As a grad student I once wrote a paper arguing for the usefulness of drawing in anthropology. Contingent (and seemingly “true”) media like film and photography have long been considered useful for both research and presentation. I posited drawing as a valuable diagrammatic and illustrative tool, as well as a methodological one ideal for creating interactions and functioning as a mnemonic device. After seeing the latest work from Scottish artist, Charles Avery, I’m ready to add sculpture to the anthropologist’s toolbox.
Avery’s first solo exhibition at Grimm Gallery features the latest work from his ongoing project, The Islanders (2004-), which imagines a fictitious island within a sprawling archipelago. Avery charts his world in drawing, video, sculpture, and installation, capitalizing on the descriptive powers of his media. The continuing project is unhindered by current art world trends (though some have characterized it as altermodern), and it’s a true pleasure for both the initiated and uninitiated viewer. The Islanders positions the viewer as armchair (or gallery bench) anthropologist, left to unpack meaning from its suggestive artifacts.
Throughout this epic project Avery has introduced the Island’s geography, its cosmologies and political philosophies, and its zoological and botanical catalogue. The work is seemingly interdisciplinary (in the academic sense), touching upon the natural, social, and political sciences, with topics ranging from the mundane to the surprising. While Avery’s exhibitions typically offer (and in many ways require) supplemental reading, visual cues are most vital as he mounts increasing evidence of his explorations, or fabrications, in this fascinating world.
Charles Avery, Untitled (The Qoro-qoros), 2012, Acrylic, ink, pencil and watercolour on paper, 260 x 360 cm; Courtesy of the artist and Grimm Gallery
The show, spanning both Grimm galleries, introduces new areas and characteristics of The Island, including its gateway city Onomatopoeia, The Jadindagadendar, Onomatopoeia’s municipal park, and The Qoro-qoros, a mysterious and potentially deadly geographical feature at the island’s edge. Like an old-school explorer, Avery collects artifacts. Some objects, like advertising and political posters, function as primary sources, while others are the explorer-artist’s own illustrations of places and events (such as mixed media drawings of people relaxing in The Jadindagadendar and the oversized image of happenings in the Qoro-qoros). Avery presents flora in geometric diagrams and sculptures, and even fauna in the form of the uncanny skeleton of a sea monster (made from the actual skeletons of two horses, a python, a llama, a wallaby, and some sort of cub), which is also featured in a video at the second gallery site.
Though Avery plays god to this world, the work often reads like he is discovering The Island rather than creating it. A closer look, however, reveals teleological meaning at every turn. The mathematical logic behind geometric trees and flowers mirrors some of The Island’s rational philosophies (indeed, some of the pseudo-botanical sculptures feature mirrors in place of leaves). The work also functions as political metaphor, as in the relationship between one island and its colonial overlords in Triangland, a case which the artist has said opens onto politics in our own world, such as the Palestinian occupation.
The methodical cataloguing of natural and cultural history in Avery’s work recalls the work of artists like Mark Dion, only without the excavation of history or any ostensive truth. Yet it doesn’t feel like Avery is telling us a lie – it’s more like he’s appealing to our imaginations, asking us to suspend our disbelief. In a time when fantasy’s appeal grows broader with franchises like, say, Game of Thrones, which has countless fans digesting every intimation of its world in online forums, Avery capitalizes, perhaps unwittingly, on an appetite for this type of descriptive (and never completely exhaustive) world building.
Charles Avery, Installation view with Untitled (Tree no. 2 for the Jadindagadendar), 2012, Aluminum, silver plated nickel and hammerite, 480 x 480 x 480 cm diameter at widest point; Courtesy of the artist and Grimm Gallery
Yet part of what makes this project so unique is The Island’s manifestation as contemporary art, as opposed to film, television, or literature. As much as Avery’s drawings, sculptures, and films tell us, they also leave much to the imagination. They aren’t explicitly narrative and are rarely anecdotal, which makes them so very different from television and fiction, yet compelling and exciting in a new way. Like an ethnographic study in three dimensions, Avery’s drawings and sculptures represent a world we know is false, but we can nevertheless find increasingly solid footing in its landscapes and customs.
Adding some unexpected credence to an incredible world, Avery offers no end game. Just as scientists and social scientists continue to explore our own world – through observation, documentation, description, and analysis – it seems Avery could go on forever uncovering and inventing the people, places, and cultures that populate his islands.
(Image on top right: Charles Avery, Two Girls Relaxing in the Jardin de Gardenne, 2012, Pencil, ink, acrylic on paper, 57 x 84 cm; Courtesy of the artist and Grimm Gallery)