I visited an island this weekend. Not a large island. Not an impressive island. Held in the muddy waters of the Yarra, flanked on one side by the freeway and the other by school boatsheds. The drone of engines on one side and the strain of muscles on the other.
It is reached by a very short journey on a flat bottomed punt with an engine of seemingly unnecessary size and power. For a place surrounded with water it was surprisingly dry, with dusty paths, stressed plants and many weeds. There are barbeques and at one end an art gallery. This shows we are not on any regulation island.
Both islands and rivers bring easy life references, one a clear destination, the other a journey. Sitting in the Yarra the island is a surrounded place in a linear feature, a dot within a line.
While noisy miners live up to their name in the bushes and magpies follow you, begging for food, this is not really a place to visit for the wildlife. This is place you visit for the abstraction of sculpture, rather than the company of nature.
Why do people like particular landscapes? Why do people like particular sculptures? Shape? Form? Texture? Some message that only they can read? Some association of memory? Whatever the reasons, some things work and some things don’t. Herring Island, my speck in the Yarra, contains sculptures - some which work for me, some which don’t.
The head of the island has become a boat - lined with rough cut granite slabs and a captain’s seat. A splendid place to look downriver to the city of Melbourne. But here the boat stays still and the water moves past, an anchored boat. All movement is relative to something, and here the waters flow and the island is still. You can stand at the head of your boat, curse the White Whale of progress should you wish, have your Ahab moment if you are inclined. But you will stay still and the water will move. If this sculpture is about anything, it seems to me to be about the necessity of movement. We can stand and watch, or we can become involved. It’s a binary choice. Inaction seems out of the question. On an island turning to dust, in a river choking in drought, a choice seems to be demanded of you. I wonder if that is what it is really about?
Weaving from the river’s edge to the top of the island is Falling Fence. A plastic flow of stakes emerging from the ground like the bones of a spine - like a huge fish frame buried in the land. From the water of the river to the dust of the top it winds along its own path. Although the name may be purely descriptive, it does look like a falling fence after all, the route of the fence seems important. From river to dust. Falling fences are also a symbol of decay - farmland “tumbles down” to woodland, as if one is higher than the other. As if the falling fences are a symbol of decay on all fronts. No matter that the fallen farm land is as rich in wildlife as the farm itself was poor. Many places have old farmland that has been taken back by the wild. For a while it was even encouraged - set aside it was called - and it sought to take land out of production. In many places - the woodlands of New England, the windy space of Dartmoor, the vast wheat belts of Western Australia - you can find the fallen fences of farms long gone, some made of wood, some of stone, some of piled earth. Some fell in recent memory, some fell in the times of iron or bronze tools and watchful eyes on the encroaching Roman Legions. Fallen fences speak of change.
In the middle of the island is a valley, maybe a dell. Although it is only a few feet deep it is as significant as a glacial slice through a different landscape. The island is small and really does not have scale, so small things are important. In a larger scale valley you can have an “over there” or a “hidden”, but in a landscape measured in feet rather than miles, such things are not possible. The best you can hope for is to place a thing where it may remain masked for a few meters. Where it can be hidden in some directions, but is open in others.
In this dell there are two sculptures by Andy Goldsworthy. One sits by the path and the other is shielded by trees. Goldsworthy makes things of Wood and Stone, he makes Walls and Enclosures. Many of his works are temporary, which exist in the long term only in photographs. These are different.
The first sculpture shows off a familiar shape - a pine cone. A round shape with a narrow base and a point built from flat sections of rock. Gravity holds this together, no cement here. For a shape drawn from a northern tree, the pine cone looks oddly natural here in the southern hemisphere. I have seen these cones made from stone and scrap steel, and in each case they fitted into the landscape, hand in glove. Here it was the same.
Built into a soil wall the second sculpture was a hole in a wall. And within the wall there was a large stone. This seemed to be appropriate to an island in a river. The wall, like a river, and the stone like an island. My children were drawn to sit on this island within a river of stone. I’m not sure this is actually what they are supposed to do - but it seemed like a good idea at the time.
Islands seem important. I have lived and visited them over the years. A small island off the south west coast corner of Ireland. One of a line of three, far Fastnet, with its lighthouse and it yacht race. Clear Island, much closer, with its Bird Observatory and its Shearwaters. Then, just off the coast, Sherkin Island, across the water from Baltimore. These were small islands, intimate islands.
Some islands were simply cartographers’ specks, so tiny you could miss them in a mist. Islands on lakes, tucked under the shores, but each with a story to tell and a place of adventure for young kids in canoes.
When you visit an island you step into a small, defined world. Here understanding is more likely because of the scale of the world you have entered. Here you can find a kind of intellectual solitude that seems hard to find on the mainland.
No man is an island, but we should all visit them.