IAN COULSON Curator
B O U N D A R I E S
"Whoever set the working theme for this exhibition has been exceptionally prescient because 2020 has been assuredly the year of boundaries; not since the end of the second world war have separation and distancing, both individual and political, been so relevant. The twin challenges of Covid-19 and Brexit have seen the entire population literally ‘take steps’ to distance themselves from all but those that they live with. Friends, loved ones and even closest family members have languished unvisited, weddings and funerals have occurred unattended and all pundits agree that the social and economic damage from these twin scourges will take years to recover from. The virus, a naturally occurring threat, will be overcome by vaccines developed in little more than eight months by international scientific cooperation of a most encouraging nature. By contrast, the wishes for separation which are inherent in Brexit are inward-looking, atavistic, suspicious and untrusting, and since the momentous vote five years ago, these traits of the English psyche have won out at every point and may conceivably result in the break-up of the United Kingdom. The language around Brexit of brinkmanship, last ditch attempts, the cliff edge, light at the end of the tunnel, with the negotiation experience characterised as a journey, fix the whole project in a landscape. This use of physical, geographical metaphors seems to have limited the thinking, excluding all that is imaginative and creative, or about positive alternatives and other possible desirable outcomes. Having painted themselves into the ‘No Deal’ corner – another geographical metaphor, the narrative is about what is protective – borders, money, laws – and dressed up in the sickening, nostalgic ‘Brits standing alone’ WW2 mythology. The zeal of buccaneering brexiteers, willingly cutting their country off from our European friends and our shared past and culture, at no matter what the cost, shows a lust for the consoling, comforting certainty of knowing where their boundaries are. The hallowed ‘White Cliffs of Dover’ symbolise to them a truly doctrinal purity of the concept of sovereignty. For my part, though good fences may make good neighbours, I resent the theft of my European citizenship and the enormous losses, both cultural and economic, that will result from this pyrric victory. Four hundred years ago, John Donne the philosopher wrote in his Meditation Devotions upon Emergent Occasions: ‘No man is an iland, intire of it selfe; every man is a peece of the Continent, a part of the maine; if a clod bee washed away by the Sea, Europe is the lesse, as well as if a Promontorie were, as well as if a Mannor of thy friends or of thine owne were; any mans death diminishes me, because I am involved in Mankinde; And therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; It tolls for thee...’ During this year of Covid, we on the Isle of Man seem have been living a parallel existence. After our initial infections, heartbreaking deaths and the tragedy of Abbotswood, lockdown and a concerted community effort progressively eradicated the virus. Closed borders, the fact that we owned the Steam Packet and the use of jail sentences to strictly enforce the isolation of licensed arrivals on the island, have resulted in what is a near normal life for everyone. Our hospital and health service continue to serve us as we would expect and it seems that Manannan has been utilising his cloak to great effect; during all of this we seem to have been leading a charmed existence. Everyone on the island has been constantly aware of our edges and their effect on keeping us safe from the virus. We Manx were always aware of the sea – once when we were seamen, it represented our connections with the rest of the world, yet now, if you listen to Manx Radio, it seems that many islanders feel that the sea has imprisoned them against their will. It seems too, that we have our own conspiracy theorists who are happy to challenge all scientific findings and are anxious to voice their mistrust of vaccines, yet they too have benefited from our undistanced, unmasked, island-wide bubble with pubs, restaurants and shops all open. Almost uniquely in the world we have been able to socialise freely with near certain safety and when this is all over our society will be much less scarred than that of our neighbours. For the countries around us the two metre social distancing that everyone has kept to, demonstrates how people can hold a boundary in the very front of their consciousness for over a year. This focused spatial awareness has slowed the virus’ progress but has also emphasised the singularity, the ‘aloneness’ of people’s individual natures. The loss of human touch has resulted in a spreading solitude and depression and, ultimately for the sake of the health of our families and communities, in not touching, hugging, shaking and holding hands, we have suppressed one of the main means of displaying our affections. These are significant personal constraints to accept and a return to normality cannot come too soon. Covid-19 has been a continuing disaster for all of the arts, in that it has prohibited performance and removed audiences. The dark theatres, the loss of live music, the closed cinemas and galleries have destroyed livelihoods and devastated the creative arts industries. Artists, designers, performers and musicians may have been in production but the market for their wares has been silent, so as a commemoration of this time I would like to make a humble proposal for the propogation of a Yew Tree ‘Living Henge’ to be planted on the island to commemorate our Covid-19 experience off into the deep future. We have few yew trees of great age on the Isle of Man, yet our Gaelic neighbours on either side of us in Wales and Ireland have hundreds of ancient yews - many, of several hundreds of years of age. Indeed with its ability to reseed itself, the yew tree is an example of an organism that may actually be considered capable of ‘immortality’. I would like to propose that from cuttings taken from these ancient and venerable yews in the churchyards of our neighbours, we plant a large and unbroken yew tree circle of the same scale of our upland, circular stone sheep shelters. The yew tree has a deep symbolic significance within both Christian and Pagan religious ideas and the circle is, of itself, a symbol of eternity. In our present situation it is also representative of our surrounding and protecting sea, successfully keeping the virus at bay. The yew tree’s parts are of course toxic in some respects to animals, visually too, due to its year round, deep green foliage, it may be considered that the yew ‘brings its own darkness with it’. The ‘graveyard’ tree leads us to thoughts of our own mortality, yet derivatives of the yew are currently used in life saving, anti-cancer drug production. A large dark green circle then, in the Manx landscape; a point of interest to walk to and to contemplate; a place of symbolism to be mused over by generations of future Island dwellers."