Your place to explore new perspectives on British art from 1900 to now. Through interviews, films, image galleries and essays, we uncover the creative lives of the people behind the art on our walls.
Scratching the Surface: Ilana Halperin’s ‘Emergent Landmass'
Mia Curtis Mays
[ Artwork in Focus )
Gallery volunteer Mia Curtis Mays explores the striking etchings of Ilana Halperin and their fascinating themes.
Within the Hockney to Himid: 60 Years of British Printmaking exhibition, Ilana Halperin’s Emergent Landmass (A Chronicle of Disappearance) – a series of seven etchings – documents the volcanic island of Ferdinandea. Situated on a strategic trade route, off the coast of Sicily, this volcanic island emerged in 1831, disappearing months later. Halperin’s seven hard-ground etchings are named after its many given names: Sciacca, Nertita, Corrao, Hotham, Julia, Graham Island and Ferdinandea. This work suggests not just the temporality of our landscapes, but also our obsession as humans to label and claim every landmass as our own.
On June 28th 1831, a string of earthquakes caused the sea to be fiercely shaken and by July 4th, the amount of sulphur consequently present in the sea blackened silver objects. A column of smoke appeared on July 13th, which led to people proclaiming that “The place became annoyed with the sea”. It was thought that the smoke was a steam-boat on fire in the distance. Sailors of Sciacca, who had returned from a fishing trip, had noticed the sea was filled with dead fish.
Over the next few days, an eruption of lapilli, pumices, and fiery cinders fell into the sea, and on July 17th, an islet formed quickly. Aware of the new land formation, The Sanitary Deputation of Sciacca sent a fishing boat with Michael Florins aboard to investigate, sending the news of the discovery back to the coast. This led to The Real Society and the Society of Geology from London named the land Graham, after Captain Graham who had first taken note of the island, raised a flag to claim the island for the empire, and collected geological samples as proof of the discovery.
This wasn’t the only time the island was claimed; soon The Bourbon Kingdom of the Two Sicilies named the island Ferdinandea, after King Ferdinand II. At the taller part of the island, The French Derussat placed a flag and named it Julia, after July when the apparition of the island appeared. Through many people claiming the island as their own, the island ended up having seven names before its disappearance. Within a few months, its perimeter decreased, slipping beneath the waves, remaining today only as a shipping hazard.
Regardless of the disappearance of the island, there was still a fight for ownership. In recent times, a man persuaded a descendant of Ferdinand, Prince Carlos of Calabria, to have a marble plaque placed 20 metres below the surface of the sea on the island’s remains. The plaque was inscribed with the words: “This piece of land, once Ferdinandea, was and shall always belong to the Sicilian people”. However, within weeks, a diver discovered the plaque had been destroyed.
It was no wonder that the island kept being reclaimed, regardless of its clear fate. The island appeared in a strategic position in the middle of the Mediterranean trade route, making it extremely desirable. The surrounding waters were full of ‘privateers’, which were state-sanctioned ships allowed to loot merchant ships from enemy countries, of which England, France and the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies all had. At a time these countries were essentially at war with ships from the Ottoman Empire, they felt that the island could help them gain control of those waters.
Collected at the discovery of the island, a pail of rocks and soil are the only samples that had ever been taken from this island. This slice of the island currently sits in the National History Museum’s storage; these samples will always remain unique as they will never be able to be collected again.
Halperin’s seven framed etchings invite us to witness the island in all its seven forms, from its birth to its descent. The island, now framed and on display, is claimed by each and every one of us who gets to see it. The etchings have immortalised the island’s every stage of life and will continue to share its story hundreds of years after its birth.
L’isola che se ne andò (the island that went away) has not just inspired Halperin’s art but is rumoured to have inspired writers such as Jules Verne. It is even potentially the island which J M Barrie’s Neverland is based upon. Art and literature have immortalised this island, yet perhaps it is the more the fact that it is still in the Sicilian’s thoughts, two centuries later, that is most touching. Apparent signs of volcanic activity over the years have raised hopes that the island may one day return. For now, sitting 30ft (9m) below sea level, it is fully colonised by coral and home to an array of fish species. Despite the political disputes surrounding the ownership, it ended up being nature which finally claimed it.
Emergent Landmass (A Chronicle of Disappearance) nods to the fragility of our land and there has not been a more relevant time for that message to be told. Regardless of how we choose to divide and possess the land on our planet, it is nature who will have the final say. Halperin’s etchings capture the beauty and delicacy of the island’s formation and it is a work that has stuck with me. It is more than just the discovery of a new island; it has invited new discoveries into our own human history.