Joy Sleeman: The Possibility of an Island, 2016
An essay for the book: Does The World Exist When I’m Not There?


The possibility of this particular island exists twice a day as the tide rises and falls to reveal or conceal its fragile shores. Between sunrise and moonrise the island might appear. Like the cliché desert island, this tiny land is just an expanse of sand encircled by gently lapping waves.

In Faithfull’s film we first glimpse the island from a distance and from some height, gliding soundlessly in a motion that suggests the language of cinema technology or drones rather than a more historic form of transport: boat, ship or even aeroplane. This is a contemporary island. Our approach is mobile, disembodied. When we get closer we see that someone is there already, and as this person comes into view we establish that he is walking around the perimeter of the island in a quite deliberate way, his pace steady, sure-footed. As the tide encroaches the repeated perambulation of the island’s coastline gets shorter and tighter. At closer range directly from above we see the fractal like edges of the island. At one point it almost resembles the outline of Africa. Relations of scale are common in narratives of islands: from the world’s largest archipelago to the smallest inhabited island of the Scottish Hebrides, descriptions of islands are full of the language of comparison and interrelation. They are also sites of myth and legend: from the lost continent of Atlantis to the legendary northern home of the Hyperboreans.

One conventional task of a text on an art work is to locate it in relation to its context: to locate and relate. An island’s context is the body of water that surrounds it. This particular island that appears surrounded by a vast open sea is in fact situated in the intertidal zone of the North Sea. This locates it temporally as well as spatially, in relation to the land, but also to tides and thus to the movement of earth, sun and moon.

This cosmic dimension is a frequent frame of reference for Faithfull’s work. However small-scale an individual work might be, it finds resonance in the recognition of our human condition in the space age. Like many of his/our generation, we grew up watching on television the steps, giant and small, of the first space age. Our imaginative worlds were inhabited by images real and fictional from outer space, whether the crew of the Starship Enterprise, the Clangers or Apollo astronauts, the fictional and factual worlds were, in my experience at least, not always easy to discern or disentangle.

Watching Going Nowhere 1.5, I wondered how many people of a certain age heard a familiar theme tune as they watched Faithfull walk across the deserted sand amidst lapping waves and remembered the opening titles of the French television series The Adventures of Robinson Crusoe (1964) that provided the backdrop to Saturday and summer holiday morning viewing. Wikipedia (a source of course not to be trusted by the serious scholar) tells me that episodes from this series were broadcast during the television coverage of the Apollo 11 mission, the first moon landing, in July 1969. If that is true, the connection of Crusoe’s island and space exploration is broadcast history as well as being a concern of Faithfull’s art.

On his way to the Yucatan peninsula in 1969, American artist Robert Smithson stopped off at Sanibel Island in Florida, where he made a sculpture: The Hypothetical Continent in Shells: Lemuria. According to Smithson’s notes on a drawing for/of the work, Lemuria was thought to have existed in the Eocene period, was the original home of lemuroid primates, and is now covered by the Indian Ocean. This was one of a series of sculptures based on mythic and prehistoric islands that Smithson proposed around this time. The most ambitious was a proposal to cover an actual islet, in the Georgia Strait, British Columbia, Canada, with broken glass. It was not realised. His first ‘hypothetical island’ was made on the beach at Loveladies Island, New Jersey in July 1969. Despite its idyllic name, this was also an area of dense urban sprawl as photographs of the temporary work reveal. The work – made of broken glass – was in situ from 11–31 July 1969 and thus at the very moment that humans first set foot on the moon (actually landing on the moon’s ‘Sea of Tranquillity’).

Such coincidence between the insular and the planetary are more than fortuitous. They are part of the cosmic serendipity that marks much of the landscape-based work of the late 1960s and early 1970s: art that has a profound legacy in contemporary art, including in the work of Simon Faithfull.

Yet the elision of island and planetary narratives was the stuff of science fiction long before the reality of space travel. The mgm movie Forbidden Planet (1956) transposed elements of Shakespeare’s The Tempest (1611) from island to planet. Set against a backdrop of nuclear war, William Golding’s Lord of the Flies (1954) takes an island shipwreck narrative into the form of a modern allegory on civilisation. Many island narratives involve interaction between human (or alien) agents with the island as a backdrop, but there is at least a hint in most of them that the island itself has agency, that it is not just a lump of rock surrounded by water. The island might exert influence on its inhabitants: unleash forces from beneath the earth in the form of volcanic eruption, turn out to be a whale or, in perhaps the most extraordinary (and prescient) tale of European re-alignment, become a part of the continent set adrift and spinning southwards, in José Saramago’s novel The Stone Raft (1986).

Saramago’s story begins with a tiny crack that looks like a drawing: ‘a line drawn with the sharpened point of a pencil’. Drawing holds a particularly important place and agency in Faithfull’s art. A line drawn on a screen can locate him precisely in time and place or by extension summon a world into being. The drawing can be a future contract as well as a record of time past. Unlike the direction taken by Smithson’s most famous earthwork, Spiral Jetty (1970), Faithfull’s direction of travel on his island is clockwise: forwards in time, not backwards.

Drawing in the sand is a popular analogy for the impermanence and futility of action. Faithfull’s line made by walking around his island is subsumed beneath the waves even as he is still walking it. Towards the end of the film he spins around, splashing in the shallows and, as the camera pans out, we might try to keep watch on the figure that rapidly becomes a tiny speck in a vast ocean.When we return to the scene we see only the white crests of breakers as they pass over the sandbank: the only indication of the island now lost beneath the waves.

The solitary human on a rapidly disappearing world might also evoke another historical literary figure – the ‘last man’ – much revisited in recent film, literature and theory in an age of increasing awareness of anthropogenic climate change. The fate of humanity is a grandiose theme for so understated a work, but nonetheless appropriate to the series of works to which it belongs, which have seen Faithfull traverse various terrains without a clear destination, or rather with the destination ‘nowhere’. Nowhere can be anywhere, and is not necessarily where we are right now. For all its diminutive scale, especially compared to some of Faithfull’s more epic journeys, this episode of Going Nowhere takes us far into the rich imaginative realm of any, and all, sea-girt excerpts of land.