PRINT Summer 2005


I sit in urban safety imagining my journey to Tristan da Cunha. I have known about this island for many years, since studying the trade routes in the Southern Atlantic and the rough and fearsome seas of the roaring forties. They call it the remotest island on earth, because it is nearly two thousand miles off the nearest coast and only one boat goes there a year, out of the Cape of Good Hope. It is a volcano risen out of the ocean, where fewer than three hundred people still live, all descendents of the sea’s itinerants—the shipwrecked and the runaways and the naval loners restless at home. They come from the stock of old seafaring nations, like the English and the Dutch, the American and the Italian, and they still have only seven family names between them.

For a long time, I have wanted to go there: to arrive on that boat, the RMS Saint Helena, and to leave on it again a year later. I see it as my big project—my observation post in the roughest seas on the planet, where the weather is cruel and the skies are filled with albatross instead of herring gulls. I began to have dreams about Tristan da Cunha. I dreamed about waiting for the post to arrive. Once, when letters were being distributed into piles on tables, it occurred to me, quite suddenly and as if in panic, even in my dream, that the boat that had brought the letters had to be the boat: the boat that meant my year was over and I could go home. My concentration on all those letters I could not send, as well as those I could not receive, made me begin to imagine a year in the plod of time and in the minutiae of all that news I could not get.

But this fantasy belongs to the analog world: the world where you could still get lost. It belongs to a time before we began endlessly and futilely communicating with each other, when people expected to wait a year for a letter. I read now that a satellite public phone has been installed in the only village on Tristan da Cunha and that the local administrator has e-mail and that from time to time cruise ships on their way to Antarctica stop by when the weather lets them anchor. Maybe getting lost, or rather disappearing out of sight, has become an anachronism in our communication-crazed world. Is this why being hostage to such remoteness is so attractive to me when, truth be told, I am a coward to such loneliness?

I recollect a story from childhood, where the hero, in order to remedy something I can no longer recall, had to walk on land where no man had ever trod. I remember being troubled by this. Where might such land be? Was it under the sea or in the desert or on top of a mountain? How would we know if man had ever walked there? Did the riddle perhaps mean new land: land that had come up from the center of the Earth, land made of lava? Or was it land fallen from the sky, like ice land? Was it on the moon, or, now that that has been vanquished, Mars? I don’t remember the end of the story. What I am remembering, though, as I struggle to understand the part of me that craves the distant elsewhere, is that the riddle of the untrodden land might have planted a seed.

And like one of those gifts of synchronicity that answers you out of nowhere, I decide, just after having written the above paragraph, to look at Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s 1939 book Wind, Sand and Stars for some inspiration on where to go with this text. I open the book at random and read straight away about his forced landing on an isolated plateau in the Sahara: “Without question, I was the first human being ever to wander over this . . . this iceberg. . . . I was thrilled by the virginity of a soil which no step of man or beast had sullied. I lingered there, startled by this silence that never had been broken. The first star began to shine, and I said to myself that this pure surface had lain here thousands of years in sight only of the stars.”

So I realize, suddenly, what is at the heart of this draw to the Earth’s edges—to the desert and to the sea or to the ice at the bottom of the world or the volcano risen out of the ocean. In these places, we are not bound by the rules of human time; we can be free of a history that cannot mark a surface in constant flux, like that of the sea or the shifting dunes of the desert or a surface brutalized by weather or extremity. In these places, we can imagine millennia; we can imagine prehistory and can see the future.

As Saint-Exupéry walks his untrodden desert plateau, he finds in the sand a black stone, like lava stone, which has fallen from the sky, and the more he wanders the more of them he finds. “And here is where my adventure became magical, for in a striking foreshortening of time that embraced thousands of years, I had become the witness of this miserly rain from the stars. The marvel of marvels was that there on the rounded back of the planet, between this magnetic sheet and those stars, a human consciousness was present in which as in a mirror that rain could be reflected.”

Tacita Dean is a Berlin-based artist.