Visitors to the 1904 World’s Fair in St Louis would have had plenty to keep them occupied: eating a newly invented ice-cream cone, or walking among the ‘parade of human progress’ of the human zoo. Here you could find replica villages of the indigenous people of Congo or New Guinea, or the tribes of the new American territory of the Philippines, including the dog-eating Igorots, who created countless rumours of missing pets across the city. You would not have been surprised, then, to find a stall nearby detailing with text, sketches and sculptural curiosities the views and inhabitants of a distant land known simply as ‘The Island’. Witness a taxidermied Ridable, a beast with the stature of a llama, the face of a dog and chicken’s feet. Marvel in disgust at a jar of the highly addictive local snack of Henderson’s boiled eggs pickled in gin. Or hear of the Islander’s most popular tourist attraction, the Plane of the Gods, where living Island deities can be visited.
Standing alongside, sporting a safari hat, awkwardly holding a rifle in one hand and a leather-bound travel guide in the other, you might find The Island’s creator, Charles Avery. At Parasol Unit, he presents ‘The Islanders: An Introduction’, an anthropological museum of his findings, bringing together several smaller exhibitions since 2004, when he began work on his imaginary territory. A mixture of Cairo, New York and Avery’s own childhood home on the Scottish isle of Mull, the Island is peopled by faint, tetchy-looking women and gruff, wizened men who occupy a world where there is no distinction between imaginary and physical reality. Taking a range of philosophical theories as guidelines, Avery has created a sort of metaphysical ant farm. On the map of the mirrored archipelago that forms his world, clever puns abound: the Analitic Ocean, Cape Conchious-Ness, the Causeway of Effect. The noumenon – Immanuel Kant’s concept, which describes an unknowable thing that cannot be observed with the senses but only conceived of or believed in – is here a debated beast whose existence is unconfirmed but for which the Island’s hunters relentlessly search.
Wall texts describe this society’s paradigms, cults, creatures and places. Large drawings and physical artefacts accompany each text, fleshing out The Island as a vibrant place of constantly shifting existence, but the incessant dialectic of which inevitably seems to arrive at an existential stalemate. The drawings are unfinished, erratic in the precise minutiae they focus in on, as if excerpts from Avery’s ethnographic notebook. The black and white drawing Untitled (Place of the Route of the If’en) (2007) depicts a busy market scene, with peddlers of watches, second-hand junk and geometric sculptures selling their wares to an indifferent crowd. Like William Hogarth or George Cruikshank’s bustling street scenes, there is a distinct sense of alienation, highlighted further by his characters’ detailed, emotive faces, whose grim caricature recalls more contemporary illustrators such as Daniel Clowes. The installation Untitled (Diagram of the Plane of the Gods) (2006) produces in miniature the the Islanders’ bizarre pantheon, including two headless dogs joined at the neck in endless tug-of-war and a small creature called Mr Impossible, who resembles an aristocratic, duck-billed version of Guns ’n’ Roses guitarist Slash.
The gods, however, like everything else on The Island, are a profane embodiment of abstract concepts. Take, for example, Mr Impossible, who was deemed a god by a trio of drunken philosophers, arguing that owing to his ridiculous physique he was ‘highly improbable’ and ‘therefore he is essential’. The role of philosophy as status-giver in Avery’s project is telling. The drawing Untitled (Avatars) (2006) shows the interior of a shop full of The Island’s small creatures, both mythical and mundane, apparently being sold as personal avatars. The endowing act of creating an avatar pervades his world, each aspect of The Island an emblematic transcription or one-to-one analogy of some philosophical tenet. This endowment extends to our guide’s own choice of presentation, using the museum set-up to provide us with a static portrait of this foreign place. The philosophy of this exhibition is meant to be an exhaustive epistemology, a summary of characteristics presented to us with an air of finality and predetermined readings. Despite humorous moments in Avery’s writing and the seething life of his drawings, it at times feels like a cross between the obsessive detail of the Klingon Dictionary (1985) and the fictionalized ‘Philosophy 101’ of Sophie’s World (1991). As a result, The Island does not feel like a living place we can imaginatively inhabit. Like the badger-esque King in Exile (2008), this is a stuffed and preserved presentation. Rather than taking part in his explorative creation, we are forced to rely on the artist’s numerous explanatory texts, which relegate the visual elements of the show to pure illustration.