Week 43: 1 July 2012
Artist, writer and curator
No More Elsewhere
Nowhereisland might be construed as somewhere utopian, that is to say a placeless place of new ideals that isn’t to be found anywhere. But this Nowhereisland isn’t nowhere; it has an itinerary, and it is on the move. For the summer season it is a nomadic land in search of a better location. But what is this wandering land in search of, exactly? Does it seek a break from the gloom and chill of its Arctic home by heading south for sunnier climes? Like other nomads, it follows its hunting grounds, in pursuit of the creatures that sustain it. Does it want an audience, perhaps? In this case, some of its spectators will be its kindred spirits; transient visitors making an annual trip for a few weeks break on the South West coast of the British Isles. Like Nowhereisland, they are passing through. And when the tour is completed will this island make its return journey, like a homeward bound gap-year student intent on proceeding with his or her real destiny, or will that be the end of it?
I went on a trip like that once, a holiday, to the Antarctic Peninsula in 2005. Apart from money, passport, and clothes, my list of things to take included correction fluid (for whiting-out those inevitable mistakes), pencils, drawing paper, and a watercolour set. I had written down, The Space of Literature, by Blanchot but then thought better of it and struck it through. I decided that I really did not want his Space of Literature to act as filter to my visit to this place. I wanted immediacy - the kind that Blanchot writes of as impossible - before experience and conceptual thinking intervene. Along with a few drawings, a chocolate wrapper with a penguin on it, photos, and bits and bobs, I brought back with me an enduring interest in things Antarctic, which has turned into a curiosity about the Heroic Age of Exploration and the images of the landscape created in the watercolour painting of Edward Wilson. My travels, now, are on the surface of my pin-board where I gather and hold ephemera in place; and in the library, and in the archives that house Wilson’s watercolours; and in the work that I make out of these. Enthralled by the romance of exploration and disappointed at arriving too late (like Scott at the Pole), or being in the wrong place, wrong time, wrong body, perhaps, I am worried by a sense of diminishing territory left open for discovery. In a world in which there is no more elsewhere, in which all surfaces of the globe mapped, what are the possibilities that remain? And terrestrial territory is only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the problem of diminishing new possibility, and the hope to go elsewhere or be otherwise.
The series titled Anamorphic Landscapes are derived from Wilson’s watercolours. They take a look askance at the landscape of Antarctica, seeing these territories awry, through the prism of Wilson’s eye. By copying what I encounter second-hand in the archive, I have painted versions of his watercolours, combined as inverted panoramas, on sand-blasted glass. These distorted views correct themselves when reflected in the mirrored hand-blown glass spheres. These glass globes present an enclosed miniature world when encountered at the optimum angle and distance, but as the viewer moves around they find that the illusion falters; they fall off the edge of the image, much as pre-scientific thinking humans feared they might fall off the edge of the flat world. My enquiries may seem in contrast to a wandering island that comes to visit, but we have some questions in common. The ‘nowhere’ and ‘elsewhere’ in our title conjures up the problem and the potential of place. It poses the question of our human position with regards to it; the need for territory or world or landscape as the site of our homes.
The watercolour painter with the portable box of paints might have the world at their feet in terms of their flexibility in movement. The peripatetic quality of this mode of painting made it so suited to the ‘open air’ artist or grand tourist, as well as explorer and colonising forces. The ‘go-anywhere’ portability is only thwarted by the extremes of climate that are inhospitable to the medium’s nature. Antarctic and Arctic sub-zero condition make watercolour a challenging technique. Indeed, pencil drawing is difficult in conditions in which one’s own breath forms a glass-like frozen seal on the paper’s surface through which the pencil will not bite. What ‘plein air’ watercolour artists cannot take with them is a climate conducive to their endeavours. Similarly, what the little piece of Nowhereisland will not bring with it is a microclimate of the arctic summer, and so, while abroad, it will be radically different place from its nature at home. But it will bring a message about climate. Its visit to the coast of England reflects the way in which extreme environments are increasingly on the move, and coming to us, in the form of climate change and extreme weather conditions. The consequences of climate change can no longer be projected upon a far off place, or distant elsewhere.
So, this island that is not nowhere is also not nothing. What makes its physical movement and presence necessary, rather than its notional existence, which has already been sufficient to generate the signing-up of citizens on the web? What will it look like, this Nowhereisland? I am struck by all sorts of questions as to its make-up. How big is it? And what kind of colour? The texture of the terrain under foot – is it rough? And will there be any wildlife, and plant-life? What is its geology? A rock set afloat must be of a quite special constitution. What are the amenities? Will there be wifi? Are there any shops? Or toilets, even? I ask these practical questions as a response to the invitation to be a ‘resident thinker’ and not a ‘thinker in absentia.’ If I am to stay there for any length of time I will need to know what to put on my list of things to take with me. My residency is for a week only, so similar to the duration of my summer holiday. The thinking that I bring to the Island it is not different from my everyday thinking. I bring that as baggage with me, too, like my rucksack of current books, lugged between library and desk. On our excursions we make plans for what to take with us. We do hope, I think, to discover something new on our trips, our holidays and journeys elsewhere. We hope to find something of an enduring nature that we can bring back with us.
I am not sure, but I think that this little fragment of Arctic land will not be the kind of place that could sustain me very happily. It seems a barren, darkly colourless lifeless rock, exposed, and providing no shelter, showing no evidence of habitation or cultivation. That said, I must ask myself what kind of a place does thinking need? Thinking might be imagined as the most dislocated and abstracted activity? What kind of space is this space of thinking? Real spaces support our thinking - us resident thinkers think somewhere when we do think – even as the thought-worlds created might be quite distinct and other from the worlds that generate them. None the less, our thinking is situated and originates from some experienced life-world. Where do these ideas become engendered? I think most emphatically at my desk as I try to write with my pin-board before me, or in the library or while on the tube during my short connective journeys. And I think in snatches between attending to the needs of daily life. I think through conversation with others; colleagues, professional guides, intimate friends and family, in discord and accord. Thinking is embodied and embedded. This is why I always enjoy reading the acknowledgements at the start of a book as they often give an insight to the writer’s life that situates their thinking’s indebtedness. Thinking about this in the library I take some books from the section on Heidegger, What is called Thinking, and a book titled Time and Death by Carol J. White. It falls open at the Editor’s Preface and I am really pulled up short by the commentary - “Carol White died suddenly on 1 October 2000.” The history of her embodiment made a stark impression upon me. She was paralysed by illness from the age of thirteen, which necessitated that she use the ‘handle of a wooden spoon to tap out the type on her keyboard’, and needed to cope with periods of exhaustion. Carol White writes in her book about the way that cultural styles and the use of tools will reveal the world to us in their limited and particular ways. “Our cultural practices, the tools we use, and how we use them in even the most mundane things like cooking dinner and driving a car, carry with them a commitment to what and how things will reveal themselves to us.” (p8. White, 2005 Time and Death). The handle of a wooden spoon, the watercolour paint on glass, the piece of floating Arctic landscape, the pencil lead on breath-frozen paper, will in their various limitations and possibilities offer us new possibilities, new limitations to what is revealed to our thinking.
This Nowhereisland can, it says, be a place where we might imagine how to begin again. But I want to say that I have visited a place like that once, looking, I think, for that precise quality; the quality or capacity to begin again, and what I brought back with me was a renewed commitment to the places where I already was. Hankering after an elsewhere or wishing for a nowhere place can be a betrayal of the everyday places that we live in, and lead to a concurrent failure to seek out the terms of a renewal of these places. That is why Nowhereisland must be real, in all its necessary limitations. That is why our thinking must be real, in all its limitations, too. We need to ground our action by starting from here, and not in a realm of ‘if only’, or a utopianism that is just another name for a form of nostalgia for the impossible return to a new beginning. Beginnings are for babies. The rest of us need to start from where we are and with what we already have to hand. It is a difficult task with the mixture of disappointment and hope that it entails. The task is one of seeking renewal without a wish for a tabula rasa (as in a fantasy of Antarctica) or the retreat to a utopia which risks being not only nowhere but non-existent. Nowhereisland is an uninhabitable place. As a notion, perhaps, it offers a place to think, – but those thoughts are worthwhile only if they are able to return us to our world as it is, bringing some souvenirs back with us in the shape of future hopes and aims. But as an artwork, Nowhereisland pitches up off the coast of England in search of an audience for its real-world, imperfect and particular form, and like the handle of a wooden spoon, it can tap out the contours of a revelation. Now, that I would like to see.
Polly Gould is an artist who writes. She is currently an AHRC funded doctoral candidate at The Bartlett School of Architecture, Universtiy College London. Her research, titled 'No More Elsewhere’, is a practical and theoretical project engaging with the landscape watercolours by Antarctic explorer Edward Wilson (1872-1912). Her recent sculptural glass pieces featuring anamorphic landscapes are derived from this research. This work is on show in MINIMAL- Micro Size Art in Norway, Stavanger, at Hå gamle prestegard from 9 June to 26 August 2012, and has been on tour in 2012 with the group show TOPOPHOBIA, curated by Gould with Anne Eggebert. Gould is a fellow of the Royal Geographical Society.
Her short story writing is represented in a collection of fiction by contemporary visual artists in Britain, The Alpine Fantasy of Victor B., published by Serpent’s Tail (2006). Since 1999, under the name of Eggebert-and-Gould, she has collaborated with Anne Eggebert on art and curatorial projects. Their group touring show TOPOPHOBIA is in the last week of its tour at Spacex, Exeter until July 7th 2012.
For more information visit www.TOPOPHOBIA.co.uk