This exhibition opens at the daadgalerie in Berlin next month, curated by Kasha Bittner and Catalina Lozano explores the use of the island as a metaphor in the visual and other arts.
I have contributed an essay to the catalogue that I will post here once published. This builds on an earlier essay I wrote a couple of years ago for the Gasworks Gallery which can be found here. The new essay looks at the longer tradition of the island metaphor, particularly at the isolarii, or ‘Island Books’ that were a major publishing phenomenon in Renaissance Europe from the 1420s to the end of the 17th century. The isolarii combined maps of islands – some real, some imagined – with textual descriptions of their topography and inhabitants. These descriptions were a curious mixture of inherited myths and stories, first hand observations and sheer flights of fancy. Never intended as navigational tools, the isolarii seemed to have fulfilled a need for people throughout Europe, aware of the ‘new world’ opening up around them, to guage their social and moral distance from all that was new and strange. Not surprisingly, morally instructive creatures such as the ‘Plinian monsters’ featured prominently in such accounts.
As Tom Conley put it in his account of early modern French cartographic writing: The Self-Made Map 2010):
The reader who casually scans the isolario is left with the effect of an ocean of writing that flows among islands of illustrations that seem to float on a calm verbal mass. Like flags, or like partial areas of firm ground where readers can regain their bearings, the illustrations queue memory images of strange places, oddities and many foibles that make up the fragmentary infinity of the human condition.
The popularity of the isolarii finally waned as the empirical knowledge of the world improved – leaving no space, it seemed, for imaginary islands. Conley dates the end of the phenomenon very precisely to the dated to the production of Vicenzo Coronelli’s two-volume Isolario dell’Atlante Veneto in 1696.
However, while the particular form of the isolario may have vanished, the island as metaphor continues and becomes a significant literary and artisitic trope to this day. Some of this will be explored in the exhibition in Berlin which, sadly, I am unlikely to be able to get out to see. In my essay I also play around with some more recent ‘versions’ of the isolario, specifically Judith Schalansky’s, Atlas of Remote Islands: Fifty Islands I Have not Visited and Never Will, Christopher Priest’s, The Islanders (All men are islands), and Charles Avery’s ongoing multi-media project, also called The Islanders.