“Bouvetøya, or Bouvet Island, is an uninhabited subantarctic volcanic island, and dependency of Norway, located in the South Atlantic Ocean. It lies at the southern end of the Mid-Atlantic Ridge and is the most remote island in the world.” say Wikipedia, which should already be enough information to pique your interest and encourage you to find out more. Anything to do with remoteness is immediately fascinating, probably because of the mythology surrounding locations isolated from the rest of the globe (think the Bermuda Triangle and the undiscovered depths of the Amazon).
Thankfully for you and your new-found interest, London-based artist Freddy Dewe Matthews has just completed a project dedicated to the two centuries of broken history and personal mythologies that have built up to form Bouvetøya’s cultural history. His book, A Cultural History of an Isolated Landmass explores the mysterious locale from the perspectives of adventuring mariners, scientists and even Hollywood film franchises, creating a strange and convoluted picture of a place that few know anything about.
As there’s only one remotest island in the world, and only one artist canonising it in book form, we though we better have a word with Freddy about why he’s focussed the last few years of his life researching this extraordinary place.
For people who don’t already know, explain why Bouvetøya is interesting?
Well, it’s a tiny glaciated island, miles and miles from anything else. It exists completely on its own and without any real ongoing human interaction. I think it’s the combination of its isolation and that particular kind of landscape that creates something that is very inert and has something uniquely blank and appropriable about it.
That’s what is fascinating about it; that it can act as a kind of screen for things to be projected upon. But it’s also small and unimportant and it could go on existing without us knowing about it – in fact for the most part people don’t know about it, and in many ways that has little effect on us.
What drew you to producing the project in the first place?
I was drawn to producing the project because it is a place that has elicited some really interesting responses from other people. I believed that if I could collate those responses I’d have an interesting proposal for what might be a sort of imposed history on a place by people who have never been there; a culture for a people-less place.
It felt exciting, in research terms, that I could get a really strong grasp of the entirety of what is known about somewhere. It’s concise in that way as we are limited to such a very small amount of collected information about it.
Why do you think the place has inspired so much interest and generated such a mythology?
I don’t know whether it has had that much interest. That’s what I quite like about it, that it’s quite a niche place that a few eccentrics have become concerned with. And therefore it’s just a handful of people’s work that dominates the intellectual landscape of it, the effect of which is clear, but equally unbalanced and you are over reliant on various individuals whose trustworthiness isn’t that apparent – hence the myth I suppose.
Tell us the most interesting thing you know about Bouvetøya
That it was once called the Cape of Circumcision. Cape because when it was found it was believed to be a promontory of the great “Terra Australis Incognita,” the long-fabled southern continent, which of course it wasn’t! And circumcision because that was the feast of the day it was found. After it was worked out that it was only a very small island it took on the name of its discoverer Bouvet – good news for everyone involved I think!
A lot of your work focuses on found objects and folk history. Why does it appeal to you so much?
I like finding pertinence in existing things, meaning that my interpretation was perhaps not the intention of the story or object when it was created. In respect of history it’s kind of the same thing where you’re able re-assess what’s happened in the past in the context of where we are now; that we can read things in a way in which they couldn’t possibly have been read at the time, which I find exciting.
Have you managed to visit the island or do you plan to in future?
It’s a big part of the project that I haven’t ever been to the island. That I can make this commentary from the same vantage point as the other contributors to the book. It is in many ways about the exoticism of the island; a point, I believe, best made from a distance.
Informally, from the work that I’ve done, some people at the Norwegian Polar Institute have suggested that I am included on their next research expedition to the island. I’d be really interested in going, obviously, as I could take the work in an entirely new direction. But perhaps I’d be just as interested in going for personal reasons as artistic ones.
What’s next once you’ve exhausted Bouvetøya?
I’m working on a few things, but I’m working on them quietly while I work out how I can make them happen and if they even make sense. I might have the chance to go to Bolivia and if that comes to pass then I’d like to look at the mountaineering traditions there.
A Cultural History of an Isolated Landmass is being launched at the Courtauld Institute this Saturday at 4pm.