All at Sea
Islands, isolation and the difficulties of reflecting reality
This year marks the 500th anniversary of Thomas More’s Utopia, the book that gave us a word to describe the perfect society, and its impossibility. Set on an island, ‘crescent-shaped, like a new moon’, this work of fiction still reads as a radical social proposition: no private property, free hospitals, full employment, a six-hour working day, euthanasia permitted, religious difference tolerated, a few clear and universally understandable laws, disinclination to war. Some of the less savoury conventions of 16th-century Europe find themselves replicated there, too. More has no aversion to the enslavement of prisoners and criminals, for instance (although they can be freed for good behaviour), or to the fact that, despite being equal in terms of education and workload, women are largely subservient to their fathers and husbands. Utopia also survives because it is wilfully monocultural: the narrator recounts that the island was originally a peninsula before the republic’s enlightened founder, King Utopos, ordered the digging of a 15-mile trench to separate it from the mainland. (With wonderfully burlesque hokeyness, the text excuses its inability to reveal the exact whereabouts of the island by explaining that, at the very moment its latitude and longitude were revealed to More’s company, someone coughed loudly.)
Like many people who woke up in the UK on 24 June to find themselves unexpectedly cut adrift from a continent that they had considered themselves to be part of, I spent a lot of time this summer thinking about what it means to be an island. I was also lucky enough to spend time on various other European islands, seemingly more hospitable and with thankfully better climates than Great Britain. To judge from the number of exhibitions and art events hosted in Mediterranean locations from Samos to Stromboli this year, so did many in the art world. From the Deste Foundation’s Project Space and Pauline Karpidas’s Workshop on Hydra, to the Schwartz Foundation’s Art Space Pythagorion on Samos, Sterna Art Projects’ ‘Experimental Education Protocol’ on Nisyros and the Fiorucci Art Trust’s week-long ‘Volcano Extravaganza’ on Stromboli, the island annual has become a regular fixture in the summer exhibition calendar.
This makes sense: these events are all hosted by private foundations whose collector-benefactors have bases on the islands, the yachts to get to them and the means to bring others along, too. Quite apart from the art, they are occasions of remarkable hospitality – and not just on the part of the foundations. My favourite moment of this year’s ‘Volcano Extravaganza’ took place under the stars, in a group gathered around a small television set to watch Luis Buñuel’s 1954 adaptation of Robinson Crusoe (1719) on the garden terrace of a Strombolian family who provided aperitivi, wine and great bowls of pasta for the 30-odd guests, most of whom they had never met before. During a time in which fear and suspicion of the ‘foreigner’ is rife, it struck me as an extraordinary gesture of generosity and openness: to have made themselves, their home and every wine glass in their cupboard available to people who were, and would remain, complete strangers. I left humbled by the nonna at the sink, washing a tower of dishes, and with my faith in humanity temporarily restored.
Robinson Crusoe, of course, is a fantasy of self-sufficiency (the more fantastical in Buñuel’s rather hammy rendition), in which human interactions are framed in terms of (mutual) exploitation and gain. Crusoe’s island is set up as a vertical series of power relations of mastery and subservience, in which God is at the top while, on Earth, Crusoe is lord of all that surrounds him. On Stromboli, by contrast, I experienced something of a levelling of hierarchy: the cohering of a temporary community based on shared interests and physical proximity. That is the Utopian promise of the island annual: in the absence of normal structures or strictures, you might be able to engage with people on different terms; paradoxically, perhaps we need to retreat in order build bridges.
There is, of course, a greater paradox here, in so far as the art world itself can often feel like an island, separated by currents of privilege, education and capital, (both monetary and cultural) from what is going on elsewhere. The openness of the island annual’s community is premised on a certain exclusivity. Sometimes, it is a shock to find the rest of the world further away than we might have thought, as though we’d been looking at it through the wrong end of the telescope. Not knowing a single person who had voted for Brexit, my disbelief at the EU referendum result was a pointed reminder of this gulf and of my habitual blindness to it.
I imagine the island syndrome of the international art world might be felt particularly keenly somewhere like Samos, which is separated from the Turkish coast by the narrow Mycale straight and has, in recent years, been one of the main points of entry into Europe for migrants fleeing the Middle East and Africa. The island escape, in this context, takes on an entirely different meaning. Though I did not visit it, Katerina Gregos’s exhibition at Art Space Pythagorion, aptly titled ‘A World Not Ours’, aimed to address exactly this theme. Departing from Susan Sontag’s famous reminder that witnessing the pain of others does not allow us to experience it, the show aimed to render more palpable the awful reality of the refugee crisis: a necessary task, and a quixotic one.
A similar case of mismatched realities is addressed glancingly but provocatively in another of this year’s island-themed extravaganzas. Set on Pantelleria, off the Sicilian coast, the movie A Bigger Splash, which was released in the UK in February, stars Ralph Fiennes and Tilda Swinton as fatally entangled old flames whose not-to-be romance is periodically interrupted by news of boatloads of refugees washing up on the shore. The story ends badly because of its protagonists’ inability, ultimately literally enacted, to let go of one another. People, of course, are not islands and our condition of mutual dependency is a complicated thing: joyful and terrifying, and utterly inescapable.
First published in Issue 182