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The Journey Embassy


Islands, myths and stories

All peoples and all nations reflect on their origins and in seeking to understand and place ourselves, we create stories of our origins. These are rarely straightforward, often conflicting. In religions and the stories of indigenous (first nation) peoples, these 'creation myths' are often rooted in the natural world, in catastrophic, supernatural events and epic journeys, forming the moral basis of spiritual and national beliefs. Often these stories recount how the landscapes, plants and animals came to be as they are.

Maori mythology includes the story of the quick-witted trickster Maui (one of the main half-human demigods in Maori legend) and his creation of Aotearoa (known to Europeans as New Zealand):

'When Maui's brothers went out on a fishing expedition, he outwitted their attempt to leave him behind by rising early and concealing himself in the bilges of the canoe until they were well out to sea. When he asked for bait, they refused him. Undeterred by their refusal, Maui demonstrated his resourcefulness by beating his nose and smearing blood on the hook. So big was the fish Maui caught that he had to chant a powerful incantation, a hiki, to bring it to the surface. Unfortunately [Maui's fish] roused the greed of his brothers, who quarreled over the fish and began hacking at it while Maui was away conducting thanksgiving rituals.' Ranginui Walker, Struggle Without End (London: Penguin Books, 1990)

As it came to the surface and lay there, this massive fish formed what is known to Europeans as North Island, the hacked sections forming mountains and valleys. Maui's canoe formed South Island and his anchor, Stewart Island.

On the Arctic expedition in September 2011, the expedition team set about collectively writing a Creation Myth for Nowhereisland. This myth was performed by Kieron Kirkland and filmed by David Bickerstaff.



Robinson Crusoe and man Friday, lithograph, c 1874

Islands and stories
Islands have been at the heart of fictional stories for centuries from Atlantis to Utopia and Thule, from Gulliver's Travels to Robinson Crusoe and Lord of the Flies.

An island provides an ideal setting around which a writer can build a story. It can be a testing ground for a new way of life, with characters isolated and unable to access the systems and comforts of the mainland.

Daniel Dafoe wrote Robinson Crusoe in 1719. Stranded on an island off Trinidad in the Caribbean, Crusoe, 'thanks to his extraordinary ingenuity and his ability to rescue his ship's supplies, Crusoe... is able to transform a potential disaster into - were it not for his isolation - a tolerable existence. With excruciating, methodical care, his life is planned around securing safety and plenitude... Piety, endurance and hard work are rewarded, and a tropical paradise is transformed into a microcosm of the British empire." Extract from Gregory Claeys, Searching for Utopia (London: Thames and Hudson, 2011)

Jack and Nancy, Quentin Blake, (1969). The characters can just been seen emerging top right from the cloud before gently coming to rest on the island.

Written just seven years after Robinson Crusoe, Jonathan Swift's Gulliver's Travels consists of a series of voyages, the third to the flying island of Laputa. The island floats above the region of Balnibarbi, which is it also rules, mainly through throwing rocks and making threats to block out the sun with its shadow.

The population of Laputa is fond of maths, science and music and have mastered skills such as magnetic levitation, but cannot manage to construct well-designed clothes and they don't apply their useful knowledge to growing crops, preferring to explore schemes such as extracting sunlight from cucumbers.

Here, Swift uses these islands as satirical stand-ins for the islands of Britain and Ireland, mocking the relationship between them, the inventions of the Royal Society and including an allegory of Ireland's revolt.

The isolation of an island is a perfect, symbolic, setting for a child's imagination. In some stories, such as Jack and Nancy by Quentin Blake (Puffin, 1974) the two children are lifted up by a gust of wind and away from their everyday life where their only knowledge of islands is from stories. They travel through storms and clouds and are dropped gently onto a tropical desert island. It's a beautiful, magical place with no hardships, but they miss home and are later rescued by sailors who return them home.

My Own Island, Marie-Louise Gay (2000). The cover shows the lonely character before he populates his "island" with his imagination.

The child in My Own Island, is alone on an island. The lone character is not shown anywhere but on his island, not much bigger than him and apparently with no other life. On each page he remarks that nothing ever happens, but we see countless incidents, creatures and adventures going on around him. The island and everything around it, is of course, of his own making, created by his own, active creative imagination.

The appeal of islands
Alex's initial impetus to seek out an isolated, undiscovered island reflects the influence of remote islands on the collective imagination. As Judith Schalansky has written:

'Whether an island such as Easter Island can be considered remote is simply a matter of perspective. Those who live there, the Rapa Nui, call their homeland Te Pito Te Henua, 'the navel of the world'. Any point on the infinite globe of the Earth can become a centre.

'Only when viewed from a continent can such an island – created by active and extinguished volcanoes – be regarded as remote. The fact that it is several weeks' voyage away from the nearest land mass turns it into an ideal place in the heads of continent dwellers, and a land surrounded by water is perceived as the perfect place for utopian experiments and paradise on earth.

In the nineteenth century, seven clans lived in micro-communist harmony under the patriarchal rule of the Scot William Glass on the island of Tristan da Cunha in the South Atlantic. Dr. Ritter, a Berlin dentist tired of civilisation and the global economic crisis, set up a retreat on the island of Floreana in the Galapagos in 1929, where he aimed to renounce all that was superfluous, including clothing...

'... The attraction of a beautiful void was also what drew expeditions into the eternal ice to search out the literal nothingness of the poles after the nations who sent their ships out across the world had discovered all lands rich with vegetation and natural resources and divided them among themselves.

'The untouched land of Peter I Island in the Antarctic therefore presented an anomaly, intolerable to our compulsion to leave tracks across this earth. It also offered the possibility of making a mark on history. Three expeditions failed in their attempts to conquer the island, which is almost completely covered in ice. It was only in 1929 - 108 years after its discovery - that is was landed on, and until the 1990s more people had set foot on the moon then on the island.' Judith Schalansky, Atlas of Remote Islands: Fifty Islands I Have Never Set Foot on and Never Will (London: Penguin Books, 2010)

Some of these possibilities of islands: as places where something extraordinary and experimental can readily be conjured up, or really happen, have influenced Alex Hartley's development of Nowhereisland. Simon Anholt talks about this possibility of Nowhereisland as a site for experimentation in his Resident Thinker article and there is reference made to Thomas Frey's article about islands as micronations in the Nation section.

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Nowhereisland is a Situations project led by artist Alex Hartley, one of 12 Artist Taking the Lead projects for the London 2012 Cultural Olympiad funded by Arts Council England. We also gratefully acknowledge the support of the University of the West of England, Bristol; Bloomberg; Nicky Wilson Jupiter Artland; the Norwegian Ministry of Foreign Affairs; the Royal Norwegian Embassy and Yellowbrick Tracking.

Identity designed by Fraser Muggeridge studio and Wolfram Wiedner, website by Wolfram Wiedner.