Untitled (View of the Port at Onomatopoeia) 2009–10 is a large pencil and ink drawing on paper, measuring more than five metres across. It presents a view of the busy port of Onomatopoeia, the main town in an imaginary island. The drawing depicts a quayside bustling with locals, day-trippers and other travellers. Despite the linear clarity and precision of the centre section, the drawing is apparently unfinished, fading away into blank paper at its edges. Partly-drawn figures take on an uncanny ghost-like appearance, as is the case with some barely-realised dogs at the bottom left of the image. In the centre of the drawing, numerous character studies mingle with strange invented beings, like duck-beaked dogs. Children and monkeys run around under the boardwalk, where two grown men contemplate a jar of the Island’s declicacy, pickled eggs, while others bend down to adore moorings resembling female torsos. An ocean liner Utility, its deck crowded with tourists, is moored at the dock to the right of the image and a large warehouse-style building topped by the name ‘PENROSE’ is in the middle ground.
Avery started working on The Islanders, an extensive series of drawings, texts, charts, models, sculptures and objects that describe the topology, cosmology, culture and inhabitants of an imaginary island, in 2004. At the time of writing, Untitled (View of the Port at Onomatopoeia) is the largest drawing the artist has produced in this series. The project is conceived as a work of fiction, and one of the major themes that it aims to illustrate is that ideas can ultimately manifest themselves in the physical world. Avery’s imaginary world is represented through the many texts, objects, maps, and drawings he has created to illustrate the narration of his ongoing discovery of the Island. These different manifestations engage with issues of language, epistemology and philosophical notions about the ideal and material world.
Avery has described his fictional Islanders as ‘intellectually rich – philosopher-bum is everywhere – and not materialistic’ (quoted in Avery 2008, p.160). Thus, he gives many of his characters T-shirts or polygonal hats which are attributes of allegiance to one of Onomatopoeia’s numerous philosophical cults. These are advertised on posters, such as The Free Church of Logical Positivism, or found in the names of buildings, such as the Hotel Laissez-Faire or the rationalist Penrose building seen in this drawing, a trading company that pays tribute to English physicist and mathematician Roger Penrose (born 1931). The drawing also includes some allusions to contemporary art, as in the casserole-shaped street café ‘Marcel’s Casserole’ which mimics Marcel Broodthaers’s (1924–1976) casserole sculptures such as Casserole and Closed Mussels 1964 (Tate T01976).
The town of Onomatopoeia is described as a mix between Victorian England, the Scottish Highlands (reflecting Avery’s Scottish birth) and London’s East End. Talking about Onomatopoeia, Avery has said:
It is true to say of Onomatopoeia that it is a poor place generally. A large part of the population lives in shanty dwellings. But then there are the dapper and idle rich … I see the Island as a one time terra incognita, and Onomatopoeia as an outpost, turned boomtown, turned vulgar theme park, then as a depression hit slum, and so on.
(Avery 2008, p.160.)
Avery narrates his encounters with the Island in the first person, taking on the role of an explorer who arrives there in search of a new world. He gathers different objects from this new land and intends to present them to his queen back home as ‘a proof of the new world’ (Avery 2008, p.9). However, soon after his arrival, he meets the young Miss Miss, who becomes the artist’s companion; she is an indigenous girl and explains the secrets of the Island to him. All events are related in the order in which the narrator becomes aware of them, or of their relevance. Avery thus unveils to the spectator a world inhabited by humans and other imaginary beings, and traces a very accurate cosmology of the land, the customs, the beliefs and the culture of all these fictitious characters. Writing about The Islanders, Avery has observed:
my drawings are but picture postcards of an ever-changing world. The specimens are as fossils of their former selves once expatriated from their realm. Subjected to the harsh light of the Reality, the grass withers and dries and the Stone-mouse becomes merely a stone that looks like a mouse. I cannot tell you how this world really is – I have no idea – I can state only the fact as I perceive them. You must travel there yourself sometime, and see these beings in their natural environment, for the place is utterly subjective.
(Avery 2008, p.141.)
The artist has not set his Island in any specific period in history, however, the fashion in which the characters are represented resembles English colonial style, as he has explained: ‘In terms of their sartorial style they definitely look twentieth century, and there is no denying the bias to the first half of the century ... There is a colonial feel to the place that is quite deliberate.’ (Avery 2008, p.160.)
The Islanders is an ongoing project that will eventually culminate in the production of an encyclopedia relating all the findings of the narrator. Here, Avery will describe, classify and illustrate all the beings he has encountered over the years in his travels around the Island.
Charles Avery, The Islanders: An Introduction, London 2008.
Brian Dillon, ‘Charles Avery’, Modern Painters, vol.20, no.10, December 2008–January 2009, p.102.
Ed Krcma, ‘Charles Avery: Back to the Island’, Art in America, vol.97, no.1, January 2009, pp.96–103.