Soi Project’s Island was not conveniently reached except by taxi, through an unlovely set of light industrial streets clearly earmarked for ‘cultural development’ by the local council. However, arriving at the Ikon Gallery’s newest offsite space, in Birmingham’s Eastside, it was impossible not to marvel at the contrast – at least when I visited, on the most assiduously wet day of the year – with the fact that I was visiting a tropical Thai island. (Surely the gallery marketing department’s easiest sell ever.)
Soi Project is a fluctuating group of collaborators, with artists and architects Jiro Endo (Japan), Wit Pimkanchanapong and Pitupong Chaowakul (both Thailand) at its core. In their Fruits project, also on display at Ikon’s main site that day, visitors could soothingly fold and glue together a variety of paper fruit, which was then put on display and swapped for its real counterpart, marking the process of change from edible fruit to symbolic existence.
For Island they worked with satellite images to create a composite Thai national reserve; a tropical fibreglass landmass rising out of a paper sea pasted over the entire ex-warehouse floor. For the artists the island represented an abstracted version of a Thai official national reserve island, overlapping in part with the presumed UK viewer’s even more generic ideas of paradise. The temptation to add details such as a mossy surface and little model trees must have been strong; instead, the forests and beaches of this island are printed on, and the landmass shaped according to the triangulated tessellation of 3D computer rendering rather than geologically defined shapes. Preserving the work’s architectonic backbone saves it from becoming a really good place for a Hornby model railway.
In fact, it is this tension between convincing simulation and deliberately visible technicality that makes the work fascinating. It was carefully negotiated in a number of ways. A complex lighting installation of 42 large computer-controlled lamps simulated the daylight phase of a 24-minute circadian rhythm that moves over the island; yet the appearance of night-time is conveniently represented by Buzz Aldrin’s polyresin lamp designed for Habitat’s ‘Very Important Products for Kids’ range. It all but proclaims ‘this lanthorn doth the hornèd moon present’ before wobbling cheerfully across its mechanical track. Such visibly contemporary falsities and borrowings – including the images that make up the island itself (which, despite being surprisingly high-resolution, still bear the mental watermark of Google Earth) – pay attention to the fact that make-believe with good props is always going to be more effective than the best virtual reality. The combined effect is unexpectedly charming. That day even the rain played its part, beating on the roof precisely like a roaring sea. It’s easy to spend time with this work: lying back, cradled by a small bay, and watching the sun set, like a tropical Little Prince.
There was a more prescribed participatory aspect of this work, though, which ramped up the Utopian narrative: visitors to the project were handed sheets of glow-in-the-dark stickers. The idea goes that you have the opportunity to despoil, develop or beautify the island with stickers of cars, sections of road, elephants, palm trees, road signs and holiday flats. Much coherent development – such as roads – is only possible through collaboration and barter with other sticker-bearers. Visiting on the first day, it was hard to know whether this would eventually result in a heart-warmingly well-organized series of lush villages with a robust infrastructure or whether everything would be spoilt by the basic fact that a sticker of any shape is just one of those things that need to be stuck. Some visitors, I am told, went ‘off-plan’ and used all the remainder sticky odds and ends to build their own shapes. From images sent to me later, what it produced was the evidence of a very local obsession with property, and a micro-history of conflicts of interest – and it’s clearly been a hit. The full implications of this William Golding-esque metaphor don’t easily follow, though; in truth we can’t compare the complex and competing machinations of international property developers, environmentalists, miners and governments with the ham-fisted imperatives of a Birmingham toddler. (Actually, maybe we can.) As the ‘sun’ went down, the glowing stickers lit up, pleasingly, like satellite pictures of the earth glowing at night.
This aspect could have overridden the work’s potential for make-believe; maybe we don’t always need a ‘social experiment’ for a work to be effectively participatory. Seen in this way alone, it can only tell us what a lot of people with stickers can do with such illusory control over a shared imaginary, and distracts from Island’s undeniable ability to comment on the underlying mediation and fabrication of that imaginary in the first place – ending up as an almost literal play-off between structure and surface.