resort to montage and collage to reflect the world they live in. All of the works in the exhibition feel fresh and relevant, and attest to the enduring attraction of constructing and destructing with photography.”

Bader writes in the catalogue: “From Berlin Dada to Paris Surrealism, these artists reconfigured photographic fragments to demonstrate the deeper truths such assemblages revealed … and to imagine, through their acts of cutting and pasting, alternative realities in both the present and future.”

The exhibition is organized around three key theme—urban visions, figure constructions and the quest for a utopian world. “Envisioning the City” explores urban environments. In Re-ruined Hiroshima (1968), architect Arata Isozaki superimposed two steel frameworks onto a razed landscape to represent either the ruined city of the past or a future Hiroshima being built out of the devastation. Architect Ron Herron’s Walking City on the Ocean (1966) clearly depicts a utopia—a pod city set on insect-like legs by the ocean, both isolated from the problems of the city and readily poised to escape any pending disaster. In El Lissitzky’s Runner in the City (c. 1926), an image of a male athlete jumping a hurdle is collaged over a photograph of a teeming Times Square, as if the figure were fleeing a dehumanized American metropolis.

Apple, New York Times, February 8, 2011 by Carter Mull, 2011

Apple, New York Times, February 8, 2011 by Carter Mull, 2011

“Constructing the Figure” considers the ways that artists recombine figurative imagery to re-tell a specific narrative. Wangeshi Mutu, a Kenyan artist who works in New York, combines fragments from Western and African visual cultures in A Headresting Moment (2006): a larger-than-life-size collage of a hybrid female figure. Vivian Sundaram’s work reconstructs his family history, as in Hair (2001). The artist used Photoshop to combine a photograph of his Hungarian-Indian aunt in European dress with an image of his Indian grandfather in traditional clothing, reconnecting a daughter and a father who had a turbulent relationship.

The last section, “Searching for Utopia,” follows artists’ quests to create a better world. Ezaki Reiji, a late-19th-century studio photographer in Tokyo, collaged together 1,700 photographs of babies to convey population growth and the city’s future economic prospects. Carter Mull’s recent photo-drawing, Apple, New York Times, February 8, 2011, juxtaposes the concept of forbidden fruit with the Apple brand to comment on social media’s role in the Egyptian revolution.

FotoFest 2012 Biennial

The FotoFest 2012 Biennial, March 16–April 29, 2012, is the 14th International Biennial of Photography and Photo-related Art. The 2012 edition is titled “Contemporary Russian Photography,” and spans the late 1950s to the present. The United States’ largest and longest-running international photography festival, FotoFest is also one of the oldest international showcases for photography in the world. FotoFest 2012 features photography and mixed-media exhibitions, an international portfolio review for artists, evenings for art collectors, opportunities to meet artists, symposia on photography, artist and curator talks, workshops for artists, gallery treks, film screenings, book signings and the international Biennial Fine Print Auction. For more information, visit:

MFAH Collections

Founded in 1900, the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, is among the ten largest art museums in the United States. Located in the heart of Houston’s Museum District, the MFAH comprises two gallery buildings, a sculpture garden, library, theater and two art schools, with two house museums, for American and European decorative arts, nearby. The encyclopedic collection of the MFAH numbers some 64,000 works and embraces the art of antiquity to the present.

Falling by Okanoue Toshiko, 1956

Falling by Okanoue Toshiko, 1956

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