At the heart of Nowhereisland is a simple narrative premise – the journey of a small island from an Arctic archipelago through oceans and seas to the coast of another island nation. This mythic tale acts as the project’s driving force, the new nation’s emblematic back-story. And yet, Nowhereisland is not simply a story. It is above all sculptural - a conscious and provocative act of material displacement by an artist.
As Nowhereisland appears off the south west coast of England, the silvery grey of the rocky moraine will stand apart from the limestone of the Jurassic Coast around which it moves. It is this sense of dislocation, of a landscape being out of place, which sets off an array of associations, which allow Nowhereisland to resonate beyond simply its physical form. Nowhereisland is sculptural in the sense that the artist is responsible for shaping one form into another, but he does so mindful of the political, social and environmental implications of such an act.
By displacing the island from Svalbard in the jurisdiction of the Kingdom of Norway, transporting it through international waters, to the territorial waters of the United Kingdom, Alex Hartley challenges our assumptions about the fixity of landscape. If national boundaries shift; if peoples are displaced; if territorial rights are contested, he asks, why should landscape itself not move, and what are the implications socially, economically and politically of such a sculptural act?
Though Nowhereisland’s journey to South West England is man-made, it does of course reference its recent ‘natural’ emergence from another state – frozen within the Negribreen glacier – as well as its migration over millennia from one side of the earth to the other. (see Tim Cresswell’s consideration of migrant rocks). Nowhereisland draws upon a rich and complex history of artworks which have been collectively titled Land Art over the past four decades. These include site-specific sculptural projects which mould the material of the environment: temporary performative interventions in the landscape and collaborative, durational works focused on environmental campaigns and social change.
Nowhereisland has a particularly affinity to the earthworks of artists such as Robert Smithson and Michael Heizer as well as British artists such as David Nash. In 1969-70, for example, Heizer cut two trenches into the eastern edge of the Mormon Mesa, in the Nevada desert. 218,000 tonnes of rock, mostly rhyolite and sandstone, were displaced in the construction of the trenches. Double Negative, which consisted of an act of removal as opposed to construction, belongs to the collection of the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles. Robert Smithson’s Partially Buried Woodshed conceived for Kent State University in January, 1970 and involved the artist and a group of students pouring twenty cartloads of dirt onto an abandoned woodshed until the centre beam cracked. Smithson bequeathed the work to the University with the precise instruction that it should be allowed to decay.
Such works, mainly through their circulation in photography and film, have come to be celebrated as ‘destination art’. But such Land Art works were conceived at a time of profound social unrest in North America and such works can be seen as provocations which directly address the institutions of power in the US. Smithson, in particular, discussed his artworks as acts of dislocation, disintegration and dispersion as opposed to touristic monuments, which were attempts to unsettle the commodity status of art. Smithson’s writings, particularly his text ‘A Sedimentation of the Mind: Earth Projects’,[i] outline a set of useful ways in which we can conceive of Nowhereisland as a sculptural intervention which implicates the socio-political context in which Hartley is working.
Smithson promoted the journey to be as much a part of his earthworks as their mapped locations. His Study for Floating Island to Travel Around Manhatten Island is the promise of a work of Land Art to which Nowhereisland bears closest resemblance. Smithson’s drawing depicts a tug boat pulling a barge of trees, shrubs and boulders around Manhattan. The work made particular reference to the artificiality of the ‘natural landscape’ of Central Park – completed by the landscape architect, Frederick Law Olmsted in 1873. Smithson’s Floating Island was realised posthumously in 2005 by the Whitney Museum of American Art with boulders from Central Park.
It is the journey between sites and the implications of that exchange which is of particular interest to Alex Hartley, rather than the natural environment per se. He cites David Nash’s Sod Swap as a particular influence, a work commissioned as part of the British Sculpture exhibition at Serpentine Gallery in 1983, which involved the swapping of a circle of turf from Kensington Gardens for an identical area in Cae’n-y-cod in North Wales.
A more recent work in Hartley’s lexicon of artistic influences for Nowhereisland was MEADOW (2006) by artist Tania Kovats, which comprised a barge containing a section of flowering meadowland travelled by canal from Bath to London. “Kovats’ work was a performance that created a sculpture”, artist and writer Jeremy Millar has suggested, “which in turn created a kind of drawing through the landscape.”
By combining the performative and participatory with material displacement, Nowhereisland might also be considered as an emergent form of situation-producing, rather than site-specific Land Art. Francis Alÿs’ When Faith Moves Mountains (2002), for example, involved 500 volunteers who gathered in the sand-dunes outside Ventanilla in Peru to move a sixteen-hundred foot long dune just four inches using hand-held shovels. The movement of the sand dune itself was near-imperceptible. What mattered was that the site itself was performed and exchanged – the connection between the participants and the land comprised the artwork, not simply the sculptural intervention. Alys described this work as:
“My attempt to de-romanticise Land art. Here, we have attempted to create a kind of Land art for the land-less, and, with the help of hundreds of people and shovels, we created a social allegory. This story is not validated by any physical trace or addition to the landscape. We shall now leave the care of our story to oral tradition…. Only in its repetition and transmission is the work actualised.”
For a discussion of how Nowhereisland might be considered as participatory public artwork, see here.
Max Andrews, LAND ART: A Cultural Ecology Handbook (London: RSA, 2006)
Matthew Coolidge, Overlook: Exploring the Internal Fringes of America with the Center for Land Use Interpretation (New York: Metropolis Books, 2006)
Simon Dell, On Location: Siting Robert Smithson and his contemporaries (London : Black Dog Publishing, 1993)
Jack Flam, ed, Robert Smithson: The Collected Writings. Berkeley, Los Angeles, London: University of California Press
Jeffrey Kastner, Land and Environment Art (London : Phaidon Press, abridged 2010)
 Jeremy Millar, ‘The tangled bank: Some thoughts on some works by Tania Kovats’ in Jeremy Millar & Philip Hoare, Tania Kovats (Oxford & London: Ruskin School of Drawing and Fine Art and Lund Humphries), 2010.