10 April, 2019 • • 40.2The ArtsVisual Arts

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Junkspace: The Wonderful Worlds of Bodys Isek Kingelez

Nicolas Liney

Bodys Isek Kingelez created impossible cities. The Congolese artist spent his career building what he termed ‘extreme maquettes’—bold, vertiginous models of buildings and cityscapes, rhapsodic overtures to a visionary future urban existence, with titles like Kin 3ème millénaire or La Ville du Futur, that heap ziggurats, towers and columns into startling explosions of colour. Kingelez was an avowed utopian: he aimed at creating a “better, more prosperous world” that could be realised through the fabulous qualities of art. In his manifesto, he declared that “thanks to my deep hope for a happy tomorrow, I strive to better my quality, and the better becomes the wonderful”. His most ambitious project, Villa Fantôme (1996), aimed to present “a peaceful city where everybody is free. It’s a city that breathes nothing but joy, the beauty of life. It’s a melting pot of all races in the world. Here you live in a paradise, just like heaven”.

Villa Fantôme (1996)

But as its name suggests, the city is a ghost-town. Kingelez’ models are megacities that project immense wealth, catering to exclusively governmental or corporate ends. For all their colour and vivacity, they are eerily empty of any sign of life or function—we might think of William Morris’ own utopian vision in News From Nowhere, where the narrator William Guest is amused to discover that government buildings, bereft of purpose, are now simply used as “a storage place for manure”, or perhaps more aptly, they are reminiscent of the wild experiments of Soviet ‘cosmic architecture’, those post-sputnik megalomanic projections that perforate eastern Europe, now largely uninhabited and unused, a chaotic drive to excess that belied a crumbling political system. Like all good utopias, Villa Fantôme is everywhere and nowhere, flittering in the linguistic interstice between the good place (eu-topia) and no place (ou-topia) in order to arrive at highly specialised, highly fantastical commentary on a present socio-political reality. Villa Fantôme’s buildings are emblazoned with names like “Russia Ways”, “Seoul” or “USA”, a conglomerate post-1991 world without borders, lumped together by the magnetic pull of global capitalism. But where people might fit into this utopian vision is unclear.

Kingelez moved to Kinshasa, the capital of the Democratic Republic of Congo, in 1970 and stayed there until his death, going abroad only when absolutely necessary. His models are, to an extent, optimistic visions based on the hopes for his city and country, roughly coterminous with the DRC’s emergence as an independent nation. Until 1966, the city was named Léopoldville: in the 1880s, during the colonial scramble for Africa, the Belgian king Leopold II acquired the country as private property and exploited it with such extraordinary brutality that his own government had to intervene. 11 million people allegedly died in his horrific rubber plantations, which funded his own fanciful building projects, earning him the epithet the “builder king”. When Kingelez moved to Kinshasa, the city was in the process of extricating itself from its colonial past, under the orders of Joseph-Désiré Mobutu, the self-styled “father of the nation”. Mobutu orchestrated a doctrine of authenticité, an institutional extension of Aimé Césaire’s négritude that had characterised the intellectual reaction to—mainly French—colonialism and racism in the 1930s. The country was renamed Zaire, and the capital Kinshasa. Mobutu envisaged his policy of authenticité as a synthetic fusion between past and future, a dialectic synthesis that reversed the history of western intervention. In 1967, in his Manifesto of N’Sele, he proclaimed “Authenticité has made us discover our personality by reaching into the depths of our past for the rich cultural heritage which was left to us by our ancestors. We have no intention of blindly returning to all ancestral customs; rather, we would like to choose those which adapt themselves well to modern life, those which encourage progress, and those which create a way of life and thought which are essentially ours.”

Kinshasa la Belle (1991)

Kingelez certainly conceived of his models as miniature exercises in nation-building. He once said, drawing a bold line under the importance of his profession, that “without a model you are nowhere: a nation that can’t make models is a nation that doesn’t understand things, a nation that doesn’t live.” Charmingly boastful, Kingelez styled himself as some sort of deity, like both Leopold II and Mobutu before him—“I am a small god“, he once wrote in relation to his art—an omnipotent builder of perfect worlds that all reflect the subjectivity of their creator. Kingelez’ models occupy the sleek penumbra between autotelic, individual creativity and the purposive, collective ideology that circumscribes it. Utopia is both an inner dream and a communal project, or as Frederic Jameson puts it, “the collective content of utopian desire is ultimately internalised and individualised in an ecstatic celebration of unconditioned libidinal freedom”. This sentence maps neatly onto Kingelez’ cities. Nation conflates with self, and any contemplation of personal identity appears inseparable from the development of a nascent postcolonial national identity—“either I’m nobody or I’m a nation”, goes a line from Derek Walcott’s The Schooner Fight.

Étoile Rouge Congolaise (1990)

This productive dialectic between self and nation, past and future is at the core of how postcolonial utopian thought is conceived of. It’s hard to imagine a poetics or politics of utopia without being reminded of its unavoidable colonial history. The inaugural utopian textual project, More’s Utopia, presented a city founded through King Utopus’ subjugation of the indigenous inhabitants of Abraxa, and various other versions of a colonial utopia, such as Charles Burgh’s Cessares (1764) or Robert Southey’s Carmedoc (1799) appeared through the 18th century. In Europe’s postlapsarian cultural imagination, there’s always been some form of a “golden state” able to provide a new “golden age”, the alluring possibility of redressing a nation’s political and social shortcomings.  But what does the postcolonial utopia look like, then? Far from Benedict Anderson’s Imagined Communities (1991), which argued that postcolonial states simply parroted the model of their imperial predecessors, postcolonial utopias can push back against the problematic concept of nationhood, aiming at something more immanent and diffuse, what Eduard Glissant called “the prophetic vision of the past”, a deep recollection and nostalgia that defines the future outside of any historical determination, critiquing and replacing its relationship with its colonial associations. Instead, the postcolonial utopia pushes against any totalising, unitary category of nationhood, giving shape instead to the transnational, diasporic experience. If Kingelez’ models appear to be histrionic variations on existing western metropolises, they also stand as fundamental critiques, utopias that fulfil Jameson’s criteria of “keep(ing) alive the possibility of a world qualitatively distinct from this one”. Important figures like Okwui Enwezor and Chike Okeke-Agulu have been instrumental in placing Kingelez within a wider postcolonial framework of utopian thought, particularly through Enwezor’s landmark exhibitions Documenta 11 (2002) and The Short Century: Independence and Liberation Movements in Africa, 1945-1994 (2001)—which both included Kingelez—and his curatorial efforts at the 2015 Venice Biennale, All the World’s Futures, which pushed a distinctly utopian agenda.

“La marque de L’Utopien”, Roland Barthes quipped “c’est le quotidien”. The amorphous, conflated cityscapes that Kingelez presents might also suggest an implicit critique of Kinshasa’s slow environmental decay as a result of globalisation. Once known as Kin-La-Belle, it now goes by the less flattering sobriquet Kin-La-Poubelle (‘Kinshasa the rubbish heap’). For me, at least, Kingelez’ cities address a far broader, insidious reality. His maquettes are made up of hafts from ballpoint pens, scraps of cardboard, aluminium foil, plastic straws, thumbtacksand coke bottles, a bricolage of the detritus of global economies and mass consumption that hint at the deadly cost of Kinshasa’s—and the world’s—pollution crisis, a megacity with over 10 million people. It’s impossible to avoid the economic underpinnings of Kingelez’ work, nor shake the troubling feeling that their utopian visions project upon a vastly unstable present. As Jameson famously said, “it has become easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism”. Mark Fisher coined the term ‘capitalist realism’ to describe “the widespread sense that not only is capitalism the only viable political and economic system, but also that it is now impossible even to imagine a coherent alternative to it”. It might be that Kingelez articulates an urban form suitably apt for the theatrics of high capitalism, with cities and economic powerhouses heaped conveniently together, a utopia for global corporations, but a slightly more troubling prospect for everyone else. Against the cool sterility of the modernist urban projects of Le Corbusier, Kingelez’ utopian dreams epitomise what Rem Koolhaus termed ‘junkspace’ to describe the postmodern, global capitalist city at architectural and economic bursting point:

Junkspace is a Bermuda triangle of concepts, a petri dish abandoned: it cancels distinctions, undermines resolve, confuses intention with realisation. It replaces hierarchy with accumulation, composition with addition. More and more, more is more. Junkspace is overripe and undernourishing at the same time, a colossal security blanket that covers the earth in a stranglehold of care […] Junkspace is like being condemned to a perpetual Jacuzzi with millions of your best friends . . . A fuzzy empire of blur, it fuses high and low, public and private, straight and bent, bloated and starved to offer a seamless patchwork of the permanently disjointed.

All utopias are expressions of hyperbole—impossible extensions of their subject matter that force us to consider the strange suitability between tenor and vehicle. Kingelez’ cities are beautiful junkspaces, a feverish extrapolation into the future of a postcolonial, globalised world, eternally teetering on the brink.

Sports Internationaux (1997)

‘Junkspace’ is part of a Special Issue on Uto/Dystopias


Nicolas Liney is reading for a DPhil in Classics at Christ Church College.