Justy Phillips


There are no butterflies in iceland, 2012.

NATURE, Jan 31, 1878.

Page 260. Sandwiched between On some Peculiar Points in the Insect-Fauna of Chile and On a Means for Converting the Heat Motion Possessed by Matter at Normal Temperatures into Work, lies Alfred Newton’s entry No Butterflies in Iceland. Sitting at his desk in Magdelene College, Cambridge, Mr. Newton pens his letter in response to a spurious claim made by a Dr. Rae one week earlier. ‘Allow me to point out that the lepidopterous insects said by Olafsen (not Olaffson) and N. (not R.) Mohr, to be found in Iceland, are not butterflies at all but moths, as shown by the generic term Phalena, a term applied by each of those authors to every one of them – a term whose meaning your correspondent and his informant have failed to see. Those venerable authors, though dead and buried long before I ever heard of them, are old friends of mine, and I feel it incumbent on me to ask your reader’s not to impute to them this and other mistakes in Dr. Rae’s letter. Whether there have been or still be butterflies in Iceland, I did not see any when I was there, but they may have got out of my way. I have, however, yet to learn that they exist in that country, and therefore I am inclined to believe that Mr. McLachlan is right when he said that there are none.’¹

¹ Newton, A., No Butterflies in Iceland, pp 260, NATURE, Jan 31, 1878.








I am in Mexico City. In four months time I will be in Iceland, spending a short time residing in Skagastrond, a small fishing town on the North West coast. Today I am writing to my new neighbours. Over the last weeks I have managed to locate the postal addresses of every household in Skagastrond – there are 220 in total. I have planned a tour in search of something which is not there. I do not know how to make this tour, but imagine I will know better how to look for the missing butterflies once I arrive in Iceland in September. I go looking for calendars depicting Monarch butterflies in the Plaza Santo Domingo but there are none. The only calendars I can find (and find identical copies in every shop) are a distinctive set of nine pictoral scenes ranging from the English countryside to the African savannah. I buy 220 calendars and take them to ‘Imprenta Hilda’ a traditional letterpress printer in the square. I compile and number the invitations by hand, add postal stamps and kiss each one for good luck before mailing them at the central post office in Mexico D.F..

The annual migration of the Monarch butterfly sees the 4th 'super generation' fly 4000 miles from Canada and North America to a single wooded valley in central Mexico. How many of these invitations will reach their destination in Iceland? Will anyone join my tour? What could this search for the invisible reveal?



1 – 6. There are no butterflies in Iceland, 2012. 9 x 99mm x 210mm, paper, staple, ink.

7 –9. There are no butterflies in Iceland, 2012. Production stills.

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