Tell someone you’re from Guernsey, and their reaction is one of mild pity. Small islands like ours are too often characterized as socially conservative backwaters, where those in the international art world fear to tread. However, noone can deny that the times have been a-changing. Galleries have been springing up all over the Old Quarter, and we’ve also seen the birth of Guernsey Arts Commission. Nevertheless, there is still more that could be done to develop Guernsey’s art scene.
At the recent Art and Islands Conference at Castle Cornet, this was the one item on the agenda. Important cultural figures from across the world gathered to discuss how islands could be successful settings for contemporary art.
Castle Cornet, Guernsey
Professor Godfrey Baldacchino (Research Chair in Island Studies at the University of Prince Edward Island) spoke about the inferiority complex often developed by islanders. This particularly applies to Guernsey: we might talk proudly of our butter, beanjar and beaches, but this often conceals a deeper feeling that we are a provincial backwater. However, the supposedly ‘limiting’ characteristics of island life should not be seen as a disadvantage. Islands are often run by independent jurisdictions, and islanders often become set in ways that outsiders might see as eccentric; Baldacchino argues that island life naturally produces a different type of person from life on a continent, in the same way as evolution produces uniquely adapted species in isolated places.
The popular fascination of islands as sites of myth and exoticism actually gives them a particular attraction to creative types, which Richard Florida has dubbed a ‘high bohemian index’. Mervyn Peake, Antony Gormley, Victor Hugo and Auguste Renoir have all found creative inspiration in Guernsey’s unique landscape. Indeed, the island has been a creative hotbed since prehistoric times: in the first lecture of the conference, Professor Colin Renfrew declared that the Castel Church menhir-statue is one of the earliest examples of figurative sculpture in the British Isles. He also reminded islanders that some of the earliest architectural remains in Europe can be found at the Les Fouaillages site in the Vale. These are attractions for any discerning art tourist, but the conference revealed that Guernsey has the potential for countless new contemporary arts projects.
Antony Gormley at the Castle for the conference
In today’s expanding art world, new fairs, projects and biennials open each year in seemingly unlikely places. Over the course of the event, speakers discussed inspiring projects that have achieved success in far-flung and unexpected locations. Maaretta Jaakuri’s Artscape Nordland placed contemporary sculptures across one of the most remote provinces of Norway. Speakers also discussed Estuaire, a French biennial project in the Loire valley where artworks were installed along the river from Nantes to St Nazaire.
Nick Ewbank’s presentation on the current cultural development of Folkestone was perhaps most pertinent to Guernsey’s situation. In this Kent town, described by Ewbank as a ‘metaphorical island’, a committee has taken several steps. They have launched a triennial, opened an academy specialising in arts and European culture, and subsidised the development of a creative quarter in the old town.
Inspiring stuff, but it’s all much easier to sit back and imagine than to carry out. Funding seems to be one of the major preventative issues. A ‘percent for culture’ idea, where one percent of all financial transaction fees were given to cultural projects, was suggested. The Irish have solved the problem by offering tax incentives for writers and artists. Natalie Melton from Arts and Business focussed on the mutual benefits that can be reaped from businesses’ sponsorship of art initiatives, something that should surely be encouraged in Guernsey. Although they were invited, barely any representatives from Guernsey’s financial sector attended the conference, a sign that they might still require some convincing.
Dr Ihor Holubizky, a speaker from the conference, visits the Little Chapel
In today’s expanding cultural milieu, there is no reason why small islands like Guernsey cannot assert themselves in the domain of international contemporary art projects. There are challenges to overcome, not least the issue of facilitating communication between benefactors and stakeholders. But after spending two days immersed in optimistic discussions of culture and its place in island society, I’m feeling pretty excited about the future of art on our funny little outcrop of rock.
This is only the tip of the archipelago – check out these websites for more on art and islands:
www.arts.gg – www.estuaire.info – www.folkestonetriennial.org.uk – www.skulpturlandskap.no – www.islandstudies.ca
XEROX Issue 3