Terra Nullius is a project that meditates on the invasion of place over land. It unfolded during the month of June, 2016 while on an artistic residency program navigating the waters surrounding the archipelago of Svalbard in the Arctic Ocean. Svalbard today is a visa-free zone under the loose governance of Norway, until 1920 it was indicated on maps as Terra Nullius; No One’s Land. I felt a kinship to this place that recoiled from hard borders, that was governed by the weather more than its settlements. I imagined the Arctic Circle as a place that embraced impermanence, a country for transience.
To represent this fluidity, to favor growth over definition, and to serve as a beacon in the landscape for something more than lines and walls, I made a flag bearing a photograph of the kudzu plant. I chose kudzu, a quick-growing climbing plant from Asia with blood colored flowers, as my sigil because of its shifting position in American History.
The plant is prominent in my mother’s native Tennessee. I saw striking similarities between the narrative surrounding this invasive species once promoted by our government and the discourse distancing immigration in contemporary America from our birth as a "nation for all". Originally introduced to the United States at the Centennial Exposition in 1876 in Philadelphia, kudzu was advertised by the US government for everything from porch shading to high protein cattle fodder to erosion protection during the dust bowl. Today kudzu is known as an invasive species and a blight on the American landscape. I saw an analogy between this shift and the experiences of my father, an Iranian American who immigrated to the United States in the early 1980's.
As a performance, documented with video and still photographs, I planted my flag at each landing, on glaciers, beach heads, even the polar sea ice above the 81st parallel. The action was a parody of nation claiming, of our supposed dominance over the land by the lines we draw on it. I lay no claim to the Arctic, but rather point to the impossibility of dominating such a place.
I want to imagine the possibility of defining place by permeability.
Stephan Jahanshahi, 2016