Interview with Charles Avery

Interview with Charles Avery by MA Curating the Art Museum 2012/13

A drawing of a man standing on a boat and rowing in the sea
Charles Avery, Untitled (Self Escaping from Island), 2008, © the artist.

What is the significance of The Island in your project? Are there utopian/dystopian associations?

The Island was originally meant to represent the world of all ideas, from the idea of theNoumenon to the idea of a teaspoon, a continent that lay across the ocean from Triangland, which represented the corresponding set of real things.

Gradually the purity of the Island has become obscured as I have sought to describe the texture of its landscape, its capital city, its people, and customs. There are naturally Utopian associations, but I have largely avoided portraying any political structure as of yet. There is an area of the town, so far undescribed, which has been allotted to government though I do not know what form that will take and I may well leave it obscure. The Island is simply another place.

People credit you with various literary influences, such as Borges. What differentiates your project from a novel, and what can visual art do that written narrative cannot? What is the relationship between your writing and your art?

The advantage of visual art is that it is presented in space, which gives the opportunity for a non-linear form of narrative. There have been various attempts to do this in literature but it is counter-medium to do so. The format of the gallery exhibition also allows me to incrementally rationalize what is, after all, a work in progress. Every time I have a show I am compelled to organize my thoughts into a coherent whole. Ultimately I would like to gather the content of this project into a great book. I think the idea of the encyclopedia is helpful here (not that I want to create an A-Z of the Island, quite the opposite). I did a talk with the Dutch artist Mark Manders in 2010 at the Hayward Gallery: we had both alighted upon it as a book which one could enter at any point, read in any order, take as much or as little as possible… but whereas I saw its advantage as a book that was never finished, he saw it as always being finished. Now when I talk about the encyclopedia, I describe it as both.

What role do the Sea of Clarity and Eternal Forest play in the overarching narrative of The Islanders?

These two entities play a role in the structure of the space in which the narrative is contained rather than the narrative itself. The Island, the bounds of which are unknown to the north, straddles a globe. It has a great arm that stretches down into the Sea of Clarity and gives rise to an archipelago of innumerable islets that extends into the swirling mists and a great whirlpool that engulfs the south pole. The north is covered by an unnavigable forest. Nobody has even been to either pole and returned, not simply because they are environmentally inhospitable, but also because they are logically inhospitable: the second postulate of the Islanders cosmology is that the everything shrinks towards the poles, therefore the nearer you travel there, the smaller your step, the slower your progress, therefore you will never arrive. It is a model of a universe that is both limited and limitless.

As the viewer, we enter the world you have created through the Hunter’s eyes.  What is the importance of the Hunter as protagonist for your project?

The Hunter is an ultimately subjective character. He simultaneously invents the world as he discovers it. He therefore stands for both the author and the viewer. I wanted him to be androgynous but that was too complicated, so I created an anima of him on the Island, in the form of the female protagonist Miss Miss, with whom he falls in unrequited love. This non-romance threads its way through the whole work, culminating in the Epilogue, whereby our anti-hero has wandered into the indiscriminate wilderness with the hope of catching the Noumenon; an epic gesture that he had hoped would finally turn Miss Miss’s head, but ends in a decaying orbit of indecision and doubt around the Eternal Forest.

How do the urban and natural worlds intersect, overlap and/or contrast within the geography of your island?

The main conurbation is the port city of Onomatopoeia, the gateway to the Island. It is a walled city, and intermittently built into the walls are towers atop which pyres of grass are kept lit almost constantly. It is not clear whether these beacons are intended to cast light onto the murky wilderness, or to deter what lives in that wilderness from coming into town. Perhaps they were meant to guide the hunters home. Suffice it to say, the inhabitants of Onomatopoeia are utterly urbane, and the country is very wild, inhospitable, and minimal – the citizens do not stray far from the city limits. There are those who are compelled to do so, such as the hunters who go in search of the Noumemon, the subsistence fishermen who travel to theQoro-qoros and The Memory of Conchious-Ness in search of eels, and the itinerants who scour the shores for the much prized kelp which is used in many industries, including a mineral which is extracted and added to the grass to cause a vivid blue smoke to be produced when burnt.

How do you characterize the relationship between reality and fiction in The Islanders?

The world is divided into two states: Triangland is the superstate, the Island is its colony. Triangland could be taken to represent reality, and the Island, fiction. Certainly the Trianglanders would take the view that the Island is their dominion, subject to their will and fundamentally inferior, for something real is surely better than its idea. However, a Creole people has emerged on the Island, with its own culture and identity which would strongly refute the primacy of reality. To the Islander, there are indeed two states, yet they are mutually dependent. When the Hunter meets Miss Miss on a remote shore for the first time, having previously believed himself to be the discoverer of the Island and namer of all things on it, he at first tries to discount her as a ghost — not real. She bluntly refutes him by stating, “Everything is real.” Her point is that even if he believes her to be an apparition, she has appeared.

According to the Map, these two states are in fact connected by a body called the Qoro-qoros, an agglomeration of dead organic matter that arranges in a network of spongy mounds, and inverted pools of stagnant warm water. A vast wilderness, quite unnavigable, nevertheless testimony to the fact that these two states are inextricable.