Existence Doubtful

Nancy Campbell speaks to artist Tatiana Ginsberg about her chart of non-existent islands

American artist Tatiana Ginsberg studied papermaking in Iowa and Japan, and her residencies include Åland Archipelago Guest Artist Residence, Kökar, Finland.

I encountered Ginsberg when she showed Existence Doubtful at a book arts festival in Denmark a few summers ago. Ginsberg’s artist’s book contains a 12-foot-long chart of the Anson Archipelago, a chain of imaginary islands long included on maps. As the artist and her team of helpers opened the book and unfolded its light kozo pages across the gallery, the waves of paper caught the sunlight reflected off the waters of the Limfjord outside. I asked Tatiana about the work.


How did you come across the Anson Archipelago?

One day I was walking through the stacks in the library on my way to retrieve a book. In passing I caught sight of the spine of a volume that said Lost Islands. Of course I stopped to investigate. It turned out to be about islands that have disappeared from nautical charts because they either never existed or were misplaced on maps, such as the fabled Rica de Oro and Los Jardines. Those two and many other islands once made up the Anson Archipelago, which the book’s author Henry Stommel describes as “relics of the charts which Lord Anson commandeered from the Spanish galleon Covadonga off the Philippines in 1743.”

I was already interested in mapping, and especially efforts to map coastlines in difficult regions such as the area between Hokkaido and Honshu in Japan (which is how I first learned about La Pérouse, the subject of another project). I think the impulse to make work about these lost islands was there from the moment I pulled the book from the shelf.

Tell me more about the processes involved in making the book – ink on handmade kozo, flax and abaca papers.

Like most of my projects this one started with the paper. I began by making the kozo sheets for the map, which was the most complex part to design. Kozo’s long fibres allow for great strength and fold endurance without a lot of bulk. It is also somewhat translucent, and I wanted the rest of the book to have a similar lightness, which is why I used thin abaca sheets for the other text pages. The binding is a papercase style, based on European limp vellum bindings.

The book is one of a kind. I designed it in such a way that it could be editioned potentially, though I doubt I ever will. The text was all typeset in Mrs. Eaves on a computer and then traced onto the sheets for the book, which allowed me to have something of the regularity of a typeset page with the handwritten quality I felt was more in keeping with the subject.


Why did you first choose to work with paper?

I’ve always loved paper – both fine handmade papers and everyday ephemera. Technically I could say that I got interested in paper through printmaking in college, and I took my first class in it then. But actually I was always fascinated by its potential as a medium. As a child I loved origami and all kinds of paper crafts, and when I had the chance to make paper myself it just clicked. Over time it has become central to my work and my process.

Does your work reflect a personal experience of the ocean and islands in particular?

Travel and all the places I have lived have been a huge influence on my work. I think in many ways I made Existence Doubtful because of my experience living in Japan and then moving to California – the feeling of wanting to find a bit of land in between, somewhere in that vast ocean, made the Anson Archipelago a meaningful metaphor for me.

I spent my childhood summers on Fire Island, off the coast of New York’s Long Island. It’s very narrow, and we lived on the bay side. A few minutes walk over to the ocean would show you a completely different world, and every day the sea had new surprises. I was especially fascinated by sandbars, islands that appeared and disappeared before your eyes in a matter of hours. Swimming or wading out to one of these temporary islands and feeling that you are standing on land where normally there is sea is somehow disconcerting but magical. Spending time on islands in the Baltic has helped me reconnect to that feeling.

Standing on a small spot of dry land surrounded by water gives me perspective on how small we humans are in the context of the whole of the sea and sky.

When I was seventeen I travelled alone in Europe for three months. Some of the best memories of that trip are from the west coasts of Ireland and Scotland; I loved seeing the Atlantic from the other side. Painter John Schueler and art historian Magda Salvesen, family friends, lent me a house facing the Isle of Skye for a couple weeks. Staying in the house of a painter, surrounded by his inspiration, gave me a new perspective on making art and a kind of creative epiphany that I’m still working through and perhaps only now beginning to understand.

Existence Doubtful, 2007

Ocean exploration through the ages is a common theme in your work. I’m thinking of later projects, such as La Pérouse’s Last Letters (2011), which tells the story of two French ships, the Astrolabe and the Boussole, which sailed into uncharted seas and disappeared without trace in 1788. And I Fear We Must Go (2013), inspired by the centenary of the British Antarctic Expedition 1910–1913. How does this theme reflect the broader concerns of your work?

Sometimes I wish I could make work about happier subjects, but I find myself compelled by these true stories and I need to wrestle with them in my own way. Especially nowadays when we are so used to being armchair travellers (or internet travellers), we do well to remember that people risked their lives so that we could know our world. And now that we are so used to instant communication, I also find something especially poignant about the letters and journals these explorers wrote to share not only their discoveries, but their worries, doubts and fears along the way. Looking at their handwritten notes, these epic travels feel human, fragile and personal.


‘There is no more poetic book than an atlas,’ wrote Judith Schalansky in her acclaimed Atlas of Remote Islands: Fifty Islands I Have Not Visited and Never Will, which was published a few years after your project. Why do you think there is such a resonance to maps?

Maps are tantalizing because they show us real places, and yet we have to imagine them. Even when you are looking at a map of a place you know well, it doesn’t really show you the place so much as suggest its outlines. The rest we fill in with our memories or fantasies.

What are you working on next?

Right now I’m finishing up an artist’s book version of I Fear We Must Go, with lithographs and pulp printed handmade paper. After working on the large drawings for that installation, I felt it should have another iteration that might reach a different audience. I’m also making some etchings about the Northwest Passage that I suspect might turn into a bigger project.

Tatiana Ginsberg makes drawings, prints, installations, and books, most of which use handmade paper. Originally from New York City, she studied at the University of Iowa Center for the Book before spending two years in Japan researching naturally dyed papers under a Fulbright grant. She teaches printmaking, papermaking and artist's books, and exhibits internationally. Her work will be shown as part of the 2015 Paper Fibre Art Biennial at the New Brewery Arts Centre in Cirencester, UK, from 28th March to 30th May 2015. More info on her website: www.tatianaginsberg.org

Nancy Campbell is a writer and visual artist. Her books include How To Say ‘I Love You’ In Greenlandic: An Arctic Alphabet which won theBirgit Skiöld Award in 2013. www.nancycampbell.co.uk