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In this month's project by Stephen Hobbs, which first appeared as part of the Wash website last year, the artist investigates the strange politics around the dawning of January 1, 2000, the shifting of the international date line in the Pacific in relation to that day, and the sad and confused history of Christmas Island.
What makes this day different from any other? This day being January 1 2000. A question I have been asking myself for several years now. Only after reading a recent article in the Mail & Guardian was I able to identify issues of space and time in the new millennium that would give meaning to me. The article entitled: 'Islands' Poisoned Legacy' (Mail & Guardian, Oct 31 - Nov 6 1997, p21) provided all of this. That is, a small group of islands in the Pacific Ocean falling under the Republic of Kiribati. One of these islands will be the first to see in the year 2000. The main thrust of the article, however, was to form an ironic link between nuclear testing and the spatio-temporal significance of these islands in terms of the dawn of the new millennium. Christmas Island or Kiritimati bears this legacy today in the form of populants and post-World War II soldiers, now dying from various cancers as a result of exposure to nuclear testing.
I have a very limited experience of the paradise island phenomenon, except for travel brochure presentation and the odd constructed vista in travel agency windows. In this sense the presence of the bomb stands far taller in my mind than the ubiquitous beach-scape, framed by coconut trees. And in this vein 'Islands' Poisoned Legacy' also forged an alternative view: of island as "other" space, margin to the main land. More specifically "island" as a kind of apocalyptic conclusion to the pursuits of "progress" in the 20th century.
With the current global hype around events scheduled for the millennium and some massive anticipation of global change, it feels a bit like people are warming up for the start of a race that finishes on the international dateline in the middle of nowhere. And to some extent this will come true, if one contemplates the amount of "we were first to see in the new millennium" parties scheduled for this day. I'm forming a picture in my mind of numerous groups of people scattered throughout the Pacific Ocean, anxiously waiting to see which huddled group will be hit first by virgin sun rays. Worrying if they've chosen the correct land mass or not, and what means they might have to hop over to the right island in time.
In an article published in The Times, Internet Edition, January 25 1996, Quentin Letts discusses how, as a result of the tourism potential for New Year's Eve 1999, the United Nations and the Royal Greenwich Observatory have been involved in clarifying disputes among islanders as to where the international dateline actually falls. "Travel agents are scouring the Pacific for the first landfall west of the date line. The agreed venue will make a fortune … The search has been further complicated by the decision of some islanders to move the date line. The tiny nation of Kiribati has angered its Pacific neighbors by moving part of the line to its eastern extremity. Kiribati will see the millennium's dawn 22 minutes before the Cathams, and a humiliating 80 minutes before Tonga."
The shifting of the time line, the presence of the bomb, the landscape it creates and the absence of a confirmed island to pin this all onto, is the stuff of this project. It endeavours to explore the aesthetics of the mushroom cloud, accounts and events that took place in the pacific ocean during the second world war and ultimately the potential placelessness of the millennium event itself.
If one were to view the world as a human head, and recall any two-dimensional map depicting the placement of the continents, then Europe would roughly be the forehead, and the Pacific Ocean with its scattered islands would be the back of the head. In terms of space and time, it is interesting that all this hype centres on the back of our minds, if you will, just off the middle of nowhere. Nowhere, in that the only significance this space of the world seems to have is space! Thousands of square kilometres of ocean between island masses make it quite easy to test any weapon of destruction without the rest of the world being affected by it or even knowing for that matter.
The millennium race finish line will mark the blind spot of the world's eye. Since the islands of the Pacific Ocean have been released from various forms of colonisation over the centuries, their primary purpose today seems to centre around great scuba diving and fishing potential, but in and around this are various histories of war. "The British left behind tons of equipment, supposedly because it was radioactive? No attempt was made to hide the debris. If one didn't know otherwise one would think the army was in retreat, abandoning all in order to escape." - 'Islands' Poisoned Legacy'. This passage sustains a strong visual - a silhouette of debris and demolition. A kind of quiet after the storm, after the bomb, suspended.
In terms of history, the nuclear legacy born by these islands is suspended for the purposes of silencing their histories. In favour of island cliches such as "… they are everywhere at home. 'Blessed' by limited land resources and supported by a capacious sense of humour", a description of the Gilbertese Islanders sourced from the worldwide web.
Essentially, in this scenario I see the international date line as a physical boundary separating the fiction from non-fiction, good from evil, amusing island cliches from landscapes of death and destruction, the mushroom cloud from the cumulonimbus cloud. But ultimately these binaries are meaningless without the stuff in between …