Lila Rawlings talks to Scottish artist Charles Avery whose remarkable ongoing project describes the topography, history and culture of an imaginary island
‘Be not afraid,’ says Caliban in The Tempest, ‘the isle is full of noises that bring delight and hurt not.’ Charles Avery might disagree. For the Mull-born-and-bred artist, it was the sounds of the woods around Lochdon that got his childhood imagination working overtime. ‘I had to walk past a forest every day on my way home, and the noises that came out of there were terrifying. To me it sounded like a lion killing a gazelle.’
In his epic charting of the life and times of an imaginary island Avery has approached his subject like an explorer, recording the topography, history and culture of the place. But his role, like that of the artist, is ambiguous. While in awe of his subject, he also shares something in common with the island colonisers who hunt down wild, mythical beasts, kill them and pose for the camera with their quarry.
While this show, part of an endeavour begun in 2004, brings together the on-going project for the first time and includes new works, Avery insists he has no deadline: ‘Finishability is a moot point here,’ he says. Aside from the scale of the project, Avery’s ability to turn his hand to several disciplines, including drawing, sculpture and taxidermy, is impressive.
In the prologue to the show an unnamed narrator writes, ‘I had sought this strange land with a view to beings its discoverer.’ So begins a journey that is a feast for the eyes and a serious workout for the imagination. The island and its inhabitants come to life as we progress around the exhibits, from collected souvenirs and keepsakes via elaborate maps brimming with references to philosophical conundrums, to accomplished drawings and sculptures. Avery’s cast of characters is extensive, among them a group of steely-eyed fishermen, some fantastical beasts such as the Noumenon, a pantheon of gods (two headless fighting dogs joined at the neck; a tiny lovable duck-billed creature in a white tux and top hat called Mr Impossible). Gradually, a narrative takes shape and the cast of characters becomes so vivid it feels like we are watching scenes from a movie. ‘Film is my most important cultural medium,’ agrees Avery. ‘The characters in The Island are similar to a Coen Brothers film in the way [the Coens] favour the same actors from film to film.’
A love of nonsense, fantasy and humour are at work here, but that doesn’t stop Avery posing some big questions about the nature of truth and reality, the essence of creativity and the role of art in society. But it’s the dazzling draughtsmanship that shows his pedigree as an artist and keeps us engaged: ‘Drawing was the only thing I was any good at when I was a child,’ he says. ‘I learned from trial and error, from drawing from my head.’ While a few of the characters in the exhibition are drawn from life, the majority are imagined. In the wall-sized drawing of a bustling market place, ‘The Place of the Rout of the If’en’, certain characters and objects are meticulously worked into a kind of hyper-reality, while other areas are left sketchy and unresolved. But appearances on the island are deceptive: the harder you look, the more you discover. Just like the eerie forest that inspired Avery’s childhood, it’s what we don’t know that fuels our imagination.
The Islanders: An Introduction, Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art, Edinburgh, Sat 29 Nov–Sun 15 Feb.