Charles Avery: Sail Away With Me

Charles Avery answers some questions about his work so far and his much-anticipated commissions for the Edinburgh Art Festival

Article by Adam Benmakhlouf | 01 Aug 2015

Some children have imaginary friends. Charles Avery has an entire island of personalities, topologies and even the occasional cameo by the philosopher Bertrand Russell and Dad's Army's own John Le Mesurier. Here the London-based Scottish artist answers our questions about The Islanders, his all-encompassing, potentially lifelong multimedia project.

The Skinny: What did you do before this huge project?  

Charles Avery: "I was interested in a great variety of ideas, and multiple forms of expression. I was a showing artist with a career of sorts, and I loved drawing but needed to find a reason to carry on doing it. My shows before The Islanders were generally slightly confusing (for the viewer) presentations of my multiple practices, coherent to me, but lacking a unifying entity. That is why I brought the Island about, as a place to put all of these differing ideas and forms so that I might rationalise them."

How much freedom do you have, making work in this world you initially set up for yourself? There’s a cross between the megalomania of world-making and then the limits of coherence within this fiction.

"The project tends to follow a trajectory or many trajectories over which I feel I have limited control. Once I had established certain axioms, other conditions necessarily followed.

"I much prefer the term ‘fiction’ to that of ‘world-making’ as it is more accurate. I am not making a world, I am making a fiction.  Coherence is important, however when logical inconsistencies arise, I account for them within the fiction. For example, the surface of this hypothetical world is curved, the mountains — which are perfect tetrahedrons — have flat bottoms, therefore they cannot sit atop the plain, unless they are balanced on a single point , which is unrealistically precarious, so in the drawings I shroud the base of the mountains in a mist, so as to obscure the geometric contradiction. In the Epilogue text of the whole project (already written) the Hunter, who is the protagonist, starts to question various discrepancies of The Island, including wondering why he has never seen the bottom of a mountain."

Related to the last question, is there any medium or kind of work you can imagine the project couldn’t accommodate?

"I had thought that I would never use film, but then I ended up making a 16mm projection. 'No' is the answer, although diversification is not on the agenda. The Islanders, creatively speaking, helps to delimit the endless possibilities, not to expand them. I would never make narrative animation or film. I would not, could not make site-specific work. The work in Waverley [commissioned as part of EAF's Improbable City theme] is not site-specific: it is an exotic foreign object, with its own ‘mathematical integrity’ that has been planted there."

Tell us more about what you have planned for EAF and how it coheres with the Islanders project?

"The object which will be on display in Waverley, all being well, comes from the Jadindagadendar, which is the name of the Municipal park within the city limits of Onomatopoeia, being the main and only conurbation of The Island.  The Jadindagadendar is seen by the Islanders as a refutation of nature. The specimens in the Jadindagadendar present the characteristics of living plants, such as seeds and roots, however they have no need of nutrition or reproduction as they are eternal. The shapes of these trees, if you can call them that, derive from simple mathematical paradigms, and take their form not from their environment but from these axioms. This thing is part tree, part public lighting and part temple, and I think a decent option for a dog in need of relief."

Do you find your skill in drawing created an audience that might not otherwise engage with conceptual or contemporary artwork – that is, if you even think of yourself in these terms? People take a certain enjoyment in well-made drawings that just doesn’t exist in response to the current dominant media of video and installation.

"Drawing is a very egalitarian medium and so it is accessible from that point of view. Also my subject matter is instantly recognisable and people identify with drawings of people. It’s not about the media for me, it’s about the easiest and most direct way of doing what I need to do. I don’t think it’s the medium that makes it accessible – after all, video is extremely egalitarian – but the implied narrative and focus on humanity.  Having said that, we all draw as children, today as much as ever despite the ongoing technological revolution. It’s like singing, about as pure a form as you can have."

Do you think of the island as a space of metaphor or allusion to national/international politics – the outsider, the community, the “occluded” government?   

"Indeed. There are political and historical metaphors embedded within the project, however I have no agenda in this respect.  There is an ongoing comparison between the colonial activities of history, the similar colonisation and ownership of the world of ideas. As issue for young artists (I mean the term extremely broadly) is how does one make a new path for oneself in this extremely well-charted territory?"

In his accompanying essay The Islanders: An Introduction, Nicolas Bourriaud seems to describe the way you work, in the large project, as somehow being an outsider approach – more in keeping with older ways of working, likening The Islanders to the 'Promethean projects' like Roman Opalka’s ascendingly-numbered canvasses.  Is this how you perceive your work and process?

"I think at the onset of the project I identified most of all with 60s conceptual artists such as Roman Opalka and Sol Le Witt, as they seemed to be directly engaged with philosophy, although obviously I have had a very different outcome. One thing these artists were concerned with was removing authorship from influencing the process of the work. The trajectory of Opalka’s work was inevitable, and Le Witt’s designs were results of formulae (though of course one has to choose the axioms which set their work in motion, and particularly in Opalka’s case you would worry a few years in that it had all been a terrible mistake, but I guess he’s on a higher plane).  Also they were doing this in the name of art, which was predicated on an aesthetic ideal, whereas I am not doing The Islanders in the name of art, but of meaning."

You’ve said that the Islanders don’t have moral values, but rather philosophical. Can you elaborate on that?  

"I have probably said lots of things about The Islanders which I would choose to revise! I am learning more and more about them as I continue with the project. A couple of things I have learnt above all is that there is no such thing as a true Islander, and that they disagree.  The Islanders are in essence utterly rational, and may have ethical systems based on axioms such as ‘all men are created equal.'"

Would you ever be tempted to radically change the landscape of the island? Have you ever considered a deus ex machina?  

"I’ve been tempted to radically simplify it. Sometimes I wish I’d just set about describing a fictional apartment, rather than a whole bloody world. I could then have branched out!"

Charles Avery's exhibition at Ingleby Gallery: The People and Things of Onomatopoeia runs 30 Jul-3 Oct 2015. His new public sculpture in Waverley Station is co-commissioned by Edinburgh Art Festival and Parasol unit foundation for contemporary art and is part of Parasol Public/Parasolstice Winter Light 2015