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In fact, Avery’s unnamed island – its map is a distorted version of the real Mull – is not even an island, but part of its own coherent universe, populated by humans, fallen gods, and an indistinct species called the If’fen (The word is a pun on “If [x], then [y],” a standard phrase of philosophical logic). The island is an intricately thought-out place, and part of an “illuminated encyclopaedia” that Avery expects to work on for a very long time.

Charles Avery, The Islanders - An Introduction, installation view,
Courtesy Doggerfisher, Edinburgh

“I am not an artist,” he says. “I am a philosopher who uses art to fund my dreaming. The Island is the world of ideas, it’s a terra incognita. When I go there, I am an explorer.”

This elision between terms – artist, philosopher – is significant. For Avery, drawings are vivid ideas that are both objects and not objects. Drawing is something that leaves traces, almost like a logician scribbling down the stages of his thoughts. There is, perversely, great sincerity in this, especially if one reflects on the origins of the word sincere: it comes from the Latin phrase sine cera, (without wax) and refers to an object made without wax to smooth over imperfections. The relics of earlier thoughts are the evidence of thought and process for Avery: “I don’t hide my mistakes,” he says of the marks he makes. “They cease to be mistakes. When I rub them out, they become ghosts.”

Charles Avery, The grass is alive (detail), 2005,
Courtesy Doggerfisher, Edinburgh

Charles Avery, Untitled (snakes), 2005,
Courtesy Doggerfisher, Edinburgh

But there is, for Avery, another reason that his island’s universe is described in such detail, right down to its archipelago of the Procession of Natural Numbers and the Sea of Clarity in the south and the Eternal Forest, unseen by any human, towards the north. That is because, says Avery, it is only through a process of separation that we know who and what we are. This fundamental truth Freud cast it in terms of triangular relationships) is what stops us from looking at the flickering shadows on the walls – as in Plato’s famous analogy of the cave – with only passing curiosity. “There’s a huge amount of pre-Socratic philosophy in it,” says Avery, acknowledging his use of Plato’s example for human consciousness. There is one section of the installation involving model cobras (chosen, perhaps, for their fabled hypnotic propensities) and separated by a reflective screen bisecting a table that makes this explicit. The world exists between the minds of the three snakes on either side of the screen. It may, at first glance, seem like an optical illusion, but it isn’t: there are indeed more snakes on the other side of the screen.

Charles Avery, Avatars, 2005,
Courtesy Doggerfisher, Edinburgh

Which is another way of saying that Avery’s worlds are never closed. People may visit on what Avery refers to jovially as an “art safari”; indeed, their arrival has already been anticipated by unscrupulous merchants. One drawing in The Islanders describes a vaguely sinister shop, with vitrines of serpent-shaped things ready to be sold. The creatures are, in Island-parlance, avatars; these are ideas, packaged and ready to be carried home by the same kinds of tourists who, on excursions to Aztec temples, admire the engraved symbols without wondering what they signified. This is Avery’s warning to both his fellow artists and those who consume art. “Any thought or idea is a journey, and artists are professional dreamers,” he says emphatically to the first group. “So be intrepid.” And to the second? “My notion of art is one that exists in the mind of the viewer. I provide a structure that the viewer continues.” In other words, use your consciousness and your dreaming subconscious carefully. You don’t know what you may find.

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