Britain’s Cultural Olympiad, which offers events like Olafur Eliasson’s exhibition at the Tate Modern, has put forth Alex Hartley’s colossal Nowhereisland: six tons of arctic land, excavated from Svalbard and pulled by a tugboat that will sail down the English coast.
Nowhereisland is ambitious, including a land-based mobile museum, a textual component, and also a new nation, as the island declared independence last September. Since then, Nowhereisland has accrued 9,005 citizens (citizenship is open and secured online), from whom the constitution will be sourced. By contravening the norms of states, Nowhereisland intends to question ideas of nationhood, utopia and citizenship. The project also publishes one letter a week from fifty-two Resident Thinkers that develop these themes. Hosted on the website, the letters are often impressionistic, free-form discussions branching off the work. They focus primarily on environmental and artistic issues.
Though the island proposes to be of profound conceptual importance, it offers more whimsy than insight. Its constitution consists largely of deep-souding but vapid aphorisms, with “we will dance” and “wherever we may consider building a wall, fence or barrier we should instead place a table” high on the list of propositions. The Resident Thinkers also disappoint. With some science mixed in, their letters are mostly polemics or sentimental verse, neither of which are very compelling. Whimsical, repetitive and indulgent, many sing the same lament: respect the arts, avoid the conventions of modern states, save the environment. The irony of needlessly unearthing tons of arctic rock and dragging it miles across the sea (on a government’s tab) while preaching green gospel seems to be lost on the organizers.
The project has met criticism in the public sphere. A journalist for the UK’s Guardian playfully stated the project deserves to sink for its environmental hypocrisy. Devon MP Geoffrey Cox spoke out publicly against the work and the £550,000 (£61 per citizen) of state arts money it required.
The Nowhereisland nation, however, may prove more compelling to different people or prospective citizens, as the case may be. The island’s tour will end on September 9 in Bristol. The project is simultaneously reminiscent of Lennon and Ono’s Nutopia and this.