As it’s afloat does that make it a boat?

Alex Hartley
(above) Alex Hartley at his installation at the Victoria Miro gallery in London last week: ‘a lunar module as designed by Harold Steptoe’. Photograph: Suki Dhanda for the Observer

This is an edited version of a review in last Sunday’s ‘Observer ‘The New Review’ section.

Last Monday, at about 9.30am, I became a citizen of a nation called Nowhereisland. Unlike becoming a British citizen, a tricky process which involves being tested on the number of parliamentary constituencies, joining the nascent population of Nowhereisland was easy. I logged on to its website, supplied my name, address and age and… tah dah! Job done. As I write, Nowhereisland’s population is 3,323: still a way off that of Monaco (30,539) and Liechtenstein (35,236), but already rather bigger than that of the Falkland Islands (3,140). Unlike these places, however, newcomers to Nowhereisland are welcome irrespective of their ability to make a living or the size of their bank balances. Handy. A certificate proving my status will, therefore, be arriving in the post in the next few days.

Nowhereisland is the brainchild of Alex Hartley, a British artist, and its physical manifestation – a floating sculpture made mostly of matter collected from an island in the High Arctic – is to be one of the 12 projects in the (clumsily titled) “Artists taking the lead” section of next year’s Cultural Olympiad. But we will come back to this piece of genius/madness. Nowhereisland’s 500-mile journey around the south-west coast of England – the island will be pulled along by a tug and moored at several ports en route – does not begin until July 2012.

From the outside, the dome looks ramshackle, especially compared to the sleek lines of the gallery: made from rusting car bonnets cut into triangles, it’s a lunar module as designed by Harold Steptoe. A chicken coop – the hens travelled with Alex from his home in Devon – only adds to the feeling of slight desperation. Inside, though, it’s unexpectedly cosy. The walls have been lined with hessian and, thanks to a wood-burning stove, it’s warm.

Is it spooky at night, when the gallery is empty? Hartley smiles. “It is a bit spooky, yes. But there’s loads of wildlife: a heron and a fox that lives under the pontoon.” His first sleepover was rudely interrupted when the stove overheated, melted part of his chimney and smoke poured in. But he has fixed this problem now and seems quite content. What did Victoria Miro think when he told her of his plans? Wouldn’t she have preferred that he build, say, an elegant glass box? “Luckily, she was really into it. Sometimes, though, you just have to be a bit ballsy and say, ‘This is what I’m doing.'” And his chutzpah, he thinks, has paid off. The dome has exceeded his expectations. “The smoke and the chickens animate it,” he says. His new home is at once out of time, and out of place, and yet, somehow, alive.

What will happen to his new home when the show ends in January? “Oh, I’ll take it back to Devon,” he says. “I’d be sad not to keep it with me.” For now, though, he is going to enjoy the curious peace it affords: it has a hermetic quality that makes you forget you are in the heart of London. He calls this dome, hunkered and hidden, art. But you could also call it, literally and metaphorically, the quiet before the storm.

Nowhereisland will be moored at Weymouth, Dorset from 25 July 2012 before beginning its journey around the south-west coast of England, arriving in Bristol on 9 Sept. For more details, go to nowhereisland.org

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