“Here was Pala, the forbidden island, the place no journalist had ever visited. And now must be the morning after the afternoon when he’d been fool enough to go sailing, alone, outside the harbor of Rendang-Lobo. He remembered it all — the white sail curved by the wind into the likeness of a huge magnolia petal, the water sizzling at the prow, the sparkle of diamonds on every wave crest, the troughs of wrinkled jade.”1
In Aldous Huxley’s Island, a narrative is constructed to present a particularly utopian ontology: a space where occidental and oriental philosophies meet, predominantly through two characters — the landed Scottish medical doctor, and the local Buddhist Raja. These two characters represent part of a fictional community of islanders who attempt the development of an emancipatory form of living — an interest predominant in several of Huxley’s writings, and a vast fictional alternative to the 1950s post-war capitalist West (a time of great economic growth in Huxley’s then home America). On Pala monetary value is decentralized, spiritual enlightenment is welcomed, and talking parrots descant political slogans.
Islands are remote places; they are alone, autonomous, disconnected. Isolated from continental life, they are locations many writers and artists have turned to for inspiration (the term “islomania” has been coined to describe one’s passion or craze for islands). Islands are secretive, often lonely spaces that have long associations with fantastical literature (Jules Verne, Herman Melville, or Robert Louis Stevenson). Islands are in this sense conducive to storytelling; they may be ideal spaces through their separation from mainland reality — for the creation of secluded fictions, as well as spaces for productive meditation and work (George Orwell wrote Nineteen Eighty-Four while living on the island of Jura, Scotland).
Noemie Goudal’s practice uses the photographic image to interpret stories told to her during her time visiting the island of Orkney, Scotland. The central question of her project is this: how can a story which occurred over time, be represented via the stasis (or single moment) of the photographic image? Each image represents a chapter; these images come together to form a fragmented narrative that suggests more than an isolated moment in time instead, they collectively reveal the passing of a sequence of events.
These images tell tales of nostalgic memory and a want to escape from island life. They are not stories that describe an island as a place for escaping to (as is the case with the aforementioned Huxleyan islomania), but rather of an island as a place that may be escaped from, made clear by the presence of the boat, the empty longing bleakness of the yellowlit harbor, and the flooding of the local church in these photographs. These images seem to represent the end of a period of time for the characters that appear within them — the photographs describe a youthful reminiscing of sorts, while the character’s expressions simultaneously reveal a calmed need for desertion, or an uneasy consolidating of past experience. These children have out-grown this limited space, no doubt witnessing others leave along the way.
In Goudal’s work, stories from Orkney are staged or reinvestigated within the confines of the photographic studio. The landscapes in these images are imposed on an artificial space. The image hung as a backdrop is comprised of a multitude of photographic prints, linked together to evoke a concise sense of place. Like a theatrical production still in rehearsal, all scenographic elements are exposed: the set itself is laid bare, the contents of the backdrop feed directly onto the stage, and foreground objects such as lights and electrical cabling — usually obscured from view – are present for all to see.
Les Passeurs shows three siblings longing for escape from island life. The toy boat does not represent a real, seaworthy vessel, but instead an object that limns hopeful escape. The long, hilly lane symbolizes the end of a vast journey; a passing of time in which the characters have come to realize the limitations (both geographical and experiential) of isolated life.
On Charles Avery’s fictional island of Onomatopoeia, recently featured in the Tate Triennial in London, there sits a number of pyramids. In amongst these pyramids resides a beast called the “Noumenon”. Linguistically (and in Kantian terms) a noumenon is an object that is fundamentally unexperiencable by thought – the simple opposite of a phenomenon (that which can be experienced by thought). Avery describes this beast as residing in the dark interior of his island, suggesting that the beast itself — the core of the island — is an unexperiencable noumenon. It is as if Goudal, like Avery, draws out the very insides of what it is to inhabit an island as somewhat baffling and unthinkable. It takes a story to make sense of this lonely existence; a narrative that attempts the tale of a utopian ideal, or a hopeful escape.
These images coherently feature spaces and an array of implicating objects that conjure a side of island life that, suggested by the expressions of the characters, must be absconded from. Empty fish baskets, disused rope and a deserted harbor — what are these objects representative of, if not an overwhelming sense of dejection or melancholia? Les Passeurs shows the playing-out of the children’s escape, while The Flood depicts the girl seemingly occupying herself with a story of another place, despite the rising water that surrounds her, hurrying forth the inevitable disrepair of the church (after the flood the church was temporarily set-up in a local house, the original religious building eventually being sold to a BBC journalist).
The meticulous setting-up of these studio environments embodies a passionate need to recreate the original stories Goudal had described to her on Orkney. The strength of these pictures lies in this attitude of commitment to recreating narrative space (she could have displayed the backdrop images as the finished works, or digitally imposed the characters and objects of the island onto the images foregrounds).
This intention to position the objects and consider the hierarchies and relationships between them comes from Goudal’s interest in painting composition, for example Piero della Francesca’s works from the early Renaissance. In the central panel of Francesca’s polyptych Madonna della Misericordia (Virgin of Mercy, which, incidentally, was referred to by Aldous Huxley as a most beautiful painting) the figure of the Virgin Mary is greatly enlarged, her cape shrouding her confraternity as they kneel at her feet. Francesca’s interest in perspective is important here – the enlarging of the Madonna within the composition increases the importance of her character, forming a hierarchy over other subjects. Additionally, in Francesca’s later masterpiece The History of the True Cross, an entire narrative is compressed into a sequence of Frescoes derived from a 13th century text on the lives of saints. This piece, like Goudal’s work, reduces time-based narrative into simple static representations. Certain subjects are brought to the foreground in order to emphasize importance, and objects are placed carefully within the staged scene so as to imply their greater significance.
These photographs do not just simply portray a set of stories, but additionally, and rather interestingly, the construction or insides of the narratives they examine. We can literally see the studio in the images, unashamedly revealed; staged not as the original stories once were, but instead as open and appropriatable space. The originally “found” narratives have been reconfigured, not to the detriment of their accuracy through reinterpretation, but instead to the benefit of their revealing through representation (these stories would have otherwise remained isolated on the island they were born on). Goudal reinvents, not just simply the narrative itself, but the way in which one comes to view it; time is compressed into the singular space of the still image.
This body of work, Fragmented Narrative of a Remote Island, represents the beginnings of Noemie Goudal’s MA at London’s Royal College of Art. Her photographic work to date, predominantly focusing on fine art, has also seen her shooting for Artworld, Wallpaper, and The Telegraph Magazine, and recently selected as a finalist in ITS8 (she will make the trip to Trieste, Italy for the final in July of this year). Goudal is one of the founders of “Hal Silver” — a collective of young photographers emerging from the RCA. Daniel Campbell Blight