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Return to Fook Island

by Layla Leiman / 20.05.2013

In 1971, in response to yet another conceptual art show, Walter Batiss purportedly came up with the idea of creating a fake island. “I will make up a concept of an island,” he said, and “the concept will become real. It won’t just be a selfish thing that an artist makes and pins onto the wall, but something that everyone can participate in. That will make the island real…[although] it is a fake island.”

Over the proceeding years, Batiss’s fictional island became ‘real’ through the prolific creation of tangible every-day Fook objects, from maps and banners, to ritual sceptres, games, money, postage stamps and cutlery. A history of Fook Island was recorded in a devised alphabet, based on Southern Arabic and San rock art. This recounted the arrival of one Ferdinand on Fook Island on January 6, 1723, of whom King Ferd III (Batiss) was the ruling descendant. He invited other artists to join him on Fook Island, one of who was Norman Catherine in 1973. Catherine devised many Fook creatures and inhabitants, and together they populated the conceptual island with all manner of real things.


The exhibition at Art On Paper, Stuffed Moonwhite Trout and Twilight Sauce: Walter Batiss and Norman Catherine Fooking Around, is a collection of art and objects that the two artists created together in the name of Fook.

In many of the artefacts, satire underpins the humour. An advert in the FOOK NOOKSPAAKER offers one “Uninhibited Island for Sale”, and an annotated chess game satirically plays on the moves made by the black and white pieces. Fook Island was not intended to be an overt political statement. However, it can be read as a kind of alternate but parallel history to South Africa in the 1970s; a kind of absurd response, the only kind of response one could argue, to the realities of the time. For Batiss, Fook Island represented a creative utopia, a “world of phantasy & pleasure [that] far exceeds in reality the crude world around me controlled by dreadful might alone”.


Fook Island is a world apart from the real one, which Batiss and his cronies created for themselves to romp and play in. Thirty odd years later however, Fook Island is still relevant. The tangible artefacts from the fictional island present a beautiful paradox of uncontrived conceptual experimentation. The premise of an island is exclusionary and insular, but the creation and dissemination of all the different parts of that world allowed it to become something that was, and again now with this exhibition, be shared. This ironic inclusivity is such a refreshing thing to encounter amidst the excess of conceptual art today, which is mostly contrived, and often almost impossible to engage with.


Fook Island is a concept that was never taken too seriously by the creators, which is perhaps why it’s still taken seriously as a body of work three decades later. Before the labels and prices where even put up at the opening for the exhibition, red dots were dotted around the gallery below almost every piece. Evidently, Fook Island is still a world that people believe in.

blue man


Walter Battiss and Norman Catherine Fooking Around is showing at Gallery Art on Paper in Johannesburg until 8 June 2013.

* All images © Layla Leiman check her blog here.

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