Layla Curtis' work has often been about the attempts we make
to order the world, to chart it and the security that this brings;
the insecurity that results from our inability to do so. This is made particularly
evident when Curtis manipulates maps until we become aware that that which we
thought familiar is instead strange, as when a map of Britain is constructed
from a series of European road maps (The United European Union, 1999) or, perhaps
more appropriately, that a world map is made
of a collage of American topographical
maps (World State, 2001).
This fascination with charting the earth, and the creation
of forms of positioning and time-zones which result, have played
part in the development of this new commission for Turner Contemporary, one
in which the local and the global
are invited to engage with one another.
Upon first visiting the nearby Ramsgate Maritime Museum, Curtis was struck
by the panel above its entrance exclaiming that Ramsgate time was five minutes
and forty-one seconds faster than Greenwich Mean Time, a reminder that until
the late nineteenth-century, most of the world still operated on local times,
based upon astronomical observations and other variations and traditions.
It was the rapid development of the railway - and the rapidity of travel that
it allowed - which necessitated a change, and in 1847 the first standard national
time was introduced in Britain, with other countries with rail travel following
shortly afterwards. (However, even in 1870, a passenger travelling from Washington
to San Francisco would have had to have reset his/her watch over two hundred
times to remain in all the time zones en route.) Curtis was also fascinated
by the longitudinal line set within the floor of the museum, which marks a
line 1º 25.4' east of the zero meridian at Greenwich. While
to some extent
determinedly local, such a marking also positions the local within a global
system of measurement, and in doing so suggests its relationship to places
far away. Indeed, once Curtis had the longitudinal and latitudinal values
of the museum,
it was a matter of simple arithmetic to determine those of
the place antipodal to it, that is, the opposite point on the earth.
The closest inhabited land to this abstract mathematical position was found
to be an island about 800 kilometres east of mainland New Zealand which, until
1791, was know as Rehoku. However, in that year Captain Broughton 'rediscovered'
the island and, with an arrogance all too familiar in such matters, named
this already-inhabited island after his ship, HMS 'Chatham', which had been
built in Dover. It seems as though Curtis' mental voyage had not only taken
her to the opposite side of the world but had also, upon arrival there, brought
her back to Kent.
Over two hundred years after this early - indeed defining - connection between
Kent and this remote Pacific island, Curtis decided to instigate another.
Of course, it is far easier to communicate between these two places now than
was even conceivable in the late eighteenth century. Instead, Curtis decided
to employ some of these advanced communications technologies - such as mobile
phones and global positioning systems - within a far older, and certainly
of communication - a message in a bottle.
Usually one does not send a message in a bottle to a specific place but rather
it is left to make its way to any other place, any place other than that from
which it was sent, that is. Indeed, it is scarcely a means of communication
at all, as we might now understand it, as most often the sender has no means
of knowing whether his or her message has been received and by whom. For Curtis
to release fifty one bottles off the coast of Ramsgate - forty five containing
a message from children at the local Northdown Primary School, and five containing
GPS devices which will track and transmit their position - seems an act of
the utmost folly, particularly if we consider the wealth of communications
technology contained within a number of the bottles. Yet,
if we deem Curtis'
attempt in advance as a failure - that the bottles will never reach the Chatham
Islands - perhaps it is because we have misunderstood how art, and Curtis'
art in particular, might be said to operate. Indeed, let us be clear: art
is not a simple communication of information (any more than it is the expression
of pure emotion), and so while Curtis may fail to communicate as she had intended,
it does not mean that her art has failed likewise. John Cage also remarked,
with regard to both art and nature, that 'the highest purpose is to have no
purpose at all'.
Indeed, it is through the very lack of direct communication that a space is
opened up through which can travel not only the bottles themselves, and our
imaginations, but also many new possibilities; the many other people in many
other places who may now come across them, noting their position online or
within the bottle, before returning them on their way. This is the chance
to which Cage referred to at the beginning of this piece, a chance that lies
at the very heart of how both art and nature might be said to operate. What
is particularly pleasing in this regard is that while Curtis has imitated
nature in the manner of her operation, rather than its appearance, leaving
the movement of the bottles subject to the forces of wind and wave, the lines
which we see projected upon the wall at Droit House, do indeed bear a strong
formal relationship to waves themselves, their swirls and folds, eddies and
falls. It is a drawing of elegance and fragility that is produced by some
of the most powerful forces that act upon our planet, a drawing that is both
topographically accurate and yet resolutely abstract, a drawing in which the
bottles appear both now-here and nowhere. Standing within a small circular
room on the edge of England, we are invited to imagine ourselves drifting
through a far greater space. The French philosophers Gilles Deleuze and Félix
Guattari wrote that
'to think is to voyage', and I would suggest that the
complementary statement is also true, that to voyage is to think, and that
the voyage of these bottles very much encourages us to do just that.