This fortress built by nature for herself

Against infection and the hand of war,

This happy breed of men, this little world,

This precious stone set in the silver sea,

Which serves it in the office of a wall,

Or as a moat defensive to a house
(William Shakespeare, Richard II)


In a scene from l’Avventura by Michelangelo Antonioni, one of the characters helplessly contemplates the Aeolian Islands from her boat and murmurs “Islands. I don’t get them…Surrounded by nothing but water. Poor things”. Allegedly trivial and maternal, this comment connects some of the main traditional conceptions of islands: the veil of mystery that surrounds them that has triggered both fascination and fear, the desire to categorise and attach them to different types of dominion, the need to liberate them from their natural insularity. Still, the understanding of islands and archipelagos contains the complexities initiated by a portion of land and its counterpart, the sea, both barrier and bridge, source of journeys of discovery and tragedies.

Stéphanie Saadé, Travel Diary, 2014-2020, Used travel document, 24-carat gold leaf, 21×29,7cm. Courtesy the artist & Galerie Anne Barrault, Paris

Even for islanders it is common to turn to dichotomies in attempts to identify themselves within a global geography. The Irish refer to the United Kingdom as “mainland”, the United Kingdom refers to Europe as “the Continent” and for Balearic and Canary Islanders Spain is “the Peninsula”. Islands are always something else. Islanders often realise only by travelling or living elsewhere that being born in a territory delimited by the sea comes with a set of distinguishing features, including a contentment in staying close to home mixed with an eagerness to cross beyond the sea border.

It is here that the island becomes both a point of departure and return, the cause of idealisation, expeditions to discover and strategies to conquer. The bizarre nature of Oscar Santillán’s work Blister links us with the attraction to get closer and explore unimaginable remote lands, while his work co-authored with Yoko Ono, Cuerpo de Agua, composed of two anonymous footsteps, one collected in the coast of Japan and the other on the opposite side of the Pacific Ocean, in Ecuador, speaks of compressing distances, of closeness.


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Featured image: Oscar Santillán, Blister, 2019, Found shoe, beetle, water, magnet and mechanism