Peter Liversidge’s ‘Free Signs’ (2010/11)
Peter Liversidge’s ‘Free Signs’ (2010/11)

It’s not often that an art exhibition invites you to book a therapy session, contemplate strawberries grown on the moon or see “worm juice” collect in a jar. But the Whitechapel Gallery’s Spirit of Utopia stretches the notion of an exhibition in some weird and wonderful directions. As spontaneous protests continue to erupt around the world, it seems apt that the gallery’s summer show should focus on the role art can play in imagining and realising a better society.

I began with a “therapy” session in Pedro Reyes’s “Sanatorium” (2013). Nobody suggests it’s anything other than a placebo, but the Mexican artist’s intention is serious. His aim is to test Sociatry, a theory first articulated in 1930 by the Austrian-American psychiatrist Jacob Levi Moreno, who wanted to treat the depression, loneliness and family violence so prevalent in cities without resorting to prescription drugs.

Reyes, 40, trains non-professionals to administer a range of eight “therapies” that draw on everything from Gestalt psychology to theatre warm-up techniques. I could have chosen “Goodoo”, a positive variant on Voodoo, but opted instead for “The Museum of Hypothetical Lifetimes”. An architect by training, Reyes has produced a many-roomed model into which I found myself, under the kindly eye of the “therapist”, placing tiny items – a cat, a koala, Michelangelo’s David – to curate a “museum” of my life.

Reyes wants to bring about social change in the here and now, rather than speculate on the future shape of society. One earlier project involved him offering vouchers and electrical appliances to Mexicans in exchange for firearms. The response was overwhelming. Reyes and his team melted down the weapons and had them made into shovels, which schoolchildren and art museums are now using to plant trees. Another piece, “Baby Marx”, is a reaction against what Reyes sees as “junk” books and games created for kids. First made in 2008, it is a TV series, featuring puppets, about the author of Das Kapital.

There’s a deep-seated democratic ethos to Reyes’s work: just as he trains the Sanatorium “therapists”, then gives them free rein, the puppeteers behind Marx, Engels and Adam Smith are free to ad lib, mixing heavy-duty economic theory with the odd silly joke. Children and adults alike can handle big ideas, Reyes says.

Equally serious about changing the world around him is the Chicago artist Theaster Gates, whose “Soul Manufacturing Corporation” (2011, ongoing) sits alongside Reyes’ “Sanatorium”. Growing out of Gates’s deep affection for clay – he trained originally as a ceramic artist – it’s a pottery studio in which, over the course of the show, three skilled potters will train three apprentices, the pots and bricks they make stacking up on shelves at the back.

A musician, urban planner and community activist as well as an artist, Gates, 39, pours much of his energy into projects designed to regenerate his Southside Chicago neighbourhood. “Twelve Ballads for Huguenot House”, Gates’s project for the 2012 Documenta, involved transplanting part of that black neighbourhood to the German city of Kassel. At the Whitechapel, however, he is tapping into something local – the tradition of unadorned pot-making championed by the “father of studio pottery”, Bernard Leach, and the brick-making that went on in Brick Lane behind the gallery. But Gates aims also to celebrate the workers and he has invited the London poet Zena Edwards to perform for them once a week.

The final piece in the main downstairs gallery focuses on future food production. Under the wonderful title of “Improbable Botany” (2013), the London-based collective Wayward Plants has created a series of experimental greenhouses, growing strawberries, chard, potatoes and tomatoes – imagining they are on the moon. Local schoolchildren, drawn into the project, have been comparing the growth of seeds planted under four different moon phases and writing letters to the fictional lunar farmers.

Upstairs, I discovered the work of Claire Pentecost, 56, an American artist working on the borderland between science and art. She focuses on soil – or more precisely the relationship between healthy soil and healthy humans. Persuading farmers to donate soil samples, she has analysed and classified them, arranging some in jars on the shelves of a delightfully antiquated apothecary’s cabinet. Others appear under bell jars on either side of a worm bed; beneath it is a bottle, into which “worm juice” (a sought-after fertiliser) will gradually flow. Along one wall there is also a set of exquisite soil chromatographies, images formed by allowing moisture from soil to permeate photographic paper infused with silver nitrate: in Pentecost’s hands, a 100-year-old process for analysing soil quality has re-emerged as gorgeous art.

The quirky humour of Peter Liversidge, 39, gets a look in on the upper floor, too. His “Free Signs” consist of hand-made signs advertising free or discarded items the British artist picked up in America, in each case handing the bemused owner a replica and drawing them into discussions about art and value. Liversidge has also come up with set of appealingly unrealisable “proposals”: one of them, a plan to demolish the buildings opposite the Whitechapel and replace them with a replica of the gallery, will be the subject of a gallery talk about “the dynamic space between the impossible and the possible”.

Not everything works. Julieta Aranda and Anton Vidokle’s “Time/Bank” (2009, ongoing) posits a currency of “hour notes” that can be exchanged for services. It’s a strong idea, but somehow the archive, film and posters on show are not enough to bring it alive in the gallery.

With multi-faceted projects, such as those of Gates and Reyes, some visitors will no doubt be trying to pinpoint “the art”. But that won’t worry either artist – with “Sanatorium”, Reyes says he hopes “to depart from the sphere of art into the wider culture” – or the Whitechapel curators, who want to encourage experiment. The result is a show fizzing with ideas. Don’t miss it.

‘The Spirit of Utopia’, Whitechapel Gallery, London, until September 5,

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