The Island World
Dispatch accompanying the exhibition The Possibility of an Island, Import Projects, Berlin, May 2013
'We will not be shipwrecked on a vain reality’
– Thoreau

For millennia people have taken to islands, caves, far-flung mountains and cloisters to be apart from profane reality. But the urge to create a sanctuary in which to pursue human flourishing dovetails all to easily with the cowardly impulse to avoid facing challenges head-on. The self-sufficient life is, frequently, one apart. What could be more self-sufficient, more sustainable, than death? The morbid luxury of not having to think or lift a finger for other people makes bedfellows of the corpse, the ascetic and voluptuary alike.

The island is one of our most abiding figures for self-containment and isolation, and in its long cultural history it has often stood for paradise. A continuum links the visions of ancient Greek philosophers and the kitsch offerings of the Easyjet inflight magazine. If it is apart then it can be separate – untouched – by the fingers of all that despoil and profane. And so it is that island visions characterize paradise in the spiritual and religious sense while at the same time functioning as the most typical cipher for material desires. If the island that you long for does not already exist then you can always build it!

The Palm. The World – just two examples of how advances in engineering have allowed mankind to realize in built form dreams which might, in another period, have only found expression in language. Looking at the artificial coastline of Dubai one may be struck by the impression that, however expansive in scale, our dreams have become less impressive. Facts on the Ground, a video by the Dutch artists Bik van der Pol which documents the creation of an artificial island seems to capture this disappointing impression.

The various island ‘countries’ that make up The World are owned by a rarified gaggle of celebrities and Mafiosi – their pleasure palaces surrounded by moats of water and private guards. As with many island tales, those who inhabit this microcosm (and their lifestyle) serve as an allegory for our own. A glimmer in the water; a little mirage effect above the sand, and the false beaches of the emirates appear to resemble Baghdad and Kabul’s Green Zones – islands of security and satiety in a turbulent sea of human need. That The World needs constant sand replenishment in order to forestall its being washed away seems particularly apropos. At what cost? And what of Venice? Something other than miles separates our art world from the spaces in which most people live their lives. We who walk the baking flagstones of San Marco, who press flesh at the prosecco intermezzo – where chatter moves from the surface of the exhibition to the decoration of the palazzo, and to the cut of dresses – we are a savage fantasy, every bit as untenable as the sinking foundations of the city in which we perform.

Hercules was the tribal hero of the first people to settle the lagoon – the Veneti – and he became a legendary protector of their new home. He was an apt champion given the colossal task facing these pioneers – to lay foundations and maintain lives on shifting sands. Not least because, as Peter Ackroyd has noted, it is he who ‘acquires by labour what others claim by right’. Hercules embodies mankind’s power to bend nature towards his own ends. But in the 20th Century this ability would lose its moral purpose. The machine gun and atom bomb are to heroism what Napoleon was to the Venetian Republic – a tidal wave of defeat. Later, Theodore Adorno was to demand no poetry after Auschwitz. Perhaps he spoke too soon: we need poets and artists to remind us of our hubris, to gather together the ragged threads of late modernity and weave them into images that help us envision our predicament.

Alexander Ponomarev’s Maya: A Lost Island (2000) does just that. A video work in two parts, the first screen shows the artist scratching away at a paper map, removing all symbolic trace of the eponymous land mass. It is erasure performed in a perfunctory manner – all too easy. In the second video one encounters the realization of this gesture on a massive scale; footage showing the Northern Fleet of the Russian Navy deploying maritime flares to make a real island, in the Barents Sea, disappear. The action is an incredible counterpoint to the individual performance – and is the result of Ponomarev’s negotiations with the military authorities. With this project the artist draws a veil of smoky artifice over a place whose very name signifies delusion an illusion. The second video is equal parts epic, triumphant social sculpture, and a worrisome case study in which it is apparent that an organized war-structure has been moved by folly. The last aspect must give us pause. Somewhere, beyond art, another death dealing system is likely in thrall to a Don Quixote.

If we are able to create islands, to veil them in smoke or to destroy them, then don’t we have to powers to preserve them? Antti Laitinen’s Growler is a video of the artist performing this desire – recording the final phase of an action in which he removed a large block of ice from a Finnish lake in winter, keeping it safely frozen until the onset of summer by storing it in a polystyrene box. He then returned this iceberg to its place of origin, towing it across the now warm waters by rowboat until it melted. The romantic image of a lone figure leading his fragile burden across a sunlit horizon may be beautiful, but his melting growler invokes receding glaciers, and the planetary rise in sea level that must certainly attend global warming – a fate that will lead to islands such as the Maldives being overrun by the surrounding waters. Let it be noted that polystyrene and related petrochemical products hasten the melt and eventual deluge, even while they keep the ice cubes for our beverages cool.

‘We will not be shipwrecked on a vain reality’, wrote Thoreau. This remark addresses the danger of realism, understood as conventional definitions of human success. The vain reality is the faltering ship itself – the wrack of hubris – rather than the shores, inlets and islands of knowledge that one must necessarily explore when the craft is abandoned. ‘One generation’, he intones, must forsake ‘the enterprises of another like stranded vessels’. The aged structures, creaking with presumption, are no longer fit for purpose. Andrew Ranville’s Rabbit Island project is a contemporary castaway fantasy made real. Comprising just 90 acres of undeveloped land surrounded by 31,700 square miles of water in Lake Superior, Michigan, Rabbit Island is an attempt to colonize the imagination: an international artist residency foregrounding self-sufficiency and context-specific material engagement. Leaving the mainland behind for a period of intellectual and creative trial by nature, residents must achieve their goals through humble means. Most importantly, their goals must shift – be recalibrated – by their new home. With only the most essential tools from the old world available, artists must attempt to tease meanings and take suggestions from the landscape, to work with it rather than impose their own will. In attempting to choose art – through a new kind of life, in a new land – afresh the Rabbit Island project is in sympathy with Thoreau’s nods to the pioneer narrative of discovery and the author’s anti-consumerism. His advice to ‘be a Columbus to whole new continents and worlds within you, opening new channels, not of trade, but of thought’ encapsulates this imaginary. But the question remains – does this approach merely amount to a retreat from the world?

It is sometimes pointed out that Thoreau’s house was not so far from the nearest town, and that his frequent visits to the latter render his rhetoric of self-sufficiency hypocritical. But, as W. Barksdale Maynard has convincingly argued, Walden must be viewed as a contribution to and comment upon the contemporaneous literature of ‘villa-retirement’ and new architectural thought that emerged in the mid 19th Century. His was a vision of the good life as peripheral but not too distant from the urban fabric – a pioneering contribution to the concept of suburban living. The structure in which he lived was not a log cabin but a ‘house’, and the venerable author was not too far from the local store to preclude his walking there from time to time.

The infamous Michigan native Theodore Kaczynski, who became known as the Unabomber, preached renunciation of industrial modernity and pursued his agenda in a through murderous means. Kaczynski would borrow from Thoreau’s architectural example when constructing his notorious hermitage and bomb-making work shop by hand. He, too, was similarly in contact with the outside world – despite appearances and self-deceptions to the contrary. Though he refused to attach himself to the telephone, water or electricity lines that were only a few miles away, he kept his mailbox on the nearby road – utilizing the postal network to distribute his terror and get his neo-luddite manifesto published in national newspapers. Berlin based American artist Daniel Keller obtained Kaczynski’s hand-made backpack and other accoutrements from a recent FBI auction. Their inclusion in The Possibility of an Island foregrounds the fact that – as Mark Wigley has said – far from being disconnected, the Unabomber ‘ruthlessly exploited the ever-present intimate ties between isolated cell and dense urbanization’. ‘Retreats,’ the critic continues, are

already part of the technological network, part of the pattern they seem to have escaped. […] The ideology of his cabin was actually constructed in the urban milieu. The settlement always includes within itself what it nominates as its other. “Isolated” is an urban concept. It is a product of the city. To leave the map behind is a uniquely urban fantasy. It is those at the center of the pattern who talk the most about escaping it. But their escapes are usually just extensions of the pattern, demonstrations that the city knows no limit’.

Today it is practically impossible for people to live on an island, apart from the influence of other territories. As the philosophers Thacker and Galloway relate –‘inside the dense web of distributed networks, it would appear that everything is everywhere – [there is] little room between the poles of the global and the local’. Finance is no exception. The island states that make up the world’s offshore banking network are only geographically distant from the continents that reap the whirlwind of their speculation and tax avoidance facilitation. Goldin+Senneby are two Swedish artists originally schooled as political economists. Their Headless at Regus (2010) a closed screening at a faceless business centre, where viewers encounter a film documenting the pair’s investigation of a ‘found’ company in the Bahamas called Headless Ltd. The film, entitled Looking for Headless, was commissioned by the artists through their characteristic practice of outsourcing and created by Kate Cooper and Richard John Jones. Like much of their work, it addresses practices of withdrawal and secrecy in contemporary financial capitalism. With the Headless project the longstanding mystery and exoticism of the island trope finds its contemporary symbolism in the esoteric accounting practices so central to our current world order. It seems to indicate that while one can never be isolated, alienation is a different matter.

The earth is an island, and her various continents and atolls, beaches and factories, pension funds and casinos partake of a whole. Every day, shifting ciphers on computer screens, the latest memes, glacial melt, economic shock and fruit out of season testify to this fact. And yet there are still those who would retreat to Green Zones and shopping malls. Withdraw if you will, but don’t pretend that the sand beneath your feet is not shifting.

The Possibility of an Island
Alexander Ponomarev, Still from Maya: A Lost Island, 2000
Antii Laitinen, Still from Growler, 2009