DATE: 5/3/2011 | BY THOMAS EVANS
Of the many inspired curatorial concepts that Harald Szeemann devised in the course of his career, one of the most suggestive was “individual mythologies.” Szeemann debuted the term as the guiding thesis of the legendary Documenta 5, 1972; he later explicated it (in an interview with Hans Ulrich Obrist collected in the latter’s A Brief History of Curating) as “intense intentions that can take diverse shapes: people create their own sign systems, which take time to be deciphered.” Nebulously broad as this may sound, what Szeemann intended by “individual mythologies” was an art in which a unified system, or world view or cosmology manifests itself across a range of media—via a repertoire of signs and symbols, as in Marcel Broodthaers’ eagles, pipes and bricks, or Matt Mullican’s generic Isotype symbols; or through allegory, as in the cosmologies of William Blake, or Paul Thek, whom Szeemann included in the 1972 Individual Mythologies show. Such cosmologies would operate independently of existing religious, scientific and philosophical systems (though inevitably borrowing from them).Among the few contemporary instances of “Individual Mythology,” Scottish artist Charles Avery (born 1974)’s The Islanders project stands out for its especial richness and spirit of adventure. In 2004, Avery invented an island (known just as “the Island”) and began to populate it with natives, industries, colonists, philosophical systems and beliefs partly drawn from such thinkers as Kant and Heidegger—all illustrated in large drawings and sculptures. The Islanders is a philosophical allegory, somewhat in the fashion of a Borges parable, with problems posed through encounters between competing or conflicting positions. Much of its thinking takes place through the Hunter, a would-be anthropologist from Triangleland (the name for everywhere that is outside the Island) who pursues a beast called the Noumenon, in a plotline that allows Avery to explore various allegories on the subject of absolute truth. (The Noumenon is a philosophical term associated with Kant’s “thing-in-itself,” i.e. an unknowable entity existing independently of human cognition.)
The Island’s port is named Onomatopoeia, and this second volume in what Avery envisages as a multivolume encyclopedia on The Islanders gives a detailed rendering of what the local businesses and flyposter ads around the port of a philosophical allegory might look like:
“If the drawings are compelling, it is because of the sheer effort I got to and my earnest attempt to portray a place to the best of my abilities,” Avery told a recent interviewer. “It’s as though I have an intense conviction about how this place and its people look.” The Islanders differs from other artistic mythologies in which symbolism is often privileged over description, as Avery’s drawing skill takes the enterprise almost to the realm of the virtual in its illustrative zeal; perhaps it also helps obviate the hazard of author-centric solipsism particular to individual mythologies. With each new installment in the project, Avery throws open another vista onto a fresh corner or hinterland of his philosophical playground.
Charles Avery: Onomatopoeia
WALTHER KöNIG/KOENIG BOOKS, LONDONHbk, 9 x 12.75 in. / 80 pgs / 22 b&w.