Raking the Moon
The story of the moon-rakers has its origins in 18th Century rural England, when smuggling was still a significant industry. Although there are a number of versions of the moon-raker myth they all have the following basic narrative elements:-
Two rural smugglers hide a barrel of French brandy from excisemen in a body of water. When they return under the cover of darkness to retrieve the contraband they are apprehended. When questioned by the excisemen the smugglers gesture to the reflection of the moon on the water claiming that they were trying to rake the moon after it fell. The excisemen, amused by the foolish antics of the slow-witted rustics, leave them in peace to retrieve their brandy.
The moon-raker myth is therefore about perception and (cognitive) bias. It is about the tension between rural and urban, and it also speaks of how communities define themselves and construct narratives to reinforce their collective image.
The myth resonates well with Cheung Chau. Undeniably part of Hong Kong it is also removed, a territory unto itself. This degree of separation has helped the island cultivate its own idiosyncratic identity.
At the centre of this exhibition is the piece “Cheung Chau – A Phrenology of an Island”. Rather than a physical map of the territory it is an exploration of the “island mentality”, looking at modes of perception (rational and irrational) and modes of creating collective narrative. While some of the content is specific to Cheung Chau, the island is a departure point rather than the subject of direct scrutiny. As an artist from the British Isles, Thomson is inquisitive about how the island shapes the community.
The term “island mentality” can refer specifically to the mind-set of members of an island community, but it can also include that of any group or community defined by their boundaries. In Cheung Chau’s case it is the sea. In other communities is could be a wall, a fence, a river – or something non-physical such as an ideology or set of beliefs.
The island is used as a metaphor for both the community and the individual, simultaneously a topographical depiction of the coast and pathways and a cross section of synaptic connections through a brain. The inference is that the individual draws a sense of self from the map. This is the map as psychological self-portrait.
“Cheung Chau – A Phrenology of an Island” introduces us to the motifs of the island, the ship, the moon and the lighthouse which reoccur throughout “Raking the Moon”. All self-contained vessels, these components interact to create the narrative and conceptual links at the core of the exhibition.
Pioneers of early cinema had a fascination with the horror genre. The films that they produced so captured the imagination that the form has become a significant part of the 20th century cultural landscape. The cinema is placed as an alternative source of cultural narratives, one that competes directly with more traditional sources such as religion and folklore.
The moon influences the tides, calendar, our bodies. To an island that relies on fishing, the moon also affects the economy. It was long thought that the moon influenced our mental health, bringing on bouts or madness – or lunacy.
Elsewhere we see the moon imagined as separate hemispheres of the brain – port and starboard. International currencies and cognitive biases are overlaid on these charts, creating a territory seen through the filters of cognition and aspiration.
Ships and Lighthouses
Every lighthouse has unique flash patterns that will not only alert a mariner to danger but can also inform them of their global position. Lighthouses exist because of the value of ships and their cargo, be that goods or people. They are not intended solely for the protection of commercial interests rather lighthouses are part of a social contract between those on land and those at sea, each must support the other. In this exhibition the lighthouse is a surrogate moon: a universal feature of the coast and a navigational guide.
The Flexible Flag
The flag is an abstract which represents sets of cultural values rather than being indicative of territory. Despite this being the case, flags are used to claim territory – even the moon has been claimed with a flag.
Here the proposed flags for Cheung Chau depart from traditional flags; they are ambiguous, changeable comprising of a flexible series of quasi-cartographic signifiers. The intention is to evoke rather than prescribe.
Heroes and Anti-Heroes
Sea-faring communities frequently look to the ocean for their heroes and villains. The explorer leaves home soil in the hope of expanding the boundaries of their community – be that literally or figuratively. In Britain there has long been a fascination with the stoic, resourceful mariner pushing boundaries for the public good. Figures like Walter Raleigh and Robert Falcon Scott (Scott of the Antarctic) have had a profound effect on the British character.
In 1968 the Sunday Times newspaper organised “The Sunday Times Golden Globe Race” a non-stop, single-handed, round-the-world yacht race. The race ended in controversy as all but one of the competitors failed to complete the race, and because of the apparent suicide of entrant Donald Crowhurst.
Donald Crowhurst was a British businessman and weekend sailor who entered the race hoping to win £5000 to salvage his failing business. Tragically he encountered difficulty early on and abandoned the race, falsifying his positions in a hope that he could appear to have circumnavigated the globe without leaving the South Atlantic.
His boat was found abandoned with evidence that his voyage ended in insanity and suicide. The final words in his log are “it has been a good game that must be ended” Crowhust was a would-be moon-raker, and a tragic victim of his deception.