December 8th, 2008

operesque

Charles Avery's altermodern island

1. The arts editor of The Scotsman newspaper wrote to me to draw my attention to the work of Scottish artist Charles Avery.

2. Avery's work overlaps with my Summerisle album with Anne Laplantine, my forthcoming Book of Scotlands, and my mother's history of the island of Mull, where our family comes from on her side.

3. Avery was born in Oban in 1973, brought up on Mull, and now lives and works in London. Since 2004 he's been creating an epic work, "the defining project of my life", a sort of anthropological survey of an imaginary island loosely based on a fantasy version of Mull, using drawing, topography, writing, portraiture, taxidermy of imaginary animals, maps, models and diagrams.

4. Avery is currently showing The Islanders at the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art in Edinburgh (until February 2009).

5. The Island project resembles Paul Noble's Nobson New Town project, also beautifully drawn. And maybe Alasdair Gray's Lanark novel.



6. The Scotsman feature on Avery says he "spent his formative years on Mull and once described it as "the total basis of my subconscious". "A lot of writers say: 'Write what you know', so I've based it (the Island) on my direct experience, which is growing up on the West Coast of Scotland, some time in Edinburgh, some time in Rome and a lot of time in Hackney. You'll find a distillation of these in the works."



7. The Island is a parallel world, but not fantasy: "I don't want to it to look like sci-fi, or 'Hey, this is weird and wonderful!' I sometimes think, have the people who say these things actually looked? What is so weird about this place? There are a few weird animals, but nothing weirder than would turn up in Australia, they're just different, they're completely plausible. The gods are a strange-looking bunch, but if you look at all the gods human beings have evoked I don't think they're particularly weirder."



8. When The Guardian wrote about Avery they put one of their little Bluffer's Guide quizzes at the end, which said: "Move over YBA: He is part of a new generation of artists practicing under the banner of Altermodern. Alter what?: A term coined by the French theorist Nicolas Bourriaud, meaning art made now in response to a global society and as a reaction against standardisation and commercialism." (The Altermodern was covered on Click Opera here.)

9. Laura Cumming in The Guardian: "Many of the natives are addicted to the local delicacy, pickled eggs, which enslaves them to the island. Hunters in tweed jackets and shotguns search out a Kantian dichotomy while hawkers in the local flea market sell pictures of nude women for the price of peace of mind."

10. Avery went to Central St Martin's school of art, but was kicked out after six months.

11. Avery cites Jonathan Swift, William Blake, PG Wodehouse, Jorge Luis Borges, Joseph Beuys and Joseph Kosuth as influences.



12. On completion of the Islanders project Avery intends to publish the work within several large, leather-bound encyclopaedic volumes.

13. Frieze describes things seen in the Island exhibition: "Witness a taxidermied Ridable, a beast with the stature of a llama, the face of a dog and chicken’s feet. Marvel in disgust at a jar of the highly addictive local snack of Henderson’s boiled eggs pickled in gin. Or hear of the Islander’s most popular tourist attraction, the Plane of the Gods, where living Island deities can be visited."



14. Frieze continues: "A mixture of Cairo, New York and Avery’s own childhood home on the Scottish isle of Mull, the Island is peopled by faint, tetchy-looking women and gruff, wizened men who occupy a world where there is no distinction between imaginary and physical reality. Taking a range of philosophical theories as guidelines, Avery has created a sort of metaphysical ant farm. On the map of the mirrored archipelago that forms his world, clever puns abound: the Analitic Ocean, Cape Conchious-Ness, the Causeway of Effect. The noumenon – Immanuel Kant’s concept, which describes an unknowable thing that cannot be observed with the senses but only conceived of or believed in – is here a debated beast whose existence is unconfirmed but for which the Island’s hunters relentlessly search."

15. However: "Despite humorous moments in Avery’s writing and the seething life of his drawings, it at times feels like a cross between the obsessive detail of the Klingon Dictionary (1985) and the fictionalized ‘Philosophy 101’ of Sophie’s World (1991)."