In April 2012 prolific UK public art organisation Situations launched Alex Hartley’s Nowhereisland. The work was a monumental piece of land art – a large-scale island originating from the Arctic and journeying around the south west of England as a visiting ‘island nation’ during the 2012 Olympics. Hartley discovered and became the first person to stand on the untouched piece of land while on a Cape Farewell expedition; it had recently been revealed by the melting ice of a retreating glacier in the High Arctic archipelago of Svalbard. Returning in 2011 with permission from the Governor of Svalbard the artist retrieved the island and upon reaching international waters declared it an independent nation known as Nowhereisland.
As a piece of land art it was epic in proportion. As a feat of logistics and administration perhaps even more so – a whole transient nation moving from port to port gathering citizens; a floating world. The environmental, legal and scheduling demands of the work must have been astounding. So what so drove Hartley and Situations to pursue such an outlandish undertaking? What did it mean, this nomadic island ‘squatting in the waters off the British Coast’, as Suzanne Lacy put it? This strange mass of land, imbued with both conceptual and an unremittingly material gravitas and intrigue. Visitors flocked to see the land in their thousands. Over 23,000 people from 135 countries registered their citizenship, giving Nowhereisland a population larger than many Pacific Island nations.
In popular imagination, islands occupy contradictory territories. They are simultaneously sites of isolation, bereavement and exclusion and symbols of hope and a better life – paradise lost and found. Nowhereisland exploited both these narratives. Outside its sheer materiality, an aesthetic force not to be underestimated, it was ultimately a speculative project. The micronation offers an alternative to one’s existing environment, the chance to imagine different and better worlds. Nowhereisland’s rapid influx of citizenry is testament to the power of this idea. It was open to all, free to move and in its final iteration was broken up and shared equally by its citizens. However its nomadism also represented a poignant reflection on contemporary society: how could it be that this artist had created a whole nation free to dock on British shores as it pleased in a world where so many individuals are denied this mobility?
Islands are at once sites of dreaming and possibility and sites of exclusion; of promise and rescindment. They represent both the dream a better life and the very real dangers that accompany that dream.