Patricia Lagarde is a contemporary artist with an inclination to the fictional past. Her photographs and artist’s books appear like relics from the 19th century, recapturing the untold possibilities of a world in which there were still unexplored regions and places to discover. Lagarde is also a storyteller; she casts memories and other historical residues into new, imaginative forms.
Fantastic Island (2011) is an artist’s book containing eight photogravures relating the story of an ill-fated ship set in the turbulent Arctic Ocean. The book contains no words save for its enigmatic title and the boat’s name. It was recently acquired by Getty Research Institute as an addition to the Institute’s collection of artists’ books.
Making Relics from the Past
Lagarde uses historical techniques and materials to create images that appear plucked from another time. She builds dioramas of imaginary worlds and then photographs these scenes with an analogue camera. For Fantastic Island, she used the photogravure process to create prints, which were integrated into the final work. There are only five copies of Fantastic Island, and each one is contained within an ornate box, heightening the book’s appearance as a precious artifact from the distant past.
A Fishing Boat Meets the North Pole
While digging through her grandfather’s archive, Lagarde stumbled upon a sepia photograph of his fishing boat, the Handkerchief. It featured a small ship floating upon a calm sea with a cloudless sky above; the back of the photograph included only a date—1927. Inspired by this simple yet enigmatic image, Lagarde started building a story around the boat, reimagining it within a harsh, polar seascape.
Originally, the artist planned to create a tribute to the Norwegian explorer Fridtjof Nansen, who set a northern latitude record at 86° 14’ during his 1893–96 expedition to reach the North Pole. The story took on a life of its own and changed into a narrative about the Handkerchief. It is wrecked at the mysterious Fantastic Island, which just so happens to be located Nansen’s record-setting latitude. The ship faces terrifying threats, including tempestuous waters, a colossal whale, and a prehistoric sea monster.
In the final scene in Fantastic Island, the ship has disappeared completely. Previous photographs provide clues to the Handkerchief‘s possible fate. One image features a gargantuan whale that has launched its body from the water and is poised in the air, about to descend and crush the boat into smithereens. Another features an airship, floating in the sky like a beacon. Could it lead the marine vessel to safe harbor? Lagarde dreamed up these different possibilities, but she leaves it to the reader to imagine the end of the tale.