Kish, an Island Indecisive by Design


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The review of Pages’ recent book “ Kish, an Island Indecisive by Design” by Steven Chodoriwsky at: SCAPEGOAT 05-Summer/Fall 2013.


A book of an island is a promising analogue, and its cover may be akin to peering landwards from the boat offshore. It's a rare reading experience to turn to page one and have the pagination affirm your actions, but there it is, “001”, at bottom-center like an anchor, paired with the word “Geography” directly above, both written in Times. A hand-drawn historical map from the pale green cover reappears, albeit with legend and location plan repositioned. Underneath the map, two sketch elevations of Kish appear to confirm that I’m still on the boat offshore. Captions, dating the drawings to 1941, are written in Courier at bottom-right. There's something happening with the pages: they are not all the same size, and I catch a glimpse of 003 and 005 already, out there at the margins. I ignore this alluring prospect for a moment and shut the book again.

Back out on the cover — in case the title was not weighty enough of a proposal — a publisher's voice draws the outline for where a reader might follow the authors: to a place “where the extremes of politics, architecture and urban design visibly collide", and a "stage of conflicting desires” which give to it a “misplaced historical disposition”. Elsewhere, out online, I obtain an even drier inventory: “The book brings together a recent essay with images of past and present states of the island, clippings of magazines and other publications, a transcript of a film, interviews, and material from past exhibitions.” Between these two briefs— rising above them — is the elegant physical object itself, with my left hand holding the spine and right thumb poised to flip through with curiosity.

One flip past the cover, I land not at the beginning, but already on pages 004-005; next flip comes 012-013; then next 020-021 and its gauzy photographs of futuristic modern architecture foregrounded by fashion models, with magazine copy, in French, in italics. At this rate it takes only seventeen more skips to get through the slim volume, amounting to exactly one quarter of its content, one spread out of every four. Is it only a coincidence that the first adjective mentioned in Kish is “elliptical”?

I jump straight to the back, where page 160 is also, oddly, paginated although otherwise blank. Its central purpose is pragmatic: to affix the twenty stitch-sewn signatures to the cover. At this point it feels clear to me that the cover has to be torn off — thesis title, green-on-green imagery, and the publisher’s blurb would need to be jettisoned in order to get inside. I expected this to be a messier affair, but the adhesive peeled off clearly, and the excess gum rolled into a tiny oval which vaguely and pleasingly resembled the island’s shape at miniature scale.

Taking a moment to consult the internet again, a glum dictionary entry tells me that Kish, ten miles off mainland in the Gulf, is “almost without vegetation”, with “stunted herbage”; and further along, a tourist bureau site pronounces it a “flat land devoid of any significant elevation.” I have returned to the book numerous times over the past weeks in various states of mind. Despite its clear, tripartite structure, and no doubt due to its idiosyncratic design, each return feels only modestly more successful than the last, in that I have been unable to navigate myself through the stunted herbage. Once inside and fumbling around, it is not just navigation but also stable memory that lapses. Kish resists intimate knowledge, such as the joy of turning a page knowing this or that illustration will be there in wait. Instead there is a sort of flat threat throughout. A reading of Kish is like that. It confounds and confides. It rewards a very patient reader of images and reading sensations. Authors and designer have travelled great lengths to show, in painstaking detail, that Kish too might be like that, less about describing a where than demonstrating a how. Island and book: their readings exhilarate, enervate, exhaust — because I am both here and also there, on a chair, staring at this ragged atlas on my desk, and simultaneously on a boat off-shore, staring at a flat land devoid of elevation, views and scales collapse together in deep focus.

Corners are not where I expect them, and the extra-split-second it takes me to find them pulls my eyes off whatever I was looking at (or for), and sets the whole enterprise swerving toward the margins. Attention to overlaps and purposeful misalignments give the edges tactility, a brittle sharpness, taunting me to leave the book altogether.

I stick around. But I can't really get lost in here; it’s an island, after all. I’m in a book on a desk, and there are clear sightlines in all directions. Walk straight long enough and hit a coastline. Is it possible to design a book that succeeds in reading me, watching me? This is the opposite of lost, where every detail registers and grates. I turn to compiling with hysterical exactitude, which spills into the reading, stains all its content, and threatens to damage its reviewing: How many times is there a photograph of a setting sun? Why do so few Kish locals make appearances? Is it just coincidence that the total bound signatures equals the tally of credited photographers? Which image appears at the book’s heart? One unwitting miscalculation runs the risk of getting every square millimeter of the thing wrong.

It takes a long time, too long, to wrap my head around the fact that there are just two different sheet sizes comprising the book. They are equal in width but twenty millimeters different in height. The squatter of the two is shifted laterally twenty millimeters, so when the sheets are collated, folded and bound, it dislodges the spine from its typical symmetry, and creates four unique spread shapes in each signature, sequentially recurring. To recap: twenty signatures of eight enumerated pages each, equaling one-hundred sixty pages, four spreads, two authors, and one designer, name buried deep in the fine print of the colophon. And one first-person narrator-who-is-not-the-authors, one “I”, an able guide through Kish’s history but otherwise oddly reticent. How reliable is this “I”?

After determining the economy of the paper sizing, I convince myself that there are further truths and auspicious geometries afoot, a collected knowledge that designer, author and island are colluding to employ. I am not especially prone to conspiracy theories but mymind has a tendency to wander. In fact it was an odd empirical observation from page 044 that sent my analysis reeling. Our narrator, “I”, is speaking about the ‘Greek ship’, a cargo vessel stranded off the southeastern coast since 25 July 1966, the genesis event, “I” believes, of Kish’s modernity. Now a tourist site, it also “prophesied what would become Kish’s awry odyssey” through decades of indecision, uneven development, and political uncertainty up to present-day. “I” muses:

I once calculated that if I were to walk from the spot where the Greek ship was stranded all the way to the opposite side of the island, in a straight line exactly aligned with the ship’s axis, I would end up at a curved tip on the north-eastern shore renowned for being the best spot from which to view the sunrise. … The development of the resort began right at the foot of this spot.

Emboldened, I hurry the pace of my accounting. I measure each of the spreads, comparing areas of 'primary surfaces' to the 'excess surfaces' (edges of pages already flipped past and those yet to come) salvaged from the ingenious staggering technique. There must be an adequate point of entry, some rudimentary navigational tool, to be able to read Kish the way its authors strove to read the island. It turns out that not only do the four spreads each comprise of a different square-millimeterage, but their shapes each hold unique barycenters which, when plotted together, result in a quadrilateral hovering around the spine, pointing east-northeast. I felt like someone gave me a compass. The trajectory of the hovering quadrilateral and the trajectory of the Greek Ship were identical! — pointing towards the topright corner of the page where my thumb rests, eager to turn a page. Against my better judgment, against odds, Kish has come to this.

I follow the imperative; I turn the page, into the heart of the central essay. Amidst seven consecutive pages of images, up-to-then unprecedented, there is a 2012 photograph of the Shah's Palace, built in 1972, shown here half-abandoned, its once-prim garden now teeming with overgrowth. Unique for Kish, it is both uncaptioned and unpaginated. The washed-out white sky of the digital photograph merges with the blank parts of two excess margins, resulting in a complete, uninterrupted, full-bleed experience. Waves of staggered sheets mercifully relent, giving way to the single dusky image where I can finally take a moment to lie down and rest.

Steven Chodoriwsky has held research positions at Jan van Eyck Academie and Center for Contemporary Art in Kitakyush and was educated in architecture at Tokyo Institute ofTechnology and University of Waterloo. His practice employs installation, performance, built form, photography, and text. He was born in Englehart, Canada, and is teaching at Cornell University.