‘Atlantus” — a small exhibit on view at the New Jersey Department of State building through December 31 — gives a new twist to the idea of a pop-up art show.
It arrived by mail in a telephone-book-sized package — just like the 432 other packages that had been sent to New Jersey libraries, schools, and nonprofits around the state.
Inside the package was a set of five newspaper-styled publications: four folded sheets, eight pages each.
If the images and text didn’t seem to be in order, instructions solved the puzzle: “Take two of these newspapers and find a wall space that is 2 by 6 meters in size (approximately 7 feet by 20 feet). Open out both copies, separate the pages, and assemble your exhibition following the wall plan in the publication. Or, separate into five smaller sections using the divisions shown on the plan to fit your wall space.”
By following those simple steps even the most novice curator was suddenly participating in an “All Jersey” exhibition, but not just “New” — the original Jersey plays an important part in this international project.
In fact, the exhibit — like the state — has its roots in the British Channel Island of Jersey.
“Atlantus” is the creation of Jersey-based professional photographer and teacher Martin Toft and photo archivist Gareth Syvret, who is also the project leader for Archisle, a contemporary photography program hosted by the Societe Jersiaise on Jersey.
The project’s spark was the 350th anniversary of the naming of the State of New Jersey in 1664 by Isle of Jerseyman Sir George de Carteret, who was granted a charter to the future state by King Charles II.
The exhibit’s design rests on a rhetorical question posed by the organizers: “How do two places sharing a name perceive each other within archives and cultural memory?”
That question is complicated by the physical facts. Jersey is a five mile by nine mile British Channel Island of 100,000 people, located 85 miles from England and 19 miles from France. New Jersey, 3,500 miles to the west, is a 70 mile by 150 mile American peninsula of nearly 9 million.
Toft, speaking through earlier interviews and e-mails, says he became fascinated with the “possibility of exploring a historical moment through photography that would use the photo-archive as a starting point for rediscovering narratives about two places that share the same name. We decided very early on that in terms of geography we should focus our attention on the west coast of Jersey versus the east coast of New Jersey with the vast Atlantic Ocean operating both as a physical and poetic space for cultural memory, imagining connections, and producing new photographs referencing oceanic communities.”
Also during an early phase of research there was a discovery that helped shape one of the stories — a triple Jersey. It was the personal diary of Helen Le Masurier’s 1964 visit to New Jersey during the state’s 300th anniversary. She and her husband, Sir Robert Le Masurier, bailiff of Jersey, were part of the tercentenary delegation that traveled to New Jersey to present Precious Galinthia, a Jersey heifer, as a gift from the island of Jersey.
The calf was presented to Linda Lee Harrison of Stockton, New Jersey, winner of the 1963 Frelinghuysen 4-H Trophy.
In 2014 Toft arrived in New Jersey and retraced Precious’ travels to Stockton and then Hamlin, Pennsylvania, where he found Linda Lee Harrison, now Linda Lee Wagner, whose family still breeds Jersey cows. Toft’s photo of Wagner is included in the display, as is an image of Bryan LeBrocqu, the retired Jersey herdsman who accompanied Precious during the journey 50 years ago.
Toft says photographing the two Jerseys required two approaches. “Jersey (the island) is in general a closed and conservative nation of people, and aspects of its society or attitude towards outsiders are not inclusive. Photographing communities and people on the west coast required a particular approach that is more anthropological rather than journalistic, and from the beginning the work developed a more formal esthetic rather than informal.”
So, he says, subject matter on the west coast of Jersey — which is linked to the de Carteret family — ranged from “natural topography, social landscapes, farmland and fisheries, ocean views and bays, coastal plains, and sea defense systems, including WWII bunkers, leisure and tourism, sport and recreation, religion and faith, village and parish life, housing and vernacular architecture, home and interiors, family archives and personal objects, environmental portraits and candid observations, locals, and foreign workers.”
In New Jersey, however, “the subject matter (changed) slightly due to its different scale and geography and included petro-chemical industry and commercial retail outlets, open road and countryside, towns and cities, mountains and sea inlets, shore communities and mass tourism, seaside and boardwalks, social class and ethnic diversity.”
The exhibition’s name comes from both mythology and New Jersey fact. The former is a legendary island, Atlantis, that the Greek philosopher Plato says was lost in the Atlantic. The second is the name of a World War I concrete ship, Atlantus, whose sea-wrecked remains are a popular Cape May tourist attraction — and provide a mirror of the Channel Island’s decaying remains of war-era buildings.
Toft says the project’s funding was a result of lobbying the Treasury Minister of Jersey “who at the time was keen to build new relations with the State of New Jersey in 2014 celebrating the 350th anniversary. Prior to a meeting at the Treasury we had learned that the two states were planning to have pop-up stalls promoting local produce in towns and communities across New Jersey, and to fit in with this concept we proposed to produce a newspaper that also could function as a pop-up exhibition to be distributed alongside.”
Even though he harbored concern that the novelty of using a newspaper as a photobook was overused, Toft says the funding would not have happened without the dual functioning newspaper/ exhibition publication. “In hindsight,” he says, “I think that we would not have had the same success with ‘Atlantus’ had we chosen a more traditional form of a hardcover printing/binding unit.”
He also says the newspaper design provided other creative options to display the photographs in different sizes, “for example the publication has two large images that are spread across eight pages. In a traditional hardcover book this would not be possible.”
Toft, a 36-year-old self-taught photographer originally from Denmark, says he visited Trenton during his journey, “but not long enough to form a real impression. I drove from South Jersey to Trenton and later on from Trenton to Princeton through suburban areas on both sides of the Capitol Complex on State Street.
“Prior to my arrival in New Jersey I had been in touch with a few New Jersey officials, in particular Assistant Secretary of State Carol Cronheim, who had arranged a tour around New Jersey state buildings, including the State (legislature) Chambers, State Archives, and State Museum.”
Of his impressions of the Garden State, Toft says, “A number of communities did resonate with me more than other, places such as Asbury Park, former seaside resort, Barnegat Light, Long Beach Island (a small fishing community with links to earlier immigrants from Scandinavia, including Denmark), and Paterson (photographic work by New Jersey photographer George Tice). But the area that left me the strongest impression was not the Jersey Shore and its sandy beaches, but South Jersey where I spent a number of days around Millville and Bridgeton area. Locals called it the ‘Mississippi of the North’ and there was something about this area that attracted me. It seems this part of New Jersey has been forgotten or overlooked compared to North Jersey and its close proximity to New York, heavy industry, trade, and commerce. I would like in the future to return to some of these places where I felt a connection and do more work.”
Atlantus, a small exhibit with big ideas, can be seen at the New Jersey Department of State Building, 225 West State Street, Trenton, open Monday through Friday, 8:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. The project also has an online presence and Facebook page.